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 laws of thermodynamics and, in particular, entropy
Chemical reactions and chemical bonds
Efficiency of fuel cell systems now and in the future
Efficiency of internal combustion engines (gasoline and diesel) and future trendsEfficiency of hybrid-vehicle propulsion systems
Reliance on imported oilGreater use of domestic coal resources
Availability and cost of natural gas
Availability and cost of coalAvailability and cost of oil
The cost to produce hydrogen
The cost and difficulty to store hydrogenThe safety of systems that produce and use hydrogen
Leakage of hydrogen from production, transportation, storage, and usage sources
Availability of water
Global warming caused by greenhouse gasesThe cost to separate and sequester greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide
Global warming caused by water vapor
Global warming caused by sootThe coming of the next ice age
Cleaner transportation fuels with less sulfur
Oxygenated fuels and the poisoning of groundwater supplies with MTBE
Bio-ethanol and farm subsidies
The high cost of fuel cellsElectrical energy storage and new batteries and storage systems
The scarcity of platinum and its use in fuel cells
The size and mass of an average vehicle and the popularity of SUVs
The growth in the global vehicle fleet
Shared fleets of vehicles
Nuclear power generation
Radioactive waste storage and nonproliferation
Globalization and the transfer of manufacturing to developing economies, particularly in Asia
The population explosion
Sustainable development for all and a better life for the billions at the very bottom
Nano-systems fabrication and their use in hydrogen manufacture and storage
Computing and its energy needs
Lighting: its availability and its energy intensity
Global communications: its implications for energy usage
Forestation and deforestation
The depleted ozone layer
Metallurgy, its energy usage and associated greenhouse gas emissions
Electric power generation, including improved nuclear, combined cycle, and cogeneration systems
Reliability of the electrical transmission and distribution grid
Comparison of small local power grids with large interconnected grids
Growing global urbanization and the reliance on concrete
Recycling and reuse of waste
Land use and food production
Progress in the development in wind, solar, and hydroelectric power
Titanium, its increased manufacture and usage
Government energy subsidies, and policies
International agreements and cooperation in the areas of the environment and energy
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
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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