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The energy-literate scoff at perpetual motion, free energy, and cold fusion, but what about the hydrogen economy? Before we invest trillions of dollars, let's take a hydrogen car out for a spin. You will discover that hydrogen is the least likely of all the alternative energies to solve our transportation problems. Hydrogen uses more energy than you get out of it. The only winners in the hydrogen scam are large auto companies receiving billions of dollars via the FreedomCAR Initiative to build hydrogen vehicles. And most importantly, the real problem that needs to be solved is how to build hydrogen trucks, so we can plant, harvest, and deliver food and other goods.
Hydrogen isn’t an energy source – it’s an energy carrier, like a battery. You have to make it and put energy into it, both of which take energy. Hydrogen has been used commercially for decades, so at least we don't have to figure out how to do this, or what the cheapest, most efficient method is.
Ninety-six percent of hydrogen is made from fossil fuels, mainly to refine oil and hydrogenate vegetable oil--the kind that gives you heart attacks (1). In the United States, ninety percent of hydrogen is made from natural gas, with an efficiency of 72% (2). Efficiency is how much energy you get back compared with how much energy you started out with. So an efficiency of seventy-two percent means you've lost 28% of the energy contained in the natural gas to make hydrogen. And that doesn’t count the energy it took to extract and deliver the natural gas to the hydrogen plant.
Only four percent of hydrogen is made from water. This is done with electricity, in a process called electrolysis. Hydrogen is only made from water when the hydrogen must be extremely pure. Most electricity is generated from fossil fuel driven plants that are, on average, 30% efficient. Where does the other seventy percent of the energy go? Most is lost as heat, and some as it travels through the power grid.
Electrolysis is 70% efficient. To calculate the overall efficiency of making hydrogen from water, the standard equation is to multiply the efficiency of each step. In this case you would multiply the 30% efficient power plant times the 70% efficient electrolysis to get an overall efficiency of 20%. This means you have used four units of energy to create one unit of hydrogen energy (3).
Obtaining hydrogen from fossil fuels as a feedstock or an energy source is a bit perverse, since the whole point is to avoid using fossil fuels. The goal is to use renewable energy to make hydrogen from water via electrolysis.
Current wind turbines can generate electricity at 30-40% efficiency, producing hydrogen at an overall 25% efficiency (.35 wind electricity * .70 electrolysis of water), or 3 units of wind energy to get 1 unit of hydrogen energy. When the wind is blowing, that is.
The best solar cells available on a large scale have an efficiency of ten percent when the sun is shining, or nine units of energy to get 1 hydrogen unit of energy (.10 * .70). But that’s not bad compared to biological hydrogen. If you use algae that make hydrogen as a byproduct, the efficiency is about .1%, or more than 99 units of energy to get one hydrogen unit of energy (4).
No matter how you look at it, producing hydrogen from water is an energy sink. If you don't understand this concept, please mail me ten dollars and I'll send you back a dollar.
Hydrogen can be made from biomass, but then these problems arise (5):
Biomass is very seasonal
Contains a lot of moisture, requiring energy to store and then dry it before gasification
There are limited supplies
The quantities are not large or consistent enough for large-scale hydrogen production.
A huge amount of land would be required, since even cultivated biomass in good soil has a low yield -- 10 tons of biomass per 2.4 acres
The soil will be degraded from erosion and loss of fertility if stripped of biomass
Any energy put into the land to grow the biomass, such as fertilizers, planting, and harvesting will add to the energy costs
Energy and costs to deliver biomass to the central power plant
It’s not suitable for pure hydrogen production
One of the main reasons for switching to hydrogen is to prevent the global warming caused by fossil fuels. When hydrogen is made from natural gas, nitrogen oxides are released, which are 58 times more effective in trapping heat than carbon dioxide (6). Coal releases large amounts of CO2 and mercury. Oil is too powerful and useful to waste on hydrogen–it’s concentrated sunshine brewed over hundreds of millions of years. A gallon of gas represents about 196,000 pounds of fossil plants, the amount in 40 acres of wheat (7).
Natural gas is too valuable to make hydrogen with. One use of natural gas is to create fertilizer (as both feedstock and energy source). This has led to a many-fold increase in crop production, allowing an additional 4 billion people to exist who otherwise wouldn’t be here (8, 9).
We also don’t have enough natural gas left to make a hydrogen economy happen. Extraction of natural gas is declining in North America (10). It will take at least a decade to even begin replacing natural gas with imported LNG (liquified natural gas). Making LNG is so energy intensive that it would be economically and environmentally insane to use natural gas as a source of hydrogen (3).
Putting energy into hydrogen
No matter how it’s been made, hydrogen has no energy in it. Hydrogen is the lowest energy dense fuel on earth (5). At room temperature and pressure, hydrogen takes up three thousand more times space than gasoline containing an equivalent amount of energy (3). To put energy into hydrogen, it must be compressed or liquefied. To compress hydrogen to 10,000 psi is a multi-stage process that will lose an additional 15% of the energy contained in the hydrogen.
If you liquefy hydrogen, you will be able to get more hydrogen energy into a smaller container, but you will lose 30-40% of the energy in the process. Handling hydrogen requires extreme precautions because hydrogen is so cold – minus 423 F. Fueling is typically done mechanically with a robot arm (3).
The more you compress hydrogen, the smaller the tank can be. But as you increase the pressure, you also have to increase the thickness of the steel wall, and hence the weight of the tank. Cost increases with pressure. At 2000 psi, it’s $400 per kg. At 8000 psi, it’s $2100 per kg (5). And the tank will be huge -- at 5000 psi, the tank could take up ten times the volume of a gasoline tank containing the same energy content.
That’s why it would be nice to use liquid hydrogen, which allows you to have a much smaller container. But these storage tanks get cold enough to cause plugged valves and other problems. If you add insulation to prevent this, you will increase the weight of an already very heavy storage tank. There are additional components to control the liquid hydrogen which add extra costs and weight (11).
Here’s how a hydrogen tank stacks up against a gas tank in a Honda Accord.
According to the National Highway Safety Traffic Administration (NHTSA), "Vehicle weight reduction is probably the most powerful technique for improving fuel economy. Each 10 percent reduction in weight improves the fuel economy of a new vehicle design by approximately eight percent”.
Fuel cells are also heavy: "A metal hydride storage system that can hold 5 kg of hydrogen, including the alloy, container, and heat exchangers, would weigh
approximately 300 kg (661 lbs), which would lower the fuel efficiency of the vehicle," according to Rosa Young, a physicist and vice president of advanced materials development at Energy Conversion Devices in Troy, Michigan (12).
Fuel cells are expensive. In 2003, they cost $1 million or more. At this stage, they have low reliability, need a much less expensive catalyst than platinum, can clog and lose power if there are impurities in the hydrogen, don’t last more than 1000 hours, have yet to achieve a driving range of more than 100 miles, and can’t compete with electric hybrids like the Toyota Prius, which is already more energy efficient and lower in CO2 generation than projected fuel cells. (3)
Hydrogen is the Houdini of elements. As soon as you’ve gotten it into a container, it wants to get out, and since it’s the lightest of all gases, it takes a lot of effort to keep it from escaping. Storage devices need a complex set of seals, gaskets, and valves. Liquid hydrogen tanks for vehicles boil off at 3-4% per day (3, 13).
Hydrogen also tends to make metal brittle (14). Embrittled metal can create leaks. In a pipeline, it can cause cracking or fissuring, which can result in potentially catastrophic failure (3). Making metal strong enough to withstand hydrogen adds weight and cost.
Leaks also become more likely as the pressure grows higher. It can leak from un-welded connections, fuel lines, and non-metal seals such as gaskets, O-rings, pipe thread compounds, and packings. A heavy-duty fuel cell engine may have thousands of seals (15). Hydrogen has the lowest ignition point of any fuel, 20 times less than gasoline. So if there’s a leak, it can be ignited by a cell phone, a storm miles away (16), or the static from sliding on a car seat.
Leaks and the fires that might result are invisible, and because of they high hydrogen pressure, the fire is like a cutting torch with an invisible flame. Unless you walk into a hydrogen flame, sometimes the only way to know there’s a leak is poor performance.
In 2002, given the same volume of fuel, a diesel fuel vehicle could go 90 miles, and a hydrogen vehicle at 3600 psi could go 5 miles. But that’s nothing compared to the challenges trucks face. I know we’re just supposed to only driving a hydrogen car, but it’s really hydrogen trucks that are most critical. If we don’t figure out how to make them, we won’t have a way to distribute food and other goods across the country.
A truck can go a thousand miles with two 84 gallon tanks placed under the cab, which takes up 23 cubic feet. But the equivalent amount of hydrogen at 3600 psi would take up almost 14 times as much space as the gas tanks. It is hard to imagine where you could put the two cylindrical, twelve feet long by four feet wide hydrogen tanks. They can’t go in the cargo space because a hydrogen leak in an enclosed area would explode if there were a leak. You can’t put the tanks on top or the truck won’t fit beneath underpasses and make the truck top-heavy. Nor would these tanks fit beneath the truck. (23).
To redesign trucks and build hundreds of millions of new ones would take too much energy and money. Yet keeping trucks moving after fossil fuels disappear is far more important that figuring out how to keep cars on the road. Trucks deliver food and other essentials we can’t live without.
Batteries are smaller, but they’re very heavy. In 2002, Lithium-Metal Polymer batteries could take a truck 500 miles. They weighed 42,635 pounds, using up 85% of the trucks weight capacity (23).
Canister trucks ($250,000 each) can carry enough fuel for 60 cars (3, 13). These trucks weight 40,000 kg but deliver only 400 kg of hydrogen. For a delivery distance of 150 miles, the delivery energy used is nearly 20% of the usable energy in the hydrogen delivered. At 300 miles 40%. The same size truck carrying gasoline delivers 10,000 gallons of fuel, enough to fill about 800 cars (3).
Another alternative is pipelines. The average cost of a natural gas pipeline is one million dollars per mile, and we have 200,000 miles of natural gas pipeline, which we can’t re-use because they are composed of metal that would become brittle and leak, as well as the incorrect diameter to maximize hydrogen throughput. If we were to build a similar infrastructure to deliver hydrogen it would cost $200 trillion. The major operating cost of hydrogen pipelines is compressor power and maintenance (3). Compressors in the pipeline keep the gas moving, using hydrogen energy to push the gas forward. After 620 miles, 8% of the hydrogen has been used to move it through the pipeline (17).
At some point along the chain of making, putting energy in, storing, and delivering the hydrogen, you’ve used more energy than you get back, and this doesn’t count the energy used to make fuel cells, storage tanks, delivery systems, and vehicles (17).
The laws of physics mean the hydrogen economy will always be an energy sink. Hydrogen’s properties require you to spend more energy to do the following than you get out of it later: overcome waters’ hydrogen-oxygen bond, to move heavy cars, to prevent leaks and brittle metals, to transport hydrogen to the destination. It doesn’t matter if all of the problems are solved, or how much money is spent. You will use more energy to create, store, and transport hydrogen than you will ever get out of it.
