Will Hydrogen Clear The Air?

A final juicy tidbit today is this New York Times article on hydrogen.:

Widespread hydrogen use has been enthusiastically embraced by major corporations and environmentalists alike as a panacea for global warming and the depletion of fossil fuels, and is a particular favorite of the Bush administration. But skeptics, and even some hydrogen advocates, say that use of hydrogen could instead make the air dirtier and the globe warmer.

The article then goes on to state, accurately (and to the consternation of many hydrogen evangelists), that hydrogen is merely a way to store energy, and that because hydrogen does not exist here in isolation we must use a fuel such as natural gas to generate it. Regular readers of Knowledge Problem know that natural gas prices are high relative to historic averages, and that because of both demand and supply pressures they are unlikely to decline substantially in the near future. Thus the experts quoted in the article can compare hydrogen fuel cell costs and internal combustion costs:

For now, fuel cells are about 100 times as expensive, per unit of power, as internal combustion engines.

That cost also reflects the fact that using hydrogen requires an expensive catalyst, like platinum.

The article then goes on to discuss using coal to generate hydrogen, the role that hybrid vehicles play in the evolution of low-emission technologies, and the tradeoffs that we confront as these old and new technologies evolve. I particularly think the conclusion is something we should bear in mind:

But some parts of the portfolio are more environmentally beneficial than others. Dan W. Reicher, a former assistant secretary of energy for conservation and renewables, who now manages a fund that invests in companies that produce energy from renewable sources, put it this way: “Not all hydrogen is created equal.”

For those interested in more on hydrogen, I wrote a 5-part series on hydrogen in March 2003.

8 thoughts on “Will Hydrogen Clear The Air?

  1. The value of hydrogen is precisely its ability to store energy. The problems with nearly all “renewable” forms of energy like wind and solar are twofold. First they are diffuse so they must be gathered over a long period of time in order to collect enough to be useful. Second they are intermittent and subject to periodic interruptions. Hydrogen acting as a energy storage medium solves both of these problems.

    Granted, hydrogen is not the panacea it is portrayed to be by many of its advocates. Its role in supplementing electrical generation capacity that can be added to the grid in peak times when it is needed from otherwise intermittent “renewable” resources should not be overlooked. By increasing electrical generation via non-fossil fuels it would thereby save them for more useful arenas.

    If used in this way, hydrogen could lessen the need to burn fossil fuels for electricity and thereby reduce pollution. If, on the other hand, the quest for hydrogen is sought willy-nilly and fossil fuels used to generate it, then there will be no advantage gained and it may actually be detrimental in the long run. As you point out in the 5 part article you reference, hydrogen also doesn’t have enough BTUs to be useful as a replacement of fossil fuels in a number of areas.

    The real problem with hydrogen is one that no one is really considering. The next global crisis is really going to be over water. We are already starting to see water wars, as the recent debacle in Klamath Falls, Oregon so clearly demonstrated. The more water is required for hydrogen generation the more it will exacerbate that coming crisis. What happens when the toss up is between creating hydrogen for electricity and drinking or irrigation water? The advocates of hydrogen don’t even see this one coming.

  2. A major issue here is compartmentalized thought, rather than a broad view of the entire set of challenges which confront us.

    There are at least three primary issues which should be considered together: electric power; potable water; and, hydrogen. For example, the use of nuclear energy to produce electricity is relatively inefficient. Heat recovered from the power generator could be used for the thermochemical production of hydrogen, or for the desalination of sea water to produce potable water. Either way, the efficiency of the nuclear electric production process is more than doubled by using the heat rejected from the generator effectively. Either approach is far more efficient than direct energy use for hydrogen production or water desalination.

    The comprehensive approach leads to the possibility of locating nuclear generators near sources of salt water, or brackish water, to avoid using fresh water for cooling or hydrogen production. The long view combines this approach with further evaluation of mixed oxide (MOX) fueled reactors, breeder reactors, fusion reactors, etc. It also evaluates the problem in a future situation with higher US population, which places further pressure on fresh water resources in combination with increased electric consumption and demand.

    Einstein cautioned that: “Solutions should be a s simple as possible, but no simpler.” So far, it appears that many analysts are focused on “solutions” which are simpler than possible.

  3. Solar and wind power energy storage is a problem. But is hydrogen the best way to solve it? After all, hydrogen is hard to handle. It is so small that it leaks from the smallest of holes and is hard to compress. So we convert electricity to hydrogen. We have just changed to another energy form that is also very difficult to store and transport.

    Another approach which rarely gets mentioned (except by myself) is to convert electric power to hydrocarbon energy. Develop a either a synthetic photosynthesis system or a catalysis system using electricity to drive the fixing of hydrogen from water to carbon to produce hydrocarbons. The hydrocarbon molecules could be made to be big enough to be liquid and that would make them easy to store and transport and we could use them in existing equipment.

