"Retiree's Concept Takes Energy Search Out To Sea"
In the classic 1967 film The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman's character is approached at a party and given a single word career tip: "plastics." Some 40 years later, that has proven to be good advice, as plastics are an integral part of our lives.
The word David Nicholson '56 is speaking to anyone who will listen is "hydrogen." He's banking that - in many fewer than 40 years - this simple, abundant and readily available element will be the key to the nation's energy independence and, in turn, its national security.
Hydrogen is a proven winner.
The most abundant element in the universe, hydrogen is a clean and efficient fuel, and can be produced from, among other means, the Earth's vast supply of seawater. The challenge is generating large quantities of hydrogen without ecological damage and human opposition.
Nicholson believes he has the answer to both of those concerns: Windhunter Hydrogen Generation System.
Windhunter is his concept in which wind turbines are mounted on large seagoing vessels or movable platforms, which set course to areas of the ocean with the most desirable winds - like vacation cruise ships changing course in search of sunny skies - so wind could spin the turbines 24/7.
The collapsible turbines produce electricity that power electrolyzers, which separate the hydrogen from oxygen in seawater.
"A 2004 Department of Energy report stated that a wind turbine and electrolyzer is the best way to get hydrogen," he said, noting that utilizing those components in an ocean would prevent any "not in my back yard" opposition, as well as offering an inexhaustible source of seawater.
The hydrogen is then compressed and shipped to the mainland, where the gas will be used to replace fossil fuels and nuclear energy in electrical generation, transportation, manufacturing and everything else that makes modern society run.
"It would be like a huge, floating power plant," he said, noting markets already exist for the energy source.
"Hydrogen can be burned in modified natural gas-fired power plants in the U.S.," he added. "Europe has hydrogen refueling stations for automobiles now and large quantities of hydrogen are used in many industrial processes."
Several years ago, Nicholson began studying climate change, the effect of carbon dioxide emission from the burning of fossil fuels and the potential of shifting to hydrogen from oil, coal and other fossil fuels in order to meet energy needs.
"That got me started learning about the environment and how carbon dioxide is warming up the Earth," he said.
He believes the hydrogen produced from Windhunter vessels can significantly alleviate the quantity of fossil fuels used that emit global warming gases. Burning hydrogen produces only heat and water vapor.
When Nicholson learned that carbon emissions from fossil fuels constitute more than 6 billion tons of gases annually - five times what it was in 1950 - he found a way to illustrate that astronomical number in more bite-size increments.
"One gallon of burned gasoline produces approximately 19 pounds of carbon dioxide," he said. "My 2000 Buick gets 19 miles a gallon, so I discharge one pound of CO2 into the air for each mile I drive - so far this year I have added about 12,000 pounds to the atmosphere."
Multiply that by all the fossil fuels consumed throughout the world and the numbers are staggering - as are the potential consequences.
Windhunter's Web site, www.windhunter.org, which has had 50,000 visitors and 800,000 hits since its launch in 2006, states the 6 billion people on Earth exceed the regenerative capacity of the Earth by 25 percent. Led by industrialized nations, they are pouring carbon dioxide, methane and other pollutants into the air. The chlorofluorocarbons have depleted the protective ozone layer and the carbon dioxide and methane levels are at all-time highs.
In other words, maintaining the status quo will result in potentially catastrophic global warming and climate change, he said, as well as fomenting further dependence on foreign oil and the dangers inherent in the nation making military decisions based on energy security.
Does that sound like Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth?
"His documentary is based on my speech," David said, only half in jest but thoroughly pleased that the predicted devastating effects of global warming are now appreciated by a larger international audience.
So why are two Florida transplants from Indiana - a retired mechanical engineer and his retired social worker wife, both in their mid-70s - trying to help save the world?
"I'm not old enough to take up golf yet," David joked.
Barbara Steinle "Bo" Nicholson '53 offered a more serious response: "It's for our children and grandchildren and all the world's children - we want this planet to survive."
In establishing Windhunter Corp. in 2005, the Sun City, Florida, couple has enlisted the expertise of friends, neighbors and persons intrigued with David's concept of producing hydrogen at sea.
Windhunter's brain trust includes, among others, a retired economics professor, who helped develop the economic analysis; a Norwegian ship captain, who assisted with the plan's nautical components; a Ph.D. in physics, who serves as a liaison with the international technical community; a Scottish structural engineer with a background in the military and chemical industry; and WC alumnus George Shambaugh '50, a Ph.D. in entomology, who worked on the technical writing.
"We've known George for 50 years - we all met at Wilmington College," said Barbara, who serves as Windhunter's vice president and co-spokesperson. "They all share a lot of the same concerns we do."