The price of oil and natural gas will go up relentlessly due to geological depletion and political crises in extracting countries. Since the hydrogen infrastructure will be built using the existing oil-based infrastructure (i.e. internal combustion engine vehicles, power plants and factories, plastics, etc), the price of hydrogen will go up as well -- it will never be cheaper than fossil fuels. As depletion continues, factories will be driven out of business by high fuel costs (20, 21, 22) and the parts necessary to build the extremely complex storage tanks and fuel cells might become unavailable. In a society that’s looking more and more like Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil”, hydrogen will be too leaky and explosive to handle.
Any diversion of declining fossil fuels to a hydrogen economy subtracts that energy from other possible uses, such as planting, harvesting, delivering, and cooking food, heating homes, and other essential activities. According to Joseph Romm “The energy and environmental problems facing the nation and the world, especially global warming, are far too serious to risk making major policy mistakes that misallocate scarce resources (3).
When fusion can make cheap hydrogen, reliable long-lasting nanotube fuel cells exist, and light-weight leak-proof carbon-fiber polymer-lined storage tanks / pipelines can be made inexpensively, then let’s consider building the hydrogen economy infrastructure. Until then, it’s vaporware. All of the technical obstacles must be overcome for any of this to happen (18). Meanwhile, we should stop the FreedomCAR and start setting higher CAFE standards (19).
(1) Michael F. Jacobson Waiter, please hold the hydrogen
(2) Martin I.Hoffert, et al "Advanced Technology Paths to Global Climate Stability:
Energy for a Greenhouse Planet" SCIENCE VOL 298 1 November 2002
(3) Joseph J. Romm The Hype About Hydrogen: Fact & Fiction in the Race to Save the
(4) Howard Hayden The Solar Fraud: Why Solar Energy Won't Run the World
(5) D.Simbeck and E.Chang Hydrogen Supply: Cost Estimate for Hydrogen Pathways Scoping Analysis, National Renewable Energy Lab http://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy03osti/32525.pdf
(6) Union of Concerned Scientists http://www.ucsusa.org/clean_energy/renewable_energy/page.cfm?pageID=84
(7) What's in a Gallon of Gas? http://www.discover.com/issues/apr-04/rd/discover-data/
(8) David & Marshall Fisher The Nitrogen Bomb www.discover.com April 2001
(9) Vaclav Smil Scientific American Jul 1997 Global Population & the Nitrogen Cycle
(10) Julian Darley High Noon for Natural Gas: The New Energy Crisis 2004
(11) Rocks in your Gas Tank http://science.nasa.gov/headlines/y2003/17apr_zeolite.htm
(12) fill'er up—with hydrogen Mechanical Engineering Magazine
(13) Wade A. Amos Costs of Storing and Transporting Hydrogen
U.S. Department of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy
(14) Omar A. El kebir, Andrzej Szummer Comparison of hydrogen embrittlement of
stainless steels and nickel-base alloys International Journal of Hydrogen Energy
Volume: 27, Issue: 7-8 July - August, 2002
(15) Fuel Cell Engine Safety U.S. Department of Energy Efficiency & Renewable
(16) Dr. Joseph Romm Testimony for the Hearing Reviewing the Hydrogen Fuel and
FreedomCAR Initiatives Submitted to the House Science Committee
(17) Ulf Bossel and Baldur Eliasson Energy and the Hydrogen Economy
(18) National Hydrogen Energy Roadmap Production, Delivery, Storage, Conversion,
Applications, Public Education and Outreach
(19) Dan Neil Rumble Seat : Toyota's spark of genius
(20) Jul 02, 2004 Oil prices raising costs of offshoots By Associated Press
(21) May 24, 2004 Soaring energy prices dog rosy U.S. farm economy
(22) March 17, 2004 Chemical Industry in Crisis: Natural Gas Prices Are Up, Factories
Are Closing, And Jobs Are Vanishing
(23) “Fuels of the Future for Cars and Trucks” Dr. James J. Eberhardt
Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, U.S. Department of Energy
2002 Diesel Engine Emissions Reduction (DEER) Workshop San Diego, California
August 25 - 29, 2002 www.osti.gov/fcvt/deer2002/eberhardt.pdf
For information on purchasing reprints of this article, contact sales. Copyright 2013 CyberTech, Inc.
Thanks Alice for your article. It is interesting to notice that there are a growing number of sceptical articles about the hydrogen economy. The last 10 years I have been more and more confused over the excitement about hydrogen and fuel cell, at least for automotive applications. The hydrogen powered fuel cell as a propulsion system is a funny concept. You are supposed to generate electricity with the sun and then use the electricity to produce hydrogen. Then you have to use more high quality energy (exergy = electricity ) to make it possible to store the hydrogen. Then you use the hydrogen to produce electricity again in a fuel cell stack. However, you don’t need electricity to propel the vehicle, so you have to convert the electricity into torque in an electric motor in order to propel the vehicle. Such a system couldn’t be said to be sensible when it comes to energy efficiency. Further more, power density is low ( kW/kg) for such a system meaning more energy to carry the propulsion system it self instead of propelling the car and the passengers. Proponents of hydrogen fuel cell high-light the low emissions. But if hydrogen is burned the emissions is always low. BMW advocate burning hydrogen in a ICE. That is also clean except that the high combustion temperature oxidize the nitrogen in the air and form NOx
However, a modern steam engine according to my article in Energy Pulse will not form any NOx due to the external combustion and could offer the same low exhaust gas emissions as a fuel cell.
The modern steam engines system using a liquid fuel as alcohol which is pre-evaporated and premixed seems for me as a much more well founded concept as a an environmental friendly and energy efficient propulsion system.
I am looking forward to get any response from all knowledgeable and active people reading the Energycentral website about possible propulsion system.
Alice, your reflection about hydrogen powered trucks gave me further insights of this topic, thanks.
Murray Duffin 2.24.05
A totally misleading article, replete with incorrect numbers and highly questionable sources. Overall a true disservice. Murray Duffin
John K. Sutherland 2.25.05
Alice, this was a very thought-provoking and useful article. Everything you stated, needed to be said, and repeated from time to time.
Now, you can expect to be treated to the ad hominem kind of responses from those muddleheaded few who worship at the font of Saint Amory, and a few others, who don't like what you say, as they do not live in the real world, and cannot marshal any worthwhile facts or the science to counter your statements.
I will follow this thread with interest.
Todd McKissick 2.25.05
To a point, I agree with Murray. Mostly regarding incomplete research. There are numerous other storage techniques for hydrogen. I don't claim to know all of them but storage in combination with other chemicals or aqueous materials was not mentioned here which I think are the only future for this issue. Some of them suggest a greatly increased energy content per weight and size. The generation of hydrogen also missed at least one major upcoming advancement. Direct solar thermal chemical seperation of water into H2 and other components is not only clean, but it's becoming higher efficiency with steadily lower input temperatures. For example Shec Labs I am glad that the concept of H2 being only recognized as an energy carrier as opposed to a source is getting more attention. The problem is that we have very few actual sources that are truly green and clean and renewable. In my opinion, only tidal, geothermal and concentrated solar thermal to H2 and to electricity are without serious drawbacks. Wind has no viable storage method without a big efficiency hit and it's environmental/asthetic characteristics are beginning to be questioned. PV has the same storage issues with less enviro issues. I even read right here on Energy Central today where hydro generates vast quantities of methane from the decomposing vegitation in newly flooded areas. The answer seems very simple to me. Solar thermal can collect the free solar energy at extremely high efficiencies of + 80%. The easiest form of energy to store is heat. After all, if you put a light on a rock, you're storing heat. Not withstanding insulation losses, the heat out is 100% of the heat in and insulation is a deal where you get what you pay for. The last issue is converting the heat to a 'transmission' form. Electricity seems to be the most obvious choice. It is the easiest and most efficient to distribute and the grid is in place. I personally think that H2 would be a good second choice for mobile transport but not on the scale we have today. If we get H2 generation and transportation 100% clean/renewable/green, then the only issue is the infrastructure required to support it. Corporate greed will completely eliminate this barrier once a monetary benefit can be seen. Appropriately sized steam engines are a great way to convert heat directly into electricity, but they don't fit every niche. Stirling engines can fill the remaining slots with much higher efficiency.
The problem with all of this is that all the research or investment dollars are going to everything that doesn't work. I don't see many dollars going toward Stirlings, Steam or Solar Thermal Chemical H2 generation. What a directionless society we live in.
Len Gould 2.28.05
Alice: To clear up your (often very muddled) expression of concern, don't worry so much. DOE hydrogen fuel cell research, current admin's hydrogen initiatives are all smoke and mirrors for PR purposes anyway. Last year abt' 90% of DOE fuel cell research went to coal-burning SOFC's and Molten Carbonate's.
And BTW, how do you multiply a wind turbine's "efficiency" with a fuel cell's efficiency? What units would the result be in? Perhaps would be wiser to leave the concerns to some more knowledgeable.
Kenneth Quinty 3.1.05
While it is possible to quibble with some of the technical points in this article (I'm not sure efficiency means the same thing when you are comparing fossil, renewable or nuclear energy sources) the basic message is dead on. On the hydrogen issue you have the unrealistic "greens" supporting it from one end and the cynical business and politically conservative interests supporting it from the other. If the "greens" are honest, they know that a hydrogen economy based on renewables would require an enormous reduction in per capita energy consumption and an equally enormous change it lifestyles. The auto companies are using hydrogen research to reduce public pressure for making improvements to there existing products.
The general public needs to see articles like this so they can understand how totally impractical hydrogen is as a transportation fuel and begin to support other technologies like hybrid and battery electric vehicles. The only way we can continue to run a transportation system like the one we currently have as fossil fuels become more scarce is by increasing use of nuclear energy as the source. That means a mix of battery electric cars and hybrids to stretch the remaining fossil fuel supply as far as possible.
Mark Krebs 3.1.05
Are you one of those wackos that challenge the theory that energy is created inside of utility meters? Seriously, what Ron said, watch your back. For more on this subject see:
Although we have what has been called; "It doesn't exist biomass solution -- www.CorpFutRes.com" the solution to the US's complete energy problem can be condensed into one word -- "Conservation"! Use less and buy less -- if more than one word is needed. I tried to interject conservation into a study the Florida Legislature commissioned on "Florida's Energy Future". The study report exclaimed: "The prime source of funds to support advances in energy efficiency and renewable energy resources in Florida is controlled by private utilities whose business objective is to maximize profits rather than to conserve scarce energy resources." That's one study's answer to: "Why it's difficult to conserve". And that, too, could be said about the current feature on hydrogen fuels --."Waste dollars -- on future solutions whatever may be the simple answer -- such solution is not the answer. In today's trillion dollar economy, "What's a few billion?"
Keith Moore 3.1.05
Thank you Alice:
A mixture of only 5% Hydrogen and air will detonate with the weakest static charge. Knowing this fact, would you let your wife refuel a hydrogen powered car?
Further, remember the Hindenburg? After the first public accident, this program is dead!
Gordon Smith 3.1.05
Alice starts with a very correct clarification of a common public misconception, that there is a plentiful source of hydrogen somewhere waiting to be tapped, which of course is false. Her logic fails when it comes to analyzing the overall efficiency of hydrogen generation and use, and the idea of an energy carrier's importance.
The 30% fossil power plant efficiencies she states are no longer true for new plants. Combined Cycle power plants today are commonly quoted with +55% efficiencies. GE just announced it's newest at 60%. Per Alice's equation, 50% or 60% times 70% = 35% or 40% for hydrogen overall efficiency up to the point of vehicle delivery.
