They’re talking of deuterium again

Every time there’s an oil crunch, as now, people talk about substitute fuels. And such talk invariably leads to the most amazing substitute of all – deuterium – that comes from the most basic element and thus will never run out. It exists in large enough quantity for world use only in the Philippines. Once mined from the seas, it can put RP in the center of world trade, solve the debt crisis, and make billionaires out of long-suffering Filipinos. But as with many things Filipino, extraction of deuterium has yet to move from mere talk to real work. Only in the Philippines, indeed.

Deuterium is an isotope of hydrogen, but has twice its mass; thus, its nickname "heavy water". Scientists discovered in the early 1930s that, by electrolysis, hydrogen in water can be separated from oxygen. The resulting deuterium held promise as a potent gas, but they didn’t know for what. Not until the ’70s did deuterium come into industrial use as a coolant in nuclear reactors, although war intelligence holds that the Nazis propelled the V-2 rockets with the gas.

Jules Verne had predicted in 1874 that water from the seas would be the fuel of the future. That came true when Dr. Josef Bigeleisen found that hydrogen from water can electrolyze naturally into deuterium gas at room temperature. The US, Canada, Germany and Sweden have experimented with it to run cars, trucks and jets. Called Li-Hv, the fuel from water also was transformed into solid hydrogen for the Challenger and Columbia spacecraft.

Deuterium as fuel is said to emit no pollutants like carbon monoxide. Coming from the water family, its emission is in the form of steam or water vapor. As such, deuterium can replace petroleum and its liquefied gas form for cars and kitchens. Even for power generation to light, heat and cool homes and offices, and to fire up factories. Problem is, natural electrolysis is a slow process; speeding it up artificially entails high electricity costs that would jack up the price of deuterium to five times that of fossil fuels.

Comes now more mind-boggling science. New oceanography shows that deuterium exists, in huge amounts and in liquid form, in the deepest seabeds. It has lain there since the Earth was born billions of years ago. And natural electrolysis continues to produce deuterium every second to this day. At ocean depths of three kilometers, hydrogen begins to split from oxygen into deuterium at a pressure of about 10,000 pounds per square inch (psi). Because it is twice heavier, it sinks to the bottom where it combines with other hydrogen isotopes.

More amazingly deuterium started to gather in the largest known clumps hundreds of millions of years ago in the Philippine trench, the deepest part of the Pacific Ocean. It still does, scientists aver, as sure as the Earth rotates to the east. Deuterium formed in electrolyzing Arctic waters flow south into Central America, then trot 12,000 kms under and across the Pacific into the Philippine trench, the way leftovers swirl into the drain of a kitchen sink. The Philippine deposit of deuterium is calculated to be 1,300 kms long, 80 kms at its widest, and four kms at its deepest points. Even if extracted and converted into fuel gas, it naturally will replenish within a day from the Earth’s rotation. Similar trenches, though not as big, are known to exist in the Marianas and South Africa.

Lying deep in the ocean, deuterium is out of sight and out of mind. The natural preoccupation of energy experts, in these days of soaring prices of imported crude oil, is to switch to locally available fuels. There’s natural gas in Malampaya; although itself a nonrenewable fossil fuel, supply can last up to 25 years. Biodiesel can be made from coconut oil, and alcogas from ethanol in sugarcane. The cost is still higher per liter than refined crude, but it is easier to imagine. Mining deuterium from the ocean floor seven to ten kms deep would require unimaginable billions of dollars.

Still, a group of Filipino-Americans claim they can raise the sum from lenders and other prospecting overseas Filipinos. As far back as 1986 they had proposed to the Aquino government a scheme where they would build the pipes to pump up the deuterium using hi-tech adopted from aircraft. They would also develop ways to convert the raw isotope into fuel for power plants, and to make cars run on it the way LPG and natural gas already were in use on vehicles. Government was to provide security, and set up an export-processing zone for landing the fuel and tax-free trade.

Revenues were to be split 40:40:20, 40 percent to the proponents, 40 to the government, 20 for operations and salaries. At that time, according to the investors who presented the idea during President Corazon Aquino’s visit to Washington in March 1986, two US fuel giants were interested to buy six million barrels a day. Japan wanted another four million; Saudi Aramco, two million. At $7 a barrel, the 12 million-barrel daily sales would have fetched an astounding $84 million a day, or $30.7 billion a year. With a yearly 40-percent share of $12.3 billion, the Philippines in no time would be free of its $28-billion debt ($56 billion today). The operation would employ 350,000 direct hires and support service personnel. RP would emerge as Asia’s strongest tiger economy.

It all sounded too good to be true. Some critics doubted if deuterium even existed, although a simple dictionary check would have proved them wrong. Part of the skepticism was due to raving descriptions of deuterium as God’s gift, in His ultimate wisdom, to a forlorn Philippines. And so the talk to pipe up deuterium from the Philippine Deep remains a pipe dream.
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Catch Sapol ni Jarius Bondoc, Fridays at 8 a.m., on DWIZ (882-AM).
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