David and Shambaugh developed the lecture titled "Global Warming: Causes, Effects and Corrective Actions," which David already has presented "in one form or another" nearly two dozen times to groups large and small.
Another Wilmington connection, Abramo Ottolenghi '50, Ph.D., an emeritus professor with Ohio State University, has discussed the concept with government officials and the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.
David called it "good karma" that such an impressive variety of knowledgeable persons found their way to Windhunter, while Barbara termed their serendipitous convergence of interests the result of divine intervention.
"They realize something special is going on here," she added.
When David looks back on the real roots of Windhunter and what led him to spending his retirement years working on such a grandiose concept, he finds himself back at Wilmington College.
"Wilmington is the key," he said.
"I wouldn't have been an engineer if not for Wilmington," he said, noting the Randall Work-Study Program made it possible for him to receive a college education. "I told Dr. Pyle (former WC mathematics/physics professor) I wanted to be an engineer but I didn't know what they do - I just knew I liked to build things."
David earned his master's degree from Ohio State in 1957 and engaged in a successful career in mechanical engineering.
The college student who enjoyed building things has hopes his concept will end up on ships larger than football fields.
He said the technology exists to produce Windhunter and potential vessels are plentiful - retired military ships and refitted oil tankers would be good candidates. The challenge is convincing the government or other entities with the financial means to build the prototype, produce hydrogen at sea and prove this as a safe, clean and viable means for producing environmentally friendly energy.
The cost estimate for launching the first Windhunter is $100 million, but the ultimate payoff could be huge - a slowdown of global warming, a cleaner environment, less dependence on foreign oil, increased national security.
David said that, for this to come to fruition, a sea change in perspectives on energy and its consumption is required.
"We've got to be honest and more realistic about the cost of our energies," he said. "Take coal. It's a cheap source of energy but at the price of blowing up mountaintops to mine it, polluting the air, producing huge amounts of carbon dioxide and contributing to global warming and health problems ranging from asthma to black lung disease.
"Take oil. When you add the military expenses to secure and control the resource and create an international empire, the costs are enormous," he said. "We must consider the true value of using various forms of energy and all its ramifications."
David said history has proven voluntary restrictions on the use of fossil fuels do not work, so he proposes a carbon tax that would hit fossil fuel in the pocketbook and reward those utilizing clean, renewable energy sources and fuels - like wind, solar and, of course, hydrogen.
He said some nine million tons of hydrogen are produced each year and - ironically - petroleum refineries use 90 percent of it in the process for removing sulfur from crude oil.
Most of the hydrogen produced today is by a steam reforming process of natural gas. But, as it breaks down the carbon and hydrogen, carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere and contributes to global warming.
"For each pound of hydrogen produced in this manner, there are five-and-a-half pounds of carbon dioxide released into the air," he said.
Barbara added, "We need to get hydrogen some other way - like Windhunter."
The Nicholsons' grassroots campaign has taken them from the annual conference of the American Wind Energy Association in New York, Cllimate Summit in Miami to the first Conference on Climate Change this summer in Tampa. They are thrilled to speak with anyone interested in hearing their message.
Are they daunted or discouraged when considering the task of taking on Big Oil, finding $100 million investors and changing attitudes and perceptions about what is possible?
No, rather they are energized by these prospects. In fact, they are realizing incremental success all the time.
"We have been disappointed with the federal administration, but look at what's happened here in Florida since the 2006 election of Gov. Charlie Crist," David said. "Our new Republican governor signed executive orders requiring more efficient building codes, higher miles per gallon on cars sold in Florida, that 20 percent of electricity be generated from renewable energy sources like solar and wind and other Green initiatives."
Barbara added, "We're tickled to death our governor is so progressive."
Their story has been featured by, among others, Fox News in Florida and in major newspapers in the Sunshine State. The St. Petersburg Times titled its article "Gray-haired Rebels with a Cause."
"Things are coming at us fast - we have not had time to be disappointed or anxious," David said.
For the Nicholsons, each day brings excitement and promise. Perhaps their old Wilmington College motto comes to mind. It translates from Latin to "Not by great leaps but by small steps."
They believe with all their hearts they are making the world a better place for all the world's children and generations of children to come - and each day more and more legions are joining them.
They are steadfast in their resolve that, "Converting to a hydrogen energy system worldwide will save Earth's resources," David said. "It will reduce heat-trapping gases and bring peace since wars over land-based resources will become unnecessary.
"And the wind energy will be available for harvesting as long as the sun shines on our beautiful rotating Earth."
BY RANDY SARVIS