The USA has ample fossil energy reserves in the form of coal. The problem is coal is not easily adaptable for use in mobile vehicles. Think steam locomotive, with coal car, in your driveway. What is needed is a better energy carrier.
An infrastructure starting with coal consumption by large Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) plants coupled to electolysis units could produce large amounts of hydrogen at high efficiency and very low emissions rates. Both are proven technologies as of today. (Those who say otherwise need to continue their examinations.) The large quantities of hydrogen produced would be distributed by pipieline, possibly incorporating some existing lines now used for natural gas.
Development of reliable economical vehicles will be needed of course, but that's not my field.
I would not want to understate the scale of this change, but it is possible, I'd say highly probable, that hydrogen generation on a scale to replace or significantly supplament distillate fuel use in vehicles in the US can be accomplished in the manner discussed.
DON WIDDERS 3.1.05
Alice, thank you for a brave and enlightening article!
The PEM fuel cells used in fuel cell vehicles are typically in the low 30% range of efficiency. Wiring, motor controller and motor dissipate around 15% to 20% of their energy in heat, so a typical fuel cell vehicle is around 25% efficient (or roughly the same as a gasoline powered car and considerably less efficient than a diesel car.) That discounts any waste in the storage and production of hydrogen.
Hydrogen economy endoctrination is replete with lies and half truths. It's about time someone fills in the missing information.
Malcolm Rawlingson 3.1.05
Hydrogen is widely used and transported already and it is being done very safely. To state as one corrrespondent does that hydrogen is unsafe is misleading to say the least. Firstly the assertion that hydrogen "detonates" at 5% by volume in air is wrong. The flammable range by vol. in air is 4% to 75%. Hydrogen does NOT explode in these ranges and is certainly not detonable at 5% as stated. The explosive (ie detonable range) is much narrower between 17% to 56%. These volumes are difficult to achieve unless the hydrogen is trapped within a vessel or building. The diffusion rate of hydrogen in air is so rapid that a build up to volumes in the explosive range of 17% is virtually impossible. It is in fact far safer to fuel a car with hydrogen than it is to fuel it with gasoline. Leaking gasoline stays on the ground in liquid form at Standard temperature and pressure and represents a major hazard to the vehicle occupants. Hydrogen on the other hand does not stay on the ground but dissipates rapidly into the air and is a small hazard to vehicle occupants. Also if hydrogen is stored in high pressure gas cylinders these are far less likely to rupture than the flimsy plastic or sheet metal tanks that we use currently to store gasoline on our vehicles. The facts are that it is far safer (by at least an order of magnitude) to fuel a vehicle with hydrogen than it is to fuel it with gasoline. Exactly the opposite of what most people would have you believe.
It is also not widely known that almost ALL large electrical generators throughout the world use hydrogen to cool the rotor windings and it is routinely handled with the care and attention required of any flammable material. The petrochemical industry itself produces and uses enourmous volumes of hydrogen gas. We are already in a hydrogen economy like it or not.
While it is widely reported by our hyperbolic and sound byte driven society that the Hindenberg was a hydrogen "disaster", research has shown that is factually wrong. The fire was caused by ignition of the highly flammable cellulose "dope" used on the Hindenbergs fabric. In all likelihood the result would have been the same if the Hindenberg was filled with helium. Hydrogen burns with a very pale blue flame that is almost invisible to the naked eye. Had the Hindenberg "fire ball" been caused by hydrogen it would NOT have been visible to the camera.
In any case the real question with respect to the widespread use of hydrogen as a fuel is not safety or IF we will go that route but WHEN. Energy efficiency, while a good thing in itself will not prevent us from running out of fossil fuels it will just delay the time when we have to do something about it. All will agree that coal oil and natural gas will run out it is just a question of when - not if.
Our choice is simple. We either move in the direction of hydrogen as the fuel carrier that drives our economies at a reasonable and measured pace or we get forced into it when the inevitable last drop of oil comes out of the pipe.
I do agree with Alice that the use of fossil fuels to produce the hydrogen is counterproductive. All that does is hasten the time when the fossil fuels run out - only a lunatic would advocate that. Hydrogen production will be from solar, wind, tidal, hydro electric or nuclear energy sources not fossil - . The rapid development and deployment of the pebble ped reactor has potential in the not too distant future to produce hydrogen directly. Energy observers should watch that space very closely.
I have learned never to predict the future on the basis of current technology. There are many developments in the field of hydrogen and electricity storage and distribution that will change the whole picture very rapidly.
In any event the hydrogen economy is not coming. It is already here.
James Hopf 3.1.05
While I agree that the safety issues with hydrogen are probably mostly a red herring, the practical, economic, and efficiency issues associated with using gaseous H2 as a vehicle fuel are very tangible and profound. Most analyses predict handling and distribution costs that exceed the total cost of production, and predict energy losses (in compressing and shipping) that are a large fraction of that contained in the H2 itself.
There is also the fundamental inefficiency of converting electricity into H2, and then converting it back to electrcicity in a fuel cell electric car. Even assuming electrolysis efficiencies over 80%, and fuel cell efficiencies of 50-60%, you get less than half the electricity you started with, whereas simply transmitting the power directly to charge the battery of an electric (or plug-in hybrid) car involves much lower losses. Thus, the hydrogen approach uses roughly twice as much input (primary) energy.
For these reasons, I have become very skeptical of the use of pure H2 as a vehicle fuel. While nobody can predict future technological advances, I'd say right now that the odds are against it, not because it can't be made to work, but because other sustainable, domestic energy options will likely be more cost effective, more efficient, and just as environmentally sound.
Yes, oil and gas is running out, and the price will be going ever higher. There are also the associated environmental problems as well as the geopolitical problems with foreign energy dependence. These are all important reasons to find an alternative to using oil (or even gas) for transport. Thus, a way must be found to use domestic, long-term energy sources such as clean coal, nuclear, and renewables to power the transport sector. The hydrogen approach is one way of doing this. However, it is not the case that hydrogen and/or conservation is the only way to accomplish this (as Malcolm and others suggest).
We could fuel our cars with sustainable, domestically produced biomass fuel (e.g. biodiesel). We could use coal as part of some synfuels program. We can also use plug-in hybrids, or (eventually) pure electric cars. Using liquid fuels and/or electricicty for transportation avoids all of the massive technological challenges, inefficiencies, and expenses that the author discusses. It uses our existing power and liquid fuel distribution infrastructure, and generally (in the electric power cases anyway) uses the input primary energy roughly twice as efficiently as the H2 approach. As I said before, it's hard to pick the future winning technology. In that vein, I think we gave up on the electric car too early. We should still be spending roughly as much research money on developing a better battery as we are on hydrogen/fuel cell research, especially given that the outcome promosed by the battery (electric car) is so much more desirable.
I'm not saying that hydrogen will have no role to play. I am quite sure it will. I'm just skeptical of using gaseous, pure H2 fuel. It is more likely that, while we will use domestic energy sources (coal, nuclear, renewable) to generate large quantities of H2, we will add that H2 to some carbon-based feedstock to make fuels that have the highest H/C ratio possible while remaining liquid. The carbon feedstock would come from biomass, coal, or from high-carbon petroleum feedstocks such as "heavy" oils, oil shales, or tar sands. In the biomass case, the process could be sustainable, and even CO2-neutral. In the other two cases, at least it is a domestic, longer-lasting fuel source. We could either use those liquid fuels in the standard way, or even better, we could use them in plug-in hybrid cars, which only use ~15% as much fuel as normal cars (with domestically produced electricicy being directly and efficiently used for the other ~85%).
David Knowles 3.2.05
Very well put together article, Alice.
The technological and commercial hurdles which a hydrogen economy must overcome are enormous. Substantial progress must be made in all types of fuel cells now under development. Much greater advances must be made in hydrogen generation, storage and transportation. The investment costs for a transition to a hydrogen economy are staggering. It is my opinion that, as a nation, we cannot afford this investment for a technology that will provide only marginal benefits. The government investment is a mere pittance - compare the investment to the annual R&D and engineering budgets of the major oil and automotive companies. As for the prospects for success over the next 25 years, consider the progress made over the past 25 years. There is a long way to go.
Because of the production and transportation realities, a hydrogen energy system must be considered only a stop-gap solution. Surely the current energy system will be supplanted by a set of inventions and innovations. What will it be?
Energy density is an important factor, as it has been in the past as the world replaced wood with coal, oil and natural gas replaced coal, and nuclear replaced fossil fuels. In the advanced systems used by our military (with essentially an unlimited budget for the implementing the best technological solutions), nuclear is the option of choice. Indeed, the fuel cell would not have been developed for the space program had it not been for the prohibition of putting reactors into orbit. You don't see many hydrogen-powered submarines or aircraft carriers.
The development of nuclear reactors is currently receiving greater federal funding than the fuel cell effort. The fuel cell initiative was conceived over a several frantic weeks in an effort to give President Bush something "sexy" for his State-of-the Union address. I believe that the future domestic energy systems will be nuclear technology in a distributed system. The technology developed for the military will "trickle down" to the domestic sector, just as gas turbine, steam turbine and microprocessor technology, to name a just few examples, has done. That is not to say that certain renewable technology, notably solar PV, and fossil technologies, such as coal gasification in low emission systems, will not contribute to the mix. In the meantime, our government's way of doing business means that a wide variety of energy technologies will continue to receive funding with little regard to their prospects of truly transforming our naton's energy systems
Malcolm Rawlingson 3.2.05
Thanks James & David for your thought provoking replies. You are right. The use of pure hydrogen gas to power vehicles of any sort does present many challenges and I am also not totally convinved that this is the best technological route to follow for the transportation sector. Hauling around heavy gas cylinders is not very fuel efficient. However once you have cheaply available hydrogen almost all hydrocarbon can be produced by synthesis so it will not matter much when our oil and coal supplies run out. I believe that in the long term that is where will be forced to go. The reason is that oil is not just an energy source. They are the feedstocksto our plastics and chemical industries. A large portion of the plastics industry depends on oil. Without oil we have far bigger problems to worry about than (just?) energy. Alice is right on the money when she talks of hydrogen as the energy carrier but it is also the key building block to the chemicals we will need to creat ourselves once Mother Nature tells us there is no more oil left. I think that is a far greater concern than our dependence on oil for energy and is rarely disussed in energy circles. Once you have cheap hydrogen, methane is readily produced so the existing natural gas distibution network can be used with no change in infrastructure. That of course is why the high temperature pebble bed reactor being developed by the Chinese and South African Governments should be watched. These plants offer not just the possibility of low cost energy but they also have the potential to be the producers of very cheap large scale hydrogen which will create the feedstock gas for synthesizing just about any hydrocarbon the organic chemists can dream up. Thanks again for your very thoughtful replies and opinions and for Alice for providing alot of food for thought about the hydrogen economy. Malcolm
Joe Schiller 3.2.05
Your contention that hydrogen as an energy carrier is on par with perpetual motion, free energy, and cold fusion implies that advocates of hydrogen do not understand the basic principles of thermodynamics. However, in addition to quoting some questionable efficiency figures yourself, such as the efficiencies of hydrogen production and electricity production by fuel cells that other commentators have disputed; you fail to apply this same reasoning too all of the conventional sources such as oil, gas, coal, and nuclear. This is a common mistake critics of hydrogen often make. They want to criticise hydrogen by applying one set of rules, and support the status quo by applying a separate (more favorable) set of rules. Take coal as an example. I have yet to see a comprehensive efficiency analysis of coal that includes the energy investment required to move hundreds of tons of overburden to extract a few tons of coal. Then there are several other stages of the coal fuel cycle require significant energy inputs. Yet, when proponents of coal discuss the efficiency of coal for power production, they conveniently ignore these net energy calculations and cite only the combustion efficiency in the power plant as if the coal was somehow magically delivered there with no energy cost. In summary, your analysis is incomplete in that you fail to apply it to the alternatives, and you offer no constructive alternatives to analyze.