    Another approach is to develop a much better battery technology. Donald Sadoway of MIT says that lithium polymer batteries could be perfected to be dense enough for transportation uses.

  4. The “hydrogen program” is the Bush Admin’s attempt to sound green and take the political heat off the auto industry (as an alternative to regulating vehicle mpg), while subsidizing the auto industry in a small way.

    The Clintons had a similarly misguided program–the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles– which went on for six or seven years, to the tune of $100 million-plus each year, matched by USCAR (a consortium of the Big Three automakers). Some of the technology (such as lightweight aluminum components) found its way into vehicles, but they never reach the big goal of an 80-mpg car.

    Toyota and Honda, meanwhile, started working on hybrid vehicles, which seem to be the far superior technology if you want to save energy. So the question is whether the PNGV detoured the Big Three into dead ends, while their competitors were looking at the real market.

  5. One of the major reason why some of the so-called “Green” lobby claims to be “for” hydrogen is that it is a technology _THAT WE DO NOT YET HAVE_.

    The “Greens” are always urging us to “wait for the next clean thing” (as long as it’s still impractical) — and until then, we are supposed to get by on “Energy Conservation.”

    However, once the “next clean thing” _does_ come along, they always find _some_ reason why it wasn’t _quite_ as clean or safe as they used to claim. Hence, they switch to opposing it, and urging us to wait for the _next_ “next clean thing” (and meanwhile, we should “Conserve” some more) — because their _real_ goal is to prevent people living in “industrialized” societies from using _any_ high-density supplies of energy, =PERIOD=!

    Ideally, the “Greens” would like to see all humans restricted to a “Third World” level of technology (i.e., just _barely_ past the Neolithic Era) — either from hatred of their own species, over-romanticization of the “primitive lifestyle,” or perhaps simply due to a bad case of “Upper-Middle-Class Guilt.”

    There are signs that a “Green” reversal of support for “Hydrogen Energy” is _already_ starting to happen, now that it is starting to be taken seriously by policy-makers. For example, see the following article recently published in the AAAS’s journal _Science_:


    Potential Environmental Impact of a Hydrogen Economy on the Stratosphere

    Tracey K. Tromp, Run-Lie Shia, Mark Allen, John M. Eiler, Y. L. Yung

    Abstract: “The widespread use of hydrogen fuel cells could have hitherto unknown
    environmental impacts due to unintended emissions of molecular hydrogen,
    including an increase in the abundance of water vapor in the stratosphere
    (plausibly by as much as 1 part per million by volume). This would cause
    stratospheric cooling, enhancement of the heterogeneous chemistry that
    destroys ozone, an increase in noctilucent clouds, and changes in
    tropospheric chemistry and atmosphere-biosphere interactions.”

    I predict that as we hear more Federal Officials and other policy wonks beginning to talk about “Hydrogen Power,” more and more “Greens” will find reasons why it is “Bad For The Environment,” and switch from supporting it to opposing it.

  6. Carbon fiber tanks for hydrogen have already been developed for automobiles that are so durable they have withstood being run over by railroad locomotives intact. The storage problem no longer exists and it is simply the Hindenburg incident that makes people react negatively in a knee jerk fashion to the very mention of hydrogen.

    In use in the outback of Australia they already have commercial self contained solar generators that produce and store hydrogen for energy when the sun is not shining. There haven’t been any problems.

    Hydrogen fuel cell emergency back up electrical systems in hospitals are already commonplace. If it were that problematical and unsafe it wouldn’t be used in hospitals. The technology exists safely today. The only question is, do we use it?

  7. The basic technology is available to produce and store hydrogen. Technology also exists to use hydrogen as a vehicle fuel. None of this technology is broadly available or in volume production. Thus its availability is limited and its cost is high, relative to available alternatives. Hydrogen also suffers from low energy density, even at 5000 psi, so vehicle range is limited; and, 5000 psi carbon fiber pressure cylinders are expensive and heavy, adding to vehicle cost and weight and reducing fuel economy.

    Today, and for the forseeable future, the decision whether to use hydrogen as a vehicle fuel will be an economic decision; and, hydrogen vehicles will be limited to demonstration programs. Substantial market penetration will require competitive fuel prices and competitive vehicles, or massive government intervention.

  8. …In other words, this technology does not yet even have most of its major bugs worked out of it, let alone has it become routinely practical from an engineering standpoint, let alone has it become economically viable; it is still basically a few rather experimental units, in a small number of “test” facilities.

    Which is another way of saying that, for _PRACTICAL_ purposes, it is a technology that we _DO NOT YET HAVE_ — any more than Langley had a working “aerodrome”…

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