Hydrogen Hope or Hype?

Facts are the air of scientists.  Without them you can never fly. Linus Pauling 1901 – 1994

Chapter 1 - Introduction

The catalyst for writing this book is the need for the public and professionals to have a ready reference of the facts and science of hydrogen, greenhouse gases, petroleum fuels, and electric power.  There is significant public debate about these subjects.  There are numerous opinions on hydrogen as a future fuel.  However, many of these opinions are supported by neither science nor fact.  This book provides the reader with a primer on hydrogen, energy, and sustainability.  Hydrogen is simply not an inexhaustible and free energy source, as some would wish.  However, it is a versatile chemical, and energy carrier that will have growing application in the future of the energy and chemical industries

Central to the premise of greater use of hydrogen as a fuel is that global warming, or climate change, as others refer to this possible phenomenon, is a real and likely event.  Many are not convinced of the impending warming of the planet and believe that, on a geological time clock, the earth is headed toward the next ice age.  Ice ages have occurred in 100,000-year cycles over and over for the past 800,000 years.  The cooling cycle occurs for approximately 90,000 years, followed by warming for approximately 10,000 years.  In the 1920s the Serbian astrophysicist Milankovitch postulated these climate-change cycles based on changes in the earth’s orbit, tilt, and wobble.  The end of the last ice age was between 12,000, and 14,000 years ago, and the earth has been warming ever since, implying that we are already overdue for our next cycle of cooling.  Perhaps the increase in the so called “greenhouse” gases will mitigate the extent of ice coverage of our planet in the next ice age; therefore, this may well be a salvation for all those who live in temperate climates.  In any event, the profound questions of when the next ice age will commence and whether greenhouse gases are good or harmful to the environment have been put aside in the debate on hydrogen in this book, as no one has the exact answers.  This book does address methods and technologies that we can adopt for a more sustainable approach of living in the 21st century.

Recently, I read Jeremy Rifkin’s book The Hydrogen Economy.  Rifkin’s work is a well documented review of the published knowledge base with an emphasis on the geopolitical problem caused by a reliance on oil from the Middle East, and only a superficial analysis of the technology and physics of hydrogen.  My book does not comment on the geopolitical aspects of fuel as I am no expert in this area; instead, my book provides an analysis for the layperson or the professional of the technical difficulties as well as the real opportunities associated with hydrogen as a widely employed fuel and chemical.  My book also highlights the immediacy of the need, on a global basis, to adopt a more sustainable approach to our lives in a modern economy that is heavily reliant on energy and other natural resources.

A detailed report entitled Twenty Hydrogen Myths, dated June 20, 2003, by Amory B. Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute (www.rmi.org) provides a wealth of data about hydrogen and its physical characteristics.  This report is extremely positive on hydrogen and portrays a future for this chemical as a transportation fuel that is probably overoptimistic by failing to acknowledge the difficulties of economically fabricating fuel cells and dismissing the internal combustion engine as an extremely inefficient device.   Improvements are continually being made to internal combustion engines.  Coupling an internal combustion engine, particularly a diesel engine, with an energy accumulator such as a hybrid system dispels most of the inefficiency argument. 

A technical short report entitled Hydrogen Today – The Current Status of H2 and Fuel Cells and a Review of Alternatives by Don D. Dears, dated March 2003 is available at www.tsaugust.org.  Although brief, his report gives a realistic overview of the status of hydrogen, and fuel cells.  The report concludes that hydrogen will not likely significantly displace fossil fuels soon.  I am sure there are numerous other reports and conclusions regarding hydrogen and I can only encourage readers to challenge all conclusions and to form their own opinions after they have been presented with the facts.

An excellent book full of facts about how life has transformed our planet is by Vaclav Smil, entitled The Earth’s Biosphere: Evolution, Dynamics and Change (MIT Press).  Smil’s book was reviewed by Freeman J. Dyson for The New York Review of Books (www.nybooks.com/articles/16270).  Both the review of the book and the book should be read.  This book provides detailed information and insights into the subject of climate change.  Hydrogen – Hope or Hype? only touches on climate change, but makes the assumption that global warming is indeed a major driver, based on political consensus, for using hydrogen as a fuel.  As the climate change issue is extremely complex, and most probably an argument that cannot be won from either point of view, I have written this book from the perspective that global warming is an issue that nations will deal with and that emissions of greenhouse gases will be lowered or sequestered as envisioned in the Kyoto Protocol.

In writing a book about hydrogen and the hope it provides for the future, one has to address precisely what issues we are trying to solve?  If the issue is the reliance on oil imported from a hostile and unstable region of the world, this is an issue that is very different from the problem of possible global warming, caused by greenhouse gases.

Below I have listed the major issues that should be at the root of the energy and sustainability debate.

The list goes on, and these are by no means all the issues that are associated with energy in general and hydrogen in particular.   The subject of hydrogen is very complex.  Technological innovation as well as US and foreign governmental energy, and environmental policies will dictate the adoption of hydrogen as part of our energy mix.   Hydrogen – Hope or Hype? is meant to stimulate debate on the subjects of hydrogen, energy, development, and sustainability.  I have provided some background and analysis on each of the problems I consider important.  My analysis is by no means exhaustive, as each topic could itself be the subject of an entire book. 

Cars that go 5,000 miles between fill-ups, electric power plants that you buy like appliances, a world with radically reduced pollution, and a better standard of living.  Sounds like a sci-fi pipe dream – If it weren’t for all the automobile and power companies spending billions to make it real.  Jacques Leslie’s article in Wired October 1997 entitled Dawn of the Hydrogen Age opened with this quote.  Mr. Leslie wrote this article at a time when many believed in dot.coms, and the infallibility of technology.  The reality six years later is that we are still investigating improved methods to store sufficient hydrogen to equal the range of an average gasoline-powered car; fuel cells still cost orders of magnitude more than their internal combustion engine counterparts; and billions of dollars have been spent with limited commercial success.

Oversimplification of the myriad problems, and their interrelationships will not result in solutions.  There are no silver bullets.  Yet there certainly is a need for resource conservation and improved efficiency, and there are exquisite technologies that will meet this challenge and propel economic growth for those who develop, manufacture, and sell these systems.  We do not need to become frozen with desperation about the doom and gloom of the state of the world.  Economies are dynamic, inventions abound, and we collectively are embarked on the next revolution where we will reindustrialize, globalize, and further develop services that continue to provide economic opportunity for a greater number of people everywhere.  We will simply need to do this with less energy intensity and waste, and we will continue to innovate and improve.

Hydrogen – Hope or Hype? provides data and some commentary.  Hopefully, the reader will gain knowledge by reading this book, and other definitive publications on the subject.  The end result of study and analysis is wisdom, without which we cannot make informed and appropriate decisions.

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