Malcolm Rawlingson 3.2.05
An astute observation Joe. On a similar note I have yet to see an energy efficiency calculation peformed on the proces of removing methane gas from wells in Algeria, liquefying it and shipping it all the way across the atlantic for evaporation and delivery into existing infrastructure. It seems to me to be a very inefficient process. Nobody seems to be at all concerned at the hundreds of millions of dollars of new infrastructure required for that process let alone the overall safety of handling liquid methane.
It does seem that to do a proper job of the analysis one needs to look at the complete energy efficiency for the entire process - not cherry pick bits of it.
James Hopf 3.2.05
There have been several studies which estimate the overall net CO2 emissions from each energy source, including all indirect emissions from associated processes such as those yuo mention for coal (i.e., energy use in mining and shipping the fuel, etc..). One such study is at:
As shown in the chart on the 3rd page of this report, indirect sources cause coal's overall CO2 emissions to increase by ~25%, over and above the direct stack emissions from the coal plant. CO2 emissions are not a perfect measure of overall indirect energy usage, but it's pretty close, especially if the energy source used for the indirect processes is oil (which would be the case for your coal examples) since oil emits almost as much CO2 per unit energy as coal does (~80% as much, I think).
I agree completely with your statements on using oil for energy, as opposed to saving it for more important, long-term uses. I feel the same way about wasting natural gas in large, centralized, baseload power plants.
Am I to understand that we're going to spend all this money for LNG terminals, just so we can become even more energy dependent, send even more money overseas for our energy (making the balance of trade even worse), and possibly someday send our children to unstable foreign lands to fight and die to secure gas sources, just as they are doing for oil today?? This, when several superior, sustainable domestic options are available for this application (clean coal, nuclear, renewable)??? There aughta be a law.... I say bring back the Fuel Use Act. If I were in charge, I'd also do everything I could to stop these LNG projects, not because of "safety fears" or environmental issues, but for the reasons given above.
Len Gould 3.3.05
For all the sceptics, including Alice, of the effectiveness or liklihood of the "hydrogen economy", note that Linde is currently in process of installing 400 liquid hydrogen fueling stations in europe, and BMW among others already offer reasonable cost autos fueled by hydrogen stored as liquid. Though I agree that PEM fuel cells are not ready for prime time, there is no reason hydrogen canot simply be used directly in piston engines, esp. given direct fuel injection to combustion chamber which makes the power-to-weight much higher than gasoline.
And if that's not efficient enough for you, check out the HCCI piston engine development project at http://www.eere.energy.gov/hydrogenandfuelcells/pdfs/30535bf.pdf . Hydrogen burning prototypes already achieving 57% net thermal efficiency to electricity in auto-sized engine packages already wxisted in 2001 (eg pp 8, caption of graph at top of page) "The overall length of the generator is 76 centimeters, its specific power is 800 watts per kilogram, and it has a power density of 800 watts per liter."
Where will the hydrogen come from? Probably (European designed) nuclear reactors unless US ever gets it act together with collecting hydrogen (almost free offpeak) from the gassifiers of oxy-blown IGCC coal-electric generating plants. Be nice to go CO2 sequestration of exhausts then also.
Malcolm Rawlingson 3.3.05
James I agree with you. If ever there as a more insane use of a valuable resource like methane gas it is to burn it to produce electricity. I would like Alice to do an efficiency study on that one? Combined cycle units are better but methane should be preserved for use as a chemical feedstock. Even if your gas fired electric generator is sitting right on top of the well it is makes no sense let alone on the other side of the world! Sooner or later our politicians on both sides of the border (I am in Canada - same problems) will understand this folly. Hopefully before it is too late.
To place decisions about your economic and social well being in the hands of offshore suppliers seems just a little illogical to me.
Len & Alice
One of the criticisms I have of the article is that it ignores mush of the new developments going on at a rapid pace in other parts of the world. Iceland for example will be a 100% hydrogen fuelled oil independent country within 10 years. So the hydrogen economy as I said earlier is not an IF but a WHEN. We either get on board now or we get on board later. Many of the problems of hydrogen storage and usage are already being dealt with. Very interesting material on the hydrogen HCCI piston engine. I will look that up. The key point is that we don't have to change all that much of the infrastructure if we do this intelligently.
In all my years on this planet the one thing I know for sure about humans is that given a problem they will solve it. So it will be with hydrogen.
David Doty 3.3.05
Nice article, Alice, with lots of sound arguments, but I’d like to clarify the science on some of your points. My comments are simply listed in the order they were evoked while reading your piece.
1. Hydrogen trucks also don’t make sense. I’ll come back to that one later.
2. It doesn’t make sense to worry about the aerodynamic efficiency of a windmill or the theoretical efficiency of solar cells in this piece, as the resource (wind or sunshine) is free. What matters is investment cost per mean kW. By this measure, these renewable sources are relatively expensive (particularly, solar), and their expensive energy has to make sense economically.
3. Your arguments against biomass are largely outdated and off topic. Pessimistic analyses from the mid-nineties concluded that 1750 million acres would be needed to supply the biofuel for our transportation needs in 2050, whereas current realistic assumptions in efficiency gains at all levels (land production, fuel processing, vehicle mileage and usage, etc.) lead to projections of 114 million acres (much of which would be dual use land) needed to produce all the liquid biofuel for all our transportation needs in 2050. (See p. 46 in Growing Energy, http://www.bio.org/ind/GrowingEnergy.pdf ). That biomass also could be converted to high-purity gaseous hydrogen (by GTL processes) instead of liquid biofuels just as efficiently (see http://www.inf.vtt.fi/pdf/tiedotteet/2001/T2074.pdf ). The problem is that this gaseous hydrogen is a very poor transportation fuel compared to something like ethanol or diesel, for many reasons, some of which you’ve nicely addressed in your article.
4. Producing hydrogen from modern power plants doesn’t have to release a lot of NOX and mercury, but it does produce a lot of CO2 that is costly to sequester.
5. A gallon of diesel can be made (eventually, at low cost) from 13 kg of dry biomass, about 0.015% of the number you imply.
6. The best way to solve our natural gas problem is to begin making renewable fertilizer on giant wind farms in the Dakotas, Kansas, and Wyoming. Fertilizer is much easier to transport than hydrogen (in any form), and this could reduce our natural gas usage enough to eliminate the need to import LNG for the next 40 years. If price trends of the past four years continue for a few more years, renewable fertilizer will compete (in cost) with fossil fertilizer within four years. That rate of price increase will likely subside, but renewable fertilizer will still probably compete within 8 years. It will take at least 15 years to build the massive wind farms needed. We need to start now.
7. More realistic estimates of 10,000 psi hydrogen storage tank costs are $600/kg.
8. Some fuel cells (especially SOFCs) are heavy, but it has nothing to do with the mass of metal hydrides.
9. Hydrogen can’t be ignited unless it’s mixed with air within the concentration range of 4% to 75%. It won’t explode unless the concentration is between 18% and 59%. Because hydrogen is so light, normal convection makes it difficult for these conditions to occur in open spaces with normal leaks. These hydrogen risks have been over blown. Real risks would occur for a car inside a garage, and possibly inside a parked car even in the open, though the latter seems highly improbable with normal engineering precautions.
10. Your driving range comparisons between hydrogen at 3600 psi and diesel are a little exaggerated, and most users would accept having a somewhat larger fuel tank if there were other advantages.
11. Your hydrogen pipeline infrastructure cost estimate is a bit excessive, as most of the pipelines would be much smaller than those costing $1M per mile, and much less than 200,000 miles would be sufficient. It would be nice to see a good analysis of this projected cost.
12. Getting back to the issue of future trucks: Here, liquid hydrogen is a remote possibility, but the fuel distribution infrastructure would cost at least $300B, and the fuel would still ultimately be three times more expensive (because of distribution costs) than the more logical alternative, cellulosic ethanol or biodiesel. Again, see “Growing Energy”, http://www.bio.org/ind/GrowingEnergy.pdf .
For a scientifically accurate analysis of the key issues facing hydrogen and renewable biofuels, see my paper, “Future Fuels” http://www.dotynmr.com/PDF/Doty_FutureFuels.pdf . Admittedly, it’s a little harder to read for the non-scientist. I do admire your well intentioned and useful efforts, Alice, though it’s important for critics to be technically accurate to the extreme. The last thing we need, which is already beginning, is for the hydrogen advocates to be able to levy the charges against us that they are so widely guilty of – exaggeration, technically inaccurate statements, and outright lies. So if you have an opportunity to write another similar piece Alice, please feel free to run it by me first (I’m at
David Doty 3.3.05
My last post exceeded the word limit and got truncated, so I'll pick up where it leaves off.
I’ll be all to happy to very thoroughly check the facts and the rest of the science. We’re in this together for a better future for our grandchildren. (I’m at dotynmr.com).
Finally, thanks Len Gould, for your particularly informative comment and very useful link: http://www.eere.energy.gov/hydrogenandfuelcells/pdfs/30535bf.pdf . (The paper has lots of good, useful information, but, like a lot of government-funded papers, it also has lots of dis-information regarding hydrogen, so it has to be read very critically.) They’re depending on the free piston engine to achieve ultra high efficiencies in HCCI engines, and they ignore a lot of very real limitations affecting efficiency, cost, and lifetime, but I won’t go into that in detail here. Such an engine will be much more expensive than any advanced combustion engine currently being seriously considered for production by the major manufacturers. But the most important point to note is that the 57% efficiency is the calculated theoretical thermodynamic efficiency of the compression/combustion cycle. A good guess for net output efficiency for this engine (that may have ran for a few minutes) is 35%, even though they quote 96% for the efficiency of one component in the linear motor system under some unspecified conditions.
An alternative I’ve looked at in considerable detail that really does permit efficiencies approaching 60% in automobile-sized engines (for any clean fuel) is the highly recuperated open Brayton cycle. The highly recuperated closed Brayton cycle can achieve similar efficiencies, and here the fuel doesn’t even have to be clean, but the engine is larger and more expensive. I know the current related products don’t come close to this, but the reasons are all well understood and solutions are available. They’re just expensive and require some rather straight-forward engineering development. (But nothing like the breakthroughs needed to make PEMs affordable or hydrogen distribution cheap and easy.) Hopefully, the DOE will begin accepting innovative, scientifically sound, out-of-the-box proposals that have real promise instead of continuing to pour hundreds of millions down the hopeless hydrogen drain.
