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Hydrogen: The Emerging, Clean Energy Commodity

By       Message Geoffrey Holland     Permalink
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A friend of mine is driving on hydrogen. A month or so ago, he took delivery of a Chevy Equinox fuel cell SUV as a participant in General Motors’ Project Driveway. My friend lives in Los Angeles, and is now moving about the city on hydrogen every day. Once a week, he takes it to a refueling station in Santa Monica for a fill-up.  The vehicle has been glitch free and performs pretty much like the vehicles we’re long accustomed to driving. It accelerates nicely in traffic with almost no noise. He says the best part is knowing his fuel cell Equinox produces virtually zero pollution; nothing comes out of the exhaust except water vapor.

If even 20 percent of the vehicles currently on U.S. highways were powered by hydrogen, dependence on foreign oil would be a thing of the past and global warming would be on the way to being marginalized as an issue. 

A major step in reducing the world’s oil dependence will likely be taken by 2010 when the first plug-in hybrid electric cars become available in auto showrooms. By 2015, the era of mass-produced hydrogen fuel cell vehicles is expected to begin. In combination, PHEV hybrid and hydrogen fuel cell cars could account for half or more of all vehicle sales in the world by 2020. With the right kind of assertive public policy, it could happen even sooner.

Oil has been energy’s big dog for more than a century, but its days of dominance are coming to an end. The world’s daily production of around 86 million barrels is barely adequate to meet demand. That translates to high price volatility. Though just over $2/gallon at the moment, the cost of gasoline at the pump is most certainly headed back up to $4/gallon and beyond. Moreover, our carbon fuel addiction is also linked directly to global warming, the greatest manmade environmental threat the world has ever known.  Bottom line: A new era in energy has arrived. Planet Earth desperately needs an alternative to oil that is pollution free, endlessly abundant in supply, cost competitive, and storable for use on demand.  

When generated from clean renewable sources like solar, wind, geothermal, and hydro, electricity can meet all of those requirements except the last. With electricity, you have to use it or you lose it.  Batteries, which store electricity in chemical form, are pretty much assured of an important place in the world’s energy future. But high cost, weight and power density issues mean that batteries work better for some uses than for others. We are unlikely to ever see battery powered, long haul locomotives or transcontinental airliners.

Fortunately, hydrogen is finally being recognized as a very effective commodity for storing electricity for use on demand. Not only is it the simplest, most abundant element in the Universe, hydrogen is also pollution free, non-toxic, virtually limitless in supply, and as safe as the fuels we are already accustomed to using. 

Hydrogen is not a primary source of energy. It is an energy carrier. You can’t mine it or drill for it. You can’t harvest it from fields. You can’t find it freely in nature. Hydrogen likes to be locked up, bonded together with other elements like oxygen in chemical compounds like H2O, a.k.a. water.  To make it available to do useful work you have to break the chemical bonds that link it to other elements. It takes energy to isolate hydrogen and store it for use when and where needed. That may seem like a deal breaker, but the fact is the same goes for all other fuels. Gasoline is an energy carrier that is made in refineries from oil sucked from the ground. Ethanol is an energy carrier made from corn, sugar cane, or some other biofuel feed stock. Batteries are energy carriers made from chemicals like lead, lithium, and nickel. There is no free lunch with any energy carrier. There is a cost involved in making any one of them available as a medium for storing potential energy for use on demand.          

The era of cheap oil and gasoline is over. Biofuels can make up some of the difference, especially the emerging generation made from cellulosic agricultural waste or specially grown ‘energy crops’ like switchgrass.  Battery technology has made great strides in recent times. Both batteries and biofuels will prosper as energy carriers in the years ahead.  Just how successful they ultimately are in the marketplace may well depend on the public’s acceptance of their main competitor…hydrogen.   

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The world is sorely in need of a cost effective replacement energy carrier that can serve as a fuel for motor vehicles, aircraft, and all types of water transport. Moreover, this fuel that will power the future must be pollution free. All things considered, hydrogen does appear to fit that urgent need better than any other option.  If that is so, it is fair to ask why hydrogen has not had a more prominent place  in the public dialogue surrounding the world’s energy future.  