F. David Doty, PhD, physicist, President, Doty Scientific, Inc.
Bruce Bookless 3.3.05
Alice Baby! Has ANYBODY given enough of a (darn) to tell you what a sancimonious, self-righteous dilitante prig you come across as? A bloody chimpanzee can take apart a concept and offer no alternative, which you do VERY well. What I UTTERLY FAIL to see is an alternative being offered by you... which, having been at university for 20 years, doesn't surprise me... University types seem to have all the answers, but absolutely NO concept as to what the questions are. Failure ALWAYS seems to be someone elses fault... and provides a bonanza for the barb throwers...such as you....a boon for those living in an intellectual vacuum. But, you get a check every week, so what the (heck). If you can steel yourself, try a positive contribution. STEEL yourself and go for it. I won't hold my breath, tho. I don't have any answers either, but at least I know enough to keep my mouth shut, if I don't. Try it sometime.... then watch those weekly checks evaporate.
James Hopf 3.4.05
While the author didn't leave alternatives completely unaddressed (she did discuss conservation), she was admittedly a bit light. If you read through the responses, however, you will find that they are repleat with viable alternatives.
Few of us dispute the need (ultimately, the necessity) of moving to something other than oil and gas as our transport fuel. The only questions concern whether using gaseous H2 fuel directly is the best approach, or whether using some liquid fuel (derived from biomass or coal w/ added H2), using electricicty, or using some combination thereof would be better. For the most part, the article did not question generating H2 from long-term, domestic sources, and perhaps having that H2 constitute the majority of the energy content in future vehicle fuel. It just questioned the approach of using gaseous H2 to directly power vehicles, and described the many well-known technical challenges and costs associated with that approach.
Biomass (liquid) fuels may well be able to meet all our transport needs without using an unreasonable amount of land area. I'll have to read Mr. Doty's reference. But if providing for 100% of vehicle miles is possible, imagine how doable it would be to provide for only 15% of vehicle miles (i.e., imagine how small the land area would be). With plug-in hybrid cars, we can reduce liquid (hydrocarbon) fuel usage, per mile, by ~85%. Domestically produced electricity is directly (and very efficiently) used to provide the rest. Several environmentally sound options, with long-to-infinite-term fuel supplies, are available to generate this power. This right here leads to just three possible alternatives to the gaseous H2 approach.
We can use liquid hydrocarbon fuels (derived from either biomass or coal or tar sands) to provide for either 100% of our transport fuel (standard engine approach), or perhaps as little as ~15% of our transport fuel (plug-in hybrid approach). If we get the pure electric car to work, no liquid fuels will be necessary. All of these approaches do not require large technological or economic breakthroughs (in fuel cells, electrolysizers, etc...), and they use our existing liquid fuel and electricity distribution infrastructures, thus avoiding massive unnecessary investments.
David Hughes 3.4.05
David Hughes: To all of Alice's detractors, I submit another analysis of the "Hydrogen Economy" by a major brokerage firm for your examination at:
It further puts the lie to the hydrogen economy as a panacea for the decline of conventional (and unconventional) hydrocarbons, for many of the reasons cited by Alice.
The search for a silver bullet as a Holy Grail to the decline of hydrocarbons is very unfortunate, as the solution likely lies in a portfolio of incremental contributions to a solution, none of which can be ignored and all of which must be objectively and non-emotionally assessed as contributions to a solution.
Smoke and mirrors abound surrounding future energy issues, because of vested interests, emotions and misconceptions. The reality in my mind is that we face a very real energy sustainability crisis. We now have 6.4 billion people on this planet, up from 2 billion in the 1930's. And all of these people aspire to consume more and more energy. The Hydrogen Economy as discussed by Alice and the link attached clearly indicate that the hype must be objectively assessed, and all energy sources must be assessed in terms of Energy Returned on Energy Invested (ERORI). Only when we can compare future energy resources on an apples-to-apples basis can we objectively plan for a sustainable energy future. Also crucial in this analysis are the availability and geopolitical implications associated with all energy supplies for a sustainable energy future.
I salute Alice in bringing some of the issues associated with the "Hydrogen Economy" to the forefront.
David Doty 3.5.05
Thanks for the excellent hydrogen economy analysis, David Hughes. One of the best I've seen (right up there with Joe Romm's and mine).
And the current world population, as of a few weeks ago, is 6.5B.
Len Gould 3.6.05
(from Stanford sustainability FAQ article at http://www-formal.stanford.edu/jmc/progress/hydrogen.html )
"Here's what Pimentel (1996, p. 211-212) has to say.
In terms of energy contained, 9.5 kg of hydrogen is equivalent to 25kg of gasoline ( Peschka 1987). Storing 25 kg of gasoline requires a tank with a mass of 17 kg, whereas the storage of 9.5 kg of hydrogen requires 55kg, (Peschka 1987). Part of the reason for this difference is that the volume of hydrogen fuel is about 4 times greater for the same energy content of gasoline. Although the hydrogen storage vessel is large, hydrogen burns 1.33 times more efficiently than gasoline in automobiles ( Bockris and Wass 1988). In tests a BMW 745h liquid-hydrogen test vehicle with a 75 kg tank and the energy equivalent of 40 liters of gasoline had a cruising range in traffic of 400 km, or a fuel efficiency of 10 km per liter ( Winter 1986). At present, commercial hydrogen is more expensive than gasoline. Assuming $0.05 per kwh of electricity from a nuclear power plant during low demand, hydrogen would cost $0.09 per kwh ( Bockris and Wass 1988). This is the equivalent of $0.67 per liter of gasoline. Gasoline sells at the pump in the United States for about $0.30 per liter."
Gasoline in US is now selling for abt. $2.00 / 3.8 = $0.52 per liter. It really has not much further to go to get to the $0.67. All these data are abt 10 years old and many improvements have happened since, eg. Sulphur Iodine thermal splitting of water, SHEC Solar's thermal water splitting.
A 55 kg H2 tank v.s. a 17 kg gasoline tank reflects 1996 technology. Did you guys know they've invented carbon fiber?
I really liked the concept by David Doty of using wind energy to generate ammonia fertilizer directly. That's clear thinking, unlike this article. People should be required to clean up after themselves on the net. I came across this identical article with a much older date at another website. Dated 30 Sept 2004, Alice Friedman. http://www.energybulletin.net/2401.html
Len Gould 3.6.05
And in re: the Nesbit Burns document, I find it a technically very well done but flawed analysis, though I can certainly not fault their statement regarding the rational for switching to a hydrogen based energy infrastructure, [quote] "it requires the sort of forward thinking that governments, investors and consumers are rarely faulted for possessing."
I have always agreed with their discussion of FIRST switching all stationary uses of energy to "the ideal alternative" first, but simply presumed that was a common basis for everyone. Where they loose track, as do most others, is in their confusion between "hydrogen as transport fuel" and "fuel cells". I also agree with them that fuel cells are at best an iffy long term proposition, but that has nothing whatever to do with the eficacy of hydrogen as transport fuel. BMW is on the right track but in typical auto maker fashion being too conservative in development of their IC engines and onboard storage. Using eg. NREL's "high pressure cryogenic H2 tanks" and then taking advantage of its capability to deliver the fuel to direct injectors at compression pressures without pumping, for one example, can make a well designed IC engine far more efficient and power dense.
The biggest item Nesbit Burns fail to cost is the value of reducing or eliminating dependence on foreign imported petroleum. (In terms of geopolitical relations, reduction in needs for military actions, etc. etc.) This target should be set as a priori absolute, then start criticising the options.
Carbon Bridge 3.7.05
Let’s take a hydrogen car out for a spin.!!!
I applaud Alice Friedemann's published work to dispell some of the present myths concerning the Hydrogen Hallucination which keeps permeating both citizen and investor populations who don't know any better. People who are also confused by Peak Oil; plus invasive new wars initiated to secure remaining oil reserves; folks confused with internet discussions of what may have really happened to the Twin Towers on 9/11; or hidden pipeline schemes for moving Iraqi oil out through Tel Aviv and new supertanker ports on the Mediterranean vs: a short stretch of beach near Basra which channels tankers down through the entire Persion Gulf, Straights of Hormuz and ultimately out and on the wrong side of Africa to then move oil to Europe and USA, --the long way around. . .
I agree with Alice's very succinct points listed below...
• Hydrogen isn’t an energy source – it’s an energy carrier, like a battery. You have to make it and put energy into it, both of which take energy. Ninety-six percent is made from fossil fuels, mainly for oil refining and partially hydrogenated oil--the kind that gives you heart attacks (1). • Getting hydrogen using fossil fuels as a feedstock or an energy source is a bit perverse, since the whole point is to get away from them. • No matter how you look at it, producing hydrogen from water is an energy sink. If you don't understand this concept, please mail me ten dollars and I'll send you back a dollar. • No matter how it’s been made, hydrogen has no energy in it. It is the lowest energy dense fuel on earth (5) • And the tank will be huge -- at 5000 psi, the tank could take up ten times the volume of a gasoline tank containing the same energy content. • Hydrogen is the Houdini of elements. As soon as you’ve gotten it into a container, it wants to get out,-- leaks also become more likely as the pressure grows higher. It can leak from un-welded connections, fuel lines, and non-metal seals such as gaskets, O-rings, pipe thread compounds, and packings. • Any diversion of declining fossil fuels to a hydrogen economy subtracts that energy from other possible uses, --
I can't debate the finer technical points of hydrogen which have already appeared in these technical replies. Although I'm quite aware of the finer H2 details presented herein by Doty and also with the published works of Romm, --both gentlemen who are avidly working as professional scientists to dispel the H2 myths. I also agree with other professionals who see such Hydrogen Hallucinations as no more than a Diversionary Ruse kicked up once again by Dubya in his State of the Union address about a month before the U.S.A. invaded Iraq. I remember only too well that more people across the globe protested this invasive WMD action before it happened... More people mobilizing around a central issue than ever before in recorded history. But don't worry - H2 to the rescue!
And then next comes Gov. Arnie with his media-crazy Hydrogen Highways hype! More spoof and spin originating from Washington D.C. to deflect attention from the real issues of depleting oil reserves, compounded global warming scenarios, blindsiding Kyoto Protocols and more... Rather than pick apart further specifics of the Hydrogen Hallucination, --I simply close with a single paragraph written by one of my company's scientists. A very experienced chemical engineer who is 84 years of age.
Best Regards and thank you Alice! I've noticed that your H2 article has been picked up and replayed by at least 15-20 news boards within 3-4 daze of it's break out. You've hit some nails squarely on their heads and re-opened H2 debate and serious questions once again! --Carbon Bridge ••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••• "Hydrogen is too dangerous for the open road. It also is very difficult to contain. Being the smallest molecule (#1 on the periodic chart of elements) it can find the infinitesimal hole to get through. When I worked with hydrogen, I was always on the lookout for leaks and fixing them. We lost the lives of three Federal workers when a hydrogen cylinder was contaminated with some air and upon opening the cylinder valve to an unpurged pressure regulator, the cylinder exploded, set off by the heat of compression that was generated in the regulator. I can't see the public continuously exercising the cautions necessary to prevent disasters, let alone living with the ever present danger from auto crashes.”
Len Gould 3.8.05
Whoever stated "Being the smallest molecule (#1 on the periodic chart of elements)" yadda yadda was, as much of the others, using a word game to confuse the unaware. Every airship enthusiast knows that helium is a far more difficult gas to contain than hydrogen, for a variety of reasons including that it won't form molecules.
Len Gould 3.8.05
And BTW, as I've often state in these threads before, I agree that hydrogen is not the best energy carrier for autos, I simply consider it well proven that fossil hydrocarbons are (potentially far) worse and both Alice and all the others need to clarify that one before they start picking at all the nits.
Better than both is Graham Cowan's proposal of Boron as energy carrier for all the reasons stated at
I wonder if anyone out there has any knowledge of how efficient the process of thermochemical H2 dissociation has reached as of these days. If we could concentrate solar heat on this process at a reasonable temperature and "mine" H2 from water, I think this entire discussion might become moot.
Hydrogen may be the most abundant fuel in the universe, but the only real way to gather it efficiently is to use the most available and inexpensive energy source (solar heat) to do the work. All other sources cost too much or are in too short supply. If we can't efficiently get a hold of all this hydrogen that we think we need, then is the time we must refer to it as an energy carrier. My definition of a source is getting more energy out of it than it takes to gather. A carrier would then become anything that takes more energy in than it gives out - like a electrical transmission line.
As to the Carbon Bridge comments, I know someone who barely escaped a gas station explosion caused by static electricity of simply touching a car. 4 other people did not, however, survive.
Hydrogen has one other benefit that I haven't seen brought up yet. All the byproducts and emissions of using it (FC, IC engine, heat, etc.) are generated in the centralized H2 production site where they can be contained. Once it is transported to the end user site, that consumer has a fuel that is free of polutants and can do whatever energy capture method they want.
Wayne Taylor 3.8.05
In my opinion, it is most helpful to have people like Alice playing the role of 'devil's advocate'. I do not agree with a lot of what she said but billions of dollars do seem to be going into a large 'sink hole'. Hydrogen is currently being researched because when it burns it is 100% efficient and 100% clean. Hydrogen will have a very large effect on the economy and the environment since hydrogen is inherently a clean fuel, producing only water and oxygen as the end product. The use of hydrogen could reduce the amount of 'greenhouse gases' substantially. The rate at which we are spuing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is nothing short of alarming! We are threatening the very equilibrium that has existed in earth's atmosphere for aeons of time. We often discuss producing hydrogen by steam methane reforming of hydrocarbons- primarily natural gas, by electrolysis (requiring significant power) , by wind power and by solar power. Alice has comment on these in her article.
May I add another cost effective method of producing 100% pure hydrogen? The hydrogen market is certainly big enough to accommodate different methods of generation. It seems that no one way of generation will capture the market and satisfy mankinds needs. There is a technology that produces clean hydrogen from aluminum. The system utilizes clean or dirty aluminum (scrap or new) to produce pure hydrogen gas. The by-products are recoverable heat, pressure, alumina in addition to the hydrogen. Hydrogen can easily and safely be generated on site. It provides pressurized hydrogen locally, without the need for a compressor. Select stationary, transportation (including marine), and portable markets are suitable targets for this technology. The methodology is very simple-water, aluminum and sodium hydroxide. The NaOH is the catalyst and is very soluable in water and is inexpensive. This is a renewable energy carrier system and method wherein the aluminum is the carrier. The aluminum is reacted with water in a catalytic reaction, thereby splitting the water into hydrogen, oxygen and forming a clean aluminum derivative. The alumina is recycled back into aluminum metal. In effect you are carrying energy from one location to another, comprising obtaining aluminum metal from the first location, reacting the aluminum with water in a catalytic reaction and converting the hydrogen into energy at a second location. The aluminum will then be returned to a smelter for conversion back to aluminum metal. The smelter could even be an add-on to the generator. In that way you would have, in effect, a closed loop system with a new by-product, oxygen. The NaOH is not a reagent but a catalyst and is not consumed in the aluminum/water reaction. The reaction continues indefinitely if more Al is added. This fact had been overlooked for a very long time.
AnderMac International Inc., New Denmark, NB is an early stage Canadian company doing R & D and product development with this technology. The company has been issued several patents in the US, Canada Europe and has others pending. The method is simple. Think of the millions of tons of scrap aluminum that is generated worldwide. It is suggested that close to half of it ends up in landfill sites. It is not the complete answer by can play a major role in the whole hydrogen story.
Shirley E 3.10.05
Question: Why is it that the major auto manufacturers et al (such as, apparently, many posters above), simply throw up their hands in defeat when it comes to battery vehicle technology, while simultaneously proclaiming No Mountain Is Too High for fuel cell vehicles and hydrogen? Let me come back to speculate on this in a moment.
Fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) and battery electric vehicles (BEVs) are very similar in most respects, incorporating electric motor drives, regenerative braking, super capacitors, etc. They differ primarily in how the electricity is derived onboard (i.e., from either a fuel cell system or battery). BEVs offer numerous undeniable advantages over fuel cells, however, including all of the environmental benefits of FCVs (no emissions at point of use, can be fueled via renewable energy, could be used in two-way grid stabilization strategies, etc.), while actually offering superior overall well-to-wheels efficiency because of avoided hydrogen conversion and storage (e.g., compression) losses as several above have already noted. Overall electricity-to-electricity conversions using batteries are in the high 90s percentage range, an achievement hydrogen and fuel cells are unlikely to ever be able to compete with.
Other advantages are similarly incontrovertible: BEVs avoid the significant cost and safety issues of the onboard hydrogen storage system (a cheap 10000 psi tank? not in my car, thank you) and its panoply of sensors, alarms, etc. Sufficient electric infrastructure already exists to support BEVs, compared with the virtually nonexistent (and in fact, still unknown) hydrogen infrastructure and its associated cost and safety issues. Finally, the public (including the regulatory community) understands and accepts electricity, meaning a host of additional implementation issues are relative nonissues compared with hydrogen. Bottom line: we already have a highly successful and efficient energy carrier in our economy; it's called ELECTRICITY.
The traditional arguments against BEVs are insufficient range and time required for recharge; however, great strides have recently been made in both of these perceived limitations. See, for example, the 300+ mile range achieved by using relatively cheap lithium ion computer batteries by AC Propulsion (www.acpropulsion.com) in a car that won the 2003 Michelin Challenge Bibendum, a head-to-head competition which included several fuel cell vehicles from the major auto manufacturers. Also, see the recent (Feb. 10, 2005) press release from Altair Nanotechnologies on a breakthrough electrode manufacturing process that allows "three times the power of existing Lithium Ion batteries at the same price and with recharge times measured in a few minutes rather than hours" (see link to press release at http://www.altairnano.com/News.html).
Okay, maybe these battery technologies are not yet absolutely ready for prime time for one reason or another (such as, they are being pursued only by small companies on relative shoestring budgets compared to the hydrogen and fuel cell bandwagon). But think of how close battery technology is to commercial viability compared to hydrogen and fuel cells. Then why the No Mountain Is Too High attitude for the latter? I've spent a lot of time wondering about this. I still can't provide an explanation for seemingly earnest and obviously educated people like Len Gould above, but let me indulge myself in one thought experiment in regards to the major auto manufacturers:
How much does your refrigerator run? Bear with me. 5 minutes per hour? Probably more but using that estimate to be conservative, this means a total of 2 hours per day every day, or 730 hours per year. Let's see a show of hands, how many people have moved their 20 year old refrigerator into the basement instead of disposing of it because it's still running strong? Using our conservative estimate above, that motor has more than 14,000 hours on it, and how many times have we had it into the shop over those 20 years? In contrast, do you know what the design lifetime of an automobile IC engine is? 5000 hours. And how many times has IT been in the shop over that time period? Electric motors are simple and reliable and they basically "run forever." (Okay, I think my folks finally ditched their 1950s GE after some 40 years, but it also ran a lot more than 5 minutes per hour. Maybe it was serviced twice in its life.)
Automotive sales in the U.S. alone are about 17 million vehicles per year; multiply that by an average price of, what, $25000 (?) and you get an idea of the business volume this industry generates. What if this new electric vehicle reduced annual demand for new vehicles by even 10%, due to their increased longevity? How much diversionary investment would be justified to at least delay a transition to this new technology? If you run the numbers above you'll find that $1 billion, $2 billion, even $10 billion PER YEAR would not
Shirley E 3.10.05
Whoops, I exceeded the limit. Here's the remainder of my post:
Automotive sales in the U.S. alone are about 17 million vehicles per year; multiply that by an average price of, what, $25000 (?) and you get an idea of the business volume this industry generates. What if this new electric vehicle reduced annual demand for new vehicles by even 10%, due to their increased longevity? How much diversionary investment would be justified to at least delay a transition to this new technology? If you run the numbers above you'll find that $1 billion, $2 billion, even $10 billion PER YEAR would not be excessive, and we haven't even started talking about international sales levels.
Another consideration: How much of a role will the oil industry have in the above scenario? Only about 2% of electricity in the U.S. is generated using petroleum, and that's mostly peaking units. Natural gas has more of a role, but compared to the current market in gasoline? Heck, they'll barely even be selling lubricants in the new economy, when's the last time you put 3-in-1 into your refrigerator?
BEVs pose a tremendous threat to the status quo, one that is considerably lessened by a substitution of hydrogen and fuel cell vehicles. Or, at least delayed by them. The cracks and fissures are beginning to show, however, in articles and other observations such as Alice has made here. Hydrogen and fuel cells will be simply swept aside once the first really viable BEV appears, and it's probably not going to be that far in the future. Be careful you're not on the Mountain when it crumbles.
Len Gould 3.10.05
Shirley E. Your post is probably not short of brilliant, and a pleasure to read even though you (rightly) point out my shortsightedness. Though I must assume it is only as you are new here that you mention my name rather than a large number of other regulars who are far more "obviously educated".
http://www.physorg.com/news3341.html discussion of current attempt at an energy policy is relevant. A group of researchers recommending that in 5 years they could make solar electric energy systems ready for prime time. Should be done, though a far more simple and certain path is to just start building nuclear reactors again. That would only leave the re-structuring of the auro industry, and re-educating the NASCar crowd to accept silent electric drivetrains.
Shirley E 3.11.05
My apologies to Len, I probably shouldn't have picked out any individual but I meant to refer to someone else and I guess had his name in mind since I had noted a number of his excellent posts. My bad.
That said, Len is obviously a man of high discern and intellect. :)
Todd McKissick 3.11.05
Shirley E. I enjoyed reading your post and being reminded of battery technology as having promising breakthroughs that deserve merit like the rest of the options. I too, support the idea of more electricity for stationary uses with some type of carrier for mobile needs. I guess if I had to pick a set of reasons that I discount BEVs for is the past experience. We have been told for many decades about the wonders of the next generation of batteries. Yes, there have been improvements but they have only been incremental and the majority of problems that existed 20 years ago, still plague us today. My 4 month old cell phone with a high dollar Litium Ion batter has somehow developed a memory that isn't supposed to be a trait of that type of battery. It needs replacement now... way earlier in its lifecycle and I live with the hassles instead of replacing it because of cost. I know of 3 people the have laptop computers with the same scenerio. Most of them stopped using the device because they're putting off the battery replacement. The golf cart owners I know ALL recommend a gas cart because they say that after half the advertised lifetime of the batteries, the cart's performance is less than half of when it was new. Batteries from any 'new generation' that's being promised (whether 20, 10 or 0 years ago) have not shown to hold to their promises.