The answer to that question appears to lie in the ongoing struggle for market share in the new green energy paradigm. First and perhaps foremost, it is clear the old guard including big oil, coal, and nuclear are not about to go away quietly. They are using their massive financial advantage to convince the public they still offer the most worthy energy options for the future. Heavy criticism has also come from a vocal minority of battery enthusiasts. They have aggressively dismissed hydrogen as being plagued with problems. Though the arguments they make are riddled with distortion, exaggeration, and half-truth, their ongoing assault has had the intended effect. The public in general has developed an unwarranted skepticism about hydrogen.  

In an attempt to set the record straight, what follows is an examination of eight key claims often presented by detractors as evidence of the false promise of hydrogen.  

Claim #1 -  Hydrogen is not safe        

That is true only in the same sense that gasoline and natural gas are not safe.  Hydrogen is a fuel. It will burn and can explode like natural gas if exposed to a source of ignition while under pressure. As such, hydrogen has characteristics that require special attention. Joe Romm likes to add, ’it leaks like crazy’.  Hydrogen is the smallest of all the atoms, and it is lighter than air. When it does escape confinement, it diffuses rapidly and is non-toxic. Furthermore, hydrogen does not ‘leak like crazy’ when contained in systems designed for it. Hydrogen pipelines have been in operation industrially for many decades. Leaks happen, but no more than with other types of gaseous chemical commodities, and not enough to cause serious safety or environmental problems. A study commissioned by the Ford Motor Company and delivered to the U.S Department of Energy stated… In a collision in open spaces, a safety-engineered hydrogen FCV should have less potential hazard than either a natural gas vehicle or a gasoline vehicle…Overall, we judge the safety of a hydrogen FCV system to be potentially better than the demonstrated safety record of gasoline or propane, and equal to or better than that of natural gas.   We’ve become quite comfortable pumping gas into our own cars and living in homes where natural gas is used daily for heating and for cooking. There is no reason we cannot do the same with hydrogen.  

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Claim #2 – Hydrogen is inefficient

Most of the 65 billion tons of hydrogen annually produced worldwide for industrial use comes from the reforming of natural gas using steam. For now, this is the cleanest, least expensive way to produce hydrogen. Over the long term, the more environmentally benign way to produce hydrogen is to split water molecules using electrolysis powered by renewably generated electricity. It takes about 50 KWh of electricity and two gallons of water to produce one kilogram of hydrogen, which is roughly equivalent to the energy in one gallon of gasoline. Any way you do it, it takes energy to make hydrogen. But, it also takes energy to make every other kind of energy we use. Fossil energy sources like oil, natural gas, and coal have to be extracted from the earth. There is a lot of energy and a lot of expense in doing that. In the case of oil and gas, about half the world’s supply is already gone. The easiest stuff to get has already been consumed. Just recently, new sources of oil have been discovered in the Gulf of Mexico. To get to it, a floating oil rig valued at about a billion dollars has to be moved to the deep water location. A drill has to be pushed thousands of feet down to the ocean bottom. Then, it has to grind through another 20,000 or so feet of rock to get to the oil. After that, the oil has to be pumped to the surface and through a pipeline that carries it forty or even a hundred  miles to shore to a refinery where more energy is used to heat and ‘crack’ the crude oil into light distillates like gasoline. If we were to compute the real cost, how efficient from start to finish can it be to make gasoline available to consumers? While we’re on the subject, let’s address a related question.  I was recently asked, ‘Why would anyone  want to convert good electrons to hydrogen?’ It’s true that when electricity is used to make hydrogen, there is an efficiency penalty. If electricity can serve the need directly, then why convert to hydrogen?  The problem is a lot of need requires a source of energy that is available for use on demand at a later time. Electricity is ephemeral. You either use it or you lose it, unless you convert it to a form of potential energy that can be stored for use later, when and where needed. Therein lies a major rub with some battery enthusiasts. They believe batteries are the best way to store electricity. In some cases, perhaps many cases depending on how much the technology improves, batteries may turn out to be the most efficient and cost-effective storage medium. Even so, there are also going to be many applications where hydrogen will be the storage medium of choice. Hydrogen powered buses are already in use around the world, and more are put into service every year. Hydrogen powered airliners are on the drawing board. No one is seriously looking at batteries to power transcontinental aircraft.  However it goes, in the future, there will be two primary energy currencies; electricity and hydrogen.  

Issue #3 – Hydrogen is not cost competitive with gasoline

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Geoffrey Holland is an Emmy award winning writer/producer of documetaries and education videos. He is also the author of three books, the most recent of which is, The Hydrogen Age, published in October, 2007.

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