Now, you show me any sort of proof that I won't have to replace $5,000 worth of new high-tech batteries half way into my new BEV's battery's 5 year lifetime and I'll gladly reconsider my opinion.
As far as research funding goes, I'm not sure I hold the same opinion that it's only by the small companies on shoestrings. I've seen some pretty big players unveil news propaganda on their battery development in recent years. If you want to see small companies on shoestring budgets, look into the medium-scale solar power tower industry. You not only can't find a single web site for it, you can't even get it discussed in this forum. (see my first post)
Thanks for your fresh opinions and I promise to keep a more open mind.
Alice Friedemann 3.11.05
Thank you to the thoughtful, well-informed people who replied. You said what I was trying to say better than I was able to, and added a lot of important information. I agree with those of you who pointed out we should be using methane and oil for chemical products. Thank you David Hughes for explaining the concept of Energy Returned on Energy Invested. We need to coldly and rationally assess the alternatives because we didn't do anything to curb population and resource use when we had our first wakeup call in the 70's. We've pretty much run out of time. Read Jimmy Carter's speech and weep, the American people chose "Morning in America" and resource wars over conservation: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/carter/filmmore/ps_energy.html
Many of the comments seem to ignore the Main Points: 1) The Laws of Physics will never allow the hydrogen economy to happen. We don't inhabit a cliffhanger novel where a clever hero always invents a way out of a bad situation in the nick of time. 2) It doesn't matter if someone has a good idea for hydrogen storage -- ALL of the problems with making, storing, and transporting hydrogen need to be solved for the hydrogen economy to happen. Read the Hydrogen Road Map (in the references), because there are many more hurdles than the above that need to be solved (but won't due to #1). 3) There are many companies and articles at the “Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Investor” http://www.h2fc.com/news.html which would give the average person in this country the idea that we were well on our way to solving all of the problems with hydrogen. I disagree, this is hype, this is how you get the thermodynamically-challenged to send you money. 4) Myth: with enough money you can solve any problem. Money is a way to grease the wheels of trade. But those pieces of paper are meaningless. You could throw trillions of them at making a hydrogen economy happen and it would do nothing but divert the resources of society away from more meaningful things, like not freezing to death.
If the costs are far less for storage devices and pipelines than I stated, prove it. If you look at actual natural gas pipeline projects, the costs are about a million dollars a mile, and you'd need pipelines to go just about everywhere for vehicles to fill up at since trucking is out of the question as a energy/cost effective way to transport hydrogen. The Bay Bridge in California has recently doubled in cost, and part of that is due to materials like concrete and steel having gone way up in price from when the initial cost estimates were made. I find it hard to believe that the costs for the hydrogen infrastructure are less than what was published in the references I cited, if anything the costs have gone up since then.
If you're going to propose solar thermal, nuclear, coal and so on as a way of making hydrogen -- what's the energy returned on energy invested? Provide link(s) to scientific studies so we can see how much of this energy source we need and how much time it would take to make the hydrogen. For example, in this article from Car and Driver it states: "The only problem is that hydrolysis [of hydrogen from water] requires a great deal of electricity, the production of which is hardly pollution-free. To address this problem, Honda has built a solar-powered hydrogen generating station at its U.S. headquarters in Torrance, California. With a bank of solar panels capable of generating 8kW of power, this station requires a week to produce enough hydrogen to refuel the FCX once. In the real world, you'd like enough solar cells to refuel the FCX daily. Unfortunately, even 8 kW of solar capacity costs nearly $40,000, which is why mass quantities of electricity are not being currently generated using this method." http://www.caranddriver.com/article.asp?section_id=27&article_id=4217&page_number=1
Comments on sustainability, conservation, and efficiency: How do you get around Jevon's paradox? If you build a car that can go twice as far on the same amount of fuel, people will drive twice as far and eat up whatever efficiency gains you made. And at the rate of immigration and population increase in the United States, even if everyone limited their consumption, the newcomers would quickly eat up any surplus gained from conservation. See Garrett Hardin "Living Within Limits: Ecology, Economics, and Population Taboos 1995 Oxford University Press and Dr. Albert Bartlett "Arithmetic, Population, and Energy" http://www.hawaii.gov/dbedt/ert/symposium/bartlett/bartlett.html
For those of you who felt it was unfair for me not to address the efficiencies of all possible energy sources in the world -- hey -- that's a BOOK. This was supposed to be an article about hydrogen. Here’s a short summary of what I think of other energy sources:
BIOMASS Hydrogen is stupid, but biomass (ethanol, bio-diesel) is evil. Industrial agriculture is mining soil 18 to 84 times faster than it is being built by nature. Usin
Alice Friedemann 3.11.05
Using biomass as an energy source will accelerate turning land into a desert.
According to Ted Patzek at the University of California, Berkeley, "I demonstrate that more fossil energy is used to produce ethanol from corn than the ethanol’s calorific value. Analysis of the carbon cycle shows that all leftovers from ethanol production must be returned back to the fields to limit the irreversible mining of soil humus. Thus, production of ethanol from whole plants is unsustainable. In 2004, ethanol production from corn will generate 11 million tonnes of incremental CO2, over and above the amount of CO2 generated by burning gasoline with 115% of the calorific value of this ethanol....I estimate the U.S. taxpayer subsidies of the industrial corn-ethanol cycle at $3.5 billion in 2004. The parallel subsidies by the environment are estimated at $2 billion in 2004. The latter estimate will increase many fold when the restoration costs of aquifers, streams and rivers, and the Gulf of Mexico are also included." 2004 "Thermodynamics of the Corn-Ethanol Biofuel Cycle" Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences, 23(6):519-567.
Even if you could use all of the corn stover on all of the 32 million hectares of land planted in corn in the United States, you would only reduce the demand for oil by 4% at today's consumption rates.. Sheehan, J. 2004 Journal of Industrial Ecology, Volume 7, Number 3-4: 117-146
Additional biomass reading: David Pimentel "Food, Energy, and Society" 1996 University Press of Colorado; Kimbrell "Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture" 2002 Foundation for Deep Ecology; Richard C. Fluck "Agricultural Energetics" 1996 A V I Publishing Company; John Jeavons "How to grow more vegetables" 2002 Ten Speed Press
COAL If we have to turn to coal for our main energy source, there won't be as much left as people think there is: see the chapter by Gregson Vaux in Andrew McKillop's "The Final Energy Crisis". To liquefy coal will require about half the energy contained in the coal, to convert it to hydrogen and then compress or liquefy the hydrogen would be even more energy intensive. Coal is also a ghastly choice because in an energy-starved world, it's likely that we'll skimp on CO2 sequestration, which adds 20% or more to the energy/cost of the liquefaction plant. Coal will accelerate global warming and generate massive amounts of radiation and mercury pollution. We know that coal can run a civilization, because England ran out of trees and turned to coal for everything until oil came along. (John Perlin, "Forest Journey: The Role of Wood in the Development of Civilization" 1991 Harvard University Press). But it's a giant step backward for many reasons.
LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas): read Julian Darley "High Noon for Natural Gas: The New Energy Crisis" 2004 Chelsea Green.
NUCLEAR See Hoffert, M. I., et al. November 1, 2002. Advanced Technology Paths to Global Climate Stability: Energy for a Greenhouse Planet. Science, 298: 981-987, which states that there isn't enough uranium left for this solution to work: "Current estimates of U in proven reserves and (ultimately recoverable) resources are 3.4 and 17 million metric tons, respectively (22) [Ores with 500 to 2000 parts per million by weight ( ppmw) U are considered recoverable (59)]. This represents 60 to 300 TW-year of primary energy (60). At 10 TW, this would only last 6 to 30 years—hardly a basis for energy policy. Recoverable U may be underestimated. Still, with 30- to 40-year reactor lifetimes, it would be imprudent (at best) to initiate fission scale-up without knowing whether there is enough fuel." Nor can we get uranium from seawater – that’s an even bigger energy sink than hydrogen.
And do you really want to build breeder reactors, which are “fast” and a lot more like a bomb than conventional reactors? Dangerous enough that the countries that tried to develop them stopped doing so – we don’t actually know how to build breeder reactors yet. And if we do figure it out – do you really want our descendants to have to cope with 30,000+ years of plutonium? Can you guarantee there won’t be any terrorists or political leaders who won’t set off dirty or nuclear bombs for 30,000 years?
Solar / Wind The efficiency of these petroleum created products matters greatly -- they aren't "free", you've spent a great deal of non-renewable energy making them, maintaining them, and building a grid system. They produce very small amounts of energy compared to oil -- in a world where energy is scarce, to use the energy to make hydrogen doesn't make energy or economic sense.
Using Boron as the energy carrier: "Commercial sodium borohydride has a cost 50 times that of a comparable tank of gasoline. Moreover, the fuel supplies less energy than is required to produce it." Wakefield, J. 2002 "The Ultimate Clean Fuel: A start-up contemplates nonpolluting cars powered by an ingredient of soap" Scientific American.
Alice Friedemann 3.11.05
Since I'm accused of "exaggeration, technically inaccurate statements, and outright lies" I would appreciate citations proving that.
For those of you who are disappointed that I didn't offer any alternatives -- I don't see any alternatives. We blew it, we had a one-time chance to use fossil fuels wisely, perhaps stretching them out long enough to figure out how to get off the planet to other solar systems, and we didn't pull it off. Instead, we’ve massively overshoot the carrying capacity of the planet, and as we die off from 7 billion back to 1 billion or less, we'll also destroy much of the biodiversity on the planet, and perhaps even change the climate enough to render the planet fit only for single-celled life forms.
I would like to see people who are part of the Enlightenment tradition -- who understand the philosophy of science, who are enthralled with how complex and amazing the universe is, to survive what ecologists are calling the "evolutionary bottleneck" ahead. That way, at least a few people won't be members of cargo cults, or whipping themselves with cat-o-nine-tails because they don't understand how they displeased God so much that he took all the oil away.
Other articles of interest: Isaac Asimov "The Future of Humanity" http://www.asimovonline.com/oldsite/future_of_humanity.html
The energy content of Fuels: http://physics.syr.edu/courses/modules/ENERGY/ENERGY_POLICY/tables.html
Graham Cowan 3.12.05
Friedemann's assertion that extracting uranium from seawater is an energy sink is an unsupported expression of belief. As such it looks like a blatant bit of wishful thinking. Japanese research suggests the cost of extraction would really be US$1 to US$2 per thermal barrel-of-oil-equivalent (BOE); if every penny of that went for actual oil, obviously the investment of the energy in one barrel of oil would yield ~25 BOE, and the energy payback ratio for oil after it was, in effect, converted to ocean-derived uranium would be 25 times the already high ratio without that conversion step.
Although the energy payback ratio for ocean uranium extraction is very large, on the order of thousands, there are at least many billions of tonnes of uranium on land whose total lifting costs, not just energy but other, more significantly scarce things such as labour, are less. Uranium concentration in continental terrain, unlike its concentration in seawater, is nonuniform, so it makes sense to look for especially rich places. Recent prospecting costs have been US$0.025 per barrel-of-oil-equivalent; but that, of course, is just the finding.
Extraction can easily raise total costs to ten or 20 cents a BOE. Since the market is currently paying 54 US cents a BOE, the uranium extraction industry is expanding just as fast as it can get permits -- although since the governments that issue said permits make tens of dollars, not cents, on each barrel of oil as such, this can take some time.
The reference to Hoffert et al. is interesting. If "Ores with 500 to 2000 parts per million by weight (ppmw) U are considered recoverable", does that mean ores with, say, 10 ppmw U are not so considered?
The reason they don't say this is that as a positive, direct statement it might require defense -- and there's no way to defend it. Paraphrased in less obscure terms,
Ores whose uranium content makes them thermally equivalent, if the uranium is fed to burner reactors and never reprocessed, to seven to 28 times their mass in petroleum are considered recoverable ...
So, it turns out, are ores whose oil content makes them thermally equivalent to 0.06 times their mass in oil: the Alberta oil sands.
What uranium mass fraction would an ore have to contain to meet the six-mass-percent oil equivalency criterion? Since in once-through practice one mass of uranium yields as much heat as 14,000 masses of petroleum, just divide six percent by 14,000: 4.3 parts per million by mass.
Getting uranium out of an ore and making it into nuclear fuel are sometimes vaguely spoken of as energy-intensive processes, but this is unambiguously false in terms of the energy the uranium yields in conventional reactors without reprocessing. For such of these reactors as require fuel enrichment, for instance, less than two percent of the U suffices to enrich both itself and the other 98-plus percent*. Compare the two barrels of oil-in-place that in current oilsands practice provide enough energy to extract and upgrade themselves and only ten other barrels. (About a barrel-equivalent of natural gas is also used.)
It is commonly misunderstood that only for breeder reactors is it easy to find places on Earth where, within a furlong of any place one might choose to stand, there are two cubic furlongs of potentially net-energy-yielding uranium ore. In fact this is true for conventional reactors too: terrains that are more -- often much more -- than 4.3 ppm U are very common. If an evil wizard were to quietly annihilate every uranium atom in every bit of rock on Earth that now contains more than 4.3 mass ppm of it, leaving the rest of the rock in place so as not to leave the continents tattered with Phobos-sized holes, the present nuclear industry's costs would rise, but it could still continue.
* less than 0.1 percent if enrichment gas centrifuges are used.
Len Gould 3.12.05
Wow, Alice. Next to you both Murhpy and I are positively sunny ne'er-do-wells. In what particular way do your activities contribute anything to anything?
Todd McKissick 3.14.05
Alice, I was just starting to have a little faith in you when you threw that right out the window. Making brash statements like we blew it are not only counterproductive. Those of us trying to actually accomplish something greatly depend on the general public perception for investments and legislation changes. When you quote academia studies of a certain opinion without offering the cutting edge research viewpoint, you undermine this perception. In a nutshell, that ticks me off. Not every source discussed in this thread will be the sole saviour. As you may understand, everything discussed WILL become part of the mix of sources we will end up with. This is a market based society and a nickel profit here or there will generate a corresponding market. Distributing this mix nationwide with electricity as the common carrier will happen. It's being done in every location at some level right now. This discussion has centered on whether or not Hydrogen will take over as THE source or carrier or whatever you call it. The answer is yes... and no. Nothing will be THE source or THE carrier. But, H2 will become both a source and a carrier to play specific roles. The technical merits of those specifics are the only factors to decide that long term. For now, we're stuck with the public (and legislative) opinions of what to fund en masse. Once the playing field equalizes, apples will be compared to other apples and the details will come to light. Let's try to be open minded to the thought that every option has it's own weight of merit, shall we?
One thought.... there is multiple times enough wind in this country to supply all energy uses via that carrier. The same goes many many multiples for solar. The EROEI for a system that can supply it's own free energy is on the increase every time you build a new system with a former's output. Why can't the first system provide the energy to mfg the second and then the third and so on? ...and don't forget to include the option of some new or unpublished breakthroughs with greater benefits than the textbooks quote.
Malcolm Rawlingson 3.15.05
Alice, We seem to have moved from energy availability and the role that hydrogen might play to a philosophical view of the way we want to live. These are important questions and fundamental to our present and future use of energy. But they are not new questions. Any student of history will tell you that discussions of this sort have gone on for centuries. In the late 1800's when the world relied heavily on whale oil for lighting our way in the dark (so mankind was no longer dependent on the daily routine of the Sun) we were in great danger of eliminating whales from the planet. There was a choice to be made. Stop whaling and preserve the resource. Reduce the consumption of oil so that supply could meet demand or revert back to using the Sun to light our way and stop all nocturnal activities. Very knowledgeable people wrote about the imminent demise of Society. Unfortunately all of them missed the key feature of humanity which is its incredible capacity for creating and using technology to solve problems. The solution as we now know of course was the use of crude oil - considered a nuisance to farmers at the time as it kept seeping out of the ground and killing off their crops!!! The point is Alice that the major flaw in your argument is that you are basing the future on PRESENT technology. My advice is never do that. You will be proved wrong. The world will not run out of energy and we will not wreck the planet either.
Without too much adaptation human beings are able to inhabit the coldest and the hottest places on earth. No other species can do that. None. As you have seen from all the great correspondents here there are many clever people working hard to find solutions to our energy concerns. I have learnt a great deal from the cotributors here (thanks to all). They will arrive solutions that work and we will maintain our technological society. I for one have no desire to return to a dependence on the fluctuations and unpredicatbility of the "natural world" to ensure survival. And I am not alone. Large numbers of people in the world aspire to the luxury of the North American life we take so much for granted because they already live in a world where their survival is dominated by nature. It is all very well to sit at an energy gobbling computer and espouse conservation and energy doom and gloom while most of the world starves to death because they do not have the simple basics of life like water.
While I respect your opinion on nuclear energy..... even if your facts are quite wrong...when it comes down to a question of freezing to death in a cold northern winter or having a few piles of plutonium in concrete cannisters in the back yard I'll pick plutonium any day of the week.
For other readers at this site fast breeder reactor technology IS very well proven. A 250MW nuclear reactor in Dounreay in Scotland operated for many years on its own fuel produced in a Uranium 238 breeder blanket. Such technology would extend the life of uranium supplies for centuries since it depends on the supply of non-fissile U238 not on the .7% U235 fraction required by so called "thermal" fission reactors we currently use. Neutrons from the fission of U235 (thermal reactors) travel with about the same speed as neutrons from the fission of Plutonium (fast reactors) so all nuclear reactors are "fast" in that respect. The problem is you cannot cause fission in U235 with fast neutrons so they have to be slowed down by a moderator. The use of the term "fast" in Alices article implies some level of uncontrollability or instability and nothing is farther from the truth. Fast breeder reactors are stable and very controllable and have been demonstrated to be so.
As a society we will choose whether to use this technologym, hydrogen technology or something else. Very few I am sure will choose to be subject to nature...that would surely be fatal.
Graham Cowan 3.15.05
Actually if Malcolm Rawlingson follows the reasoning in my March 12 comment and finds no flaw in it, he will see that even just the 0.72 atom percent 235-U in natural uranium can provide abundant energy for the whole Earth for a very long time -- many centuries at least. That is why, even though breeder reactors have run stably and have never harmed anyone, they nonetheless have always been a solution in search of a problem.
Fast neutrons do cause fission in 235-U, as the Hiroshima survivors have reason to know. It is true that when the atom fraction, /( + ), is at the natural 0.7 percent or a little higher, neutrons have to be slowed in order to find the 235 nuclei, and not be intercepted by the much more numerous 238s.
You are right - well partially right anyway. I believe that the the fission cross section of U235 wrt to fast neutrons (1 - 2 MeV) is smaller than that for thermal neutrons of (0.025 ev). So fission by a neutron of any velocity is a matter of probability. Also as you say fast neutrons are readily captured by the large numbers of U238 atoms in natural Uranium. The point I was trying to make is that the use of the word "fast" is a bit of a misnomer often used by nuclear sceptics to cast the spectre of some out of control nuclear reaction. The fact is that fast reactors are very stable and controllable. Fast is a relative term anyway. I was trying to keep out of the atomic physics stuff but I guess I can't.
Whether or not you build a fast breeder really depends on how reliable your supply of uranium is. If you have no indiginous supply and the ability to extract plutonium from spent fuel as the UK has then fast breeder reactors make a whole lot of sense since they give you the possibility of complete energy independence.
If you are sitting on your own Uranium mine sure...who cares about fast breeders.
In any case - and I agree 100% the supply of only U235 is sufficient to last us for many many years. If the cost of fuel went up by a factor of 10 it would hardly make a dent in the economics of nuclear reactors since most of it is capital cost not fuel costs.
I would be carefully watching the development of pebble bed reactors. The plants can do four important things. 1. They are walk-away safe. 2. They produce high temperature gas that can be supplied directly to a gas turbine (no steam cycle efficiency limitations), they can produce hydrogen by at least two methods that I know of and their wast heat can be used to desalinate water.
The latter material (fresh potable water) is the real limiting factor for society - not oil. A reactor that can do all these things safely with no CO2 emissions is well worth investigating as the Chinese and South Africans already are aware.
Thanks for your comments
Gabor Lukacs 8.3.05
Thank you for your article, Alice, and for sticking with the conversation/feedback afterwards. Since so many people addressed the technical aspects of the article, I look at the emotional.
We are running out of oil, and the scariest part is, that our life is completely built on top of it, from A to Z. And instead of it, there isn't another endowment, that we can just 'find', like we did with oil. There may be possible alternatives, that we need to look for, and then design and SCALE it to use.
I personally don't see that this looking currently is happening in any significant scale. And, as energy will become scarce, we will not have the energy to scale (produce in quantity, distribute, and tool for end-use) any other energy source, even if all the science is developed behind it.
This leaves us with no alternative. And it is hard to accept, so we will grasp for anything that provides hope, and that's why so many of us attacks what you have to say so passionately. If you wrote about what refinery produces the highest quality zinc, and you selected one that people didn't agree with, they may have written down their opinion, but we wouldn't have had those highly emotional messages I have seen above.
Say we came up with a pretty ideal replacement of oil, that would take us through another 100 years providing the same luxury, we have now. If we didn't change our lifestyle so far, I doubt we would during this extra 100 years, so in a few generations we would end up at the same place. Except more people would be wanting to get fed. Same resource problem, on an increased scale.
Say H2 is easy to implement, and we have time and it works out. We will get around happily in our H2 powered cars, evaporating some water on the way. But what will we eat? Our current food production is built on converting oil to food, using soil, that needs to be fertilized to produce. H2 is not that good a fertilizer, as what we gained from oil.
So I think our current crisis is more a general behavioral issue, than a temporary resource issue. And knowing from myself, without significant motivation and serious inner work, my behavior will not change. Even having the motivation (loosing my job, not having enough money to make ends meet), and the luxury of time to do the inner work, it is hard to pull off such fundamental change involving our outlook on life.
Jeff Presley 5.21.08
test post test
David Peterson 3.2.10
5 years later and all you Brainiacs look pretty stupid.
Hydrogen costs $5.00 per KG at the pump, unsubsidized. A tank lasts 240 miles.
Art least Alice got paid to assemble her lies, that's better than the rest of ya.