Lapsed Believer in the Church of Hydrogen

By Published On: July 3, 2004

?Hydrogen is the best of fuels. Hydrogen is the worst of fuels,? according to Joe Romm, author of a new book, <i>The Hype About Hydrogen</i>. If a hydrogen economy/highway sounds too good to be true, it is, Romm warns. Romm wasn?t always such a skeptic, but that?s what research will do to you. Romm worked for five years at the Department of Energy supervising hydrogen and fuel cell research. At the time, the idea of hydrogen-powered vehicles with an onboard reformer for hydrogen appeared promising. Not any more, and particularly not for vehicles. Given the dilemma caused by the lack of fuel supply infrastructure, the economic investments necessary, and the sheer weight of the energy loss ratio in order to make the fuel, Romm?s belief in hydrogen to solve our energy woes has been sorely tested. Romm does retain some faith in hydrogen for stationary fuel cells, though. As an energy journalist, I?ve been looking for a book like this?one that takes, as Romm said in an interview, a ?pragmatic? approach. Sure, there are tons of scientific papers on hydrogen, but they focus on the efforts to streamline fuel production and the corollary improvements in utilizing the fuel?mostly fuel cells. Then there?s the nonscientific genre, the hydrogen hypers?both those who truly believe it?s an environmental elixir and those who want to make a buck on it. Following the hypers, there?s a batch of politicians, like Governor Schwarzenegger, who?ve seized on hydrogen as a political panacea. They see hydrogen as a solution to pollution where everyone still gets to drive their SUVs and there is full employment for power plants. It might sound good when politicians spread the pabulum of hydrogen to the electorate?like a chicken in every pot. But, as Romm points out, in the laws of science, there ain?t no such thing as a free lunch. The uneconomic loss of energy from making hydrogen is one factor. The second is that for vehicles, hydrogen?s cost and inefficiencies compared to internal combustion engines, and hybrids in particular, are astronomical. Hydrogen can either be extracted from fossil fuel, most likely natural gas, or grabbed from water through electrolysis, using a source of electricity. As those of us in California know well, natural gas stocks are questionable and increasingly expensive as a base for extraction. Romm maintains that natural gas is the wrong fuel to use for extraction because it is far more efficient when directly fueling power plants?diverting it to hydrogen would undermine efforts to combat global warming. If natural gas isn?t the best choice, liquefied natural gas is worse. ?If LNG represents a significant fraction of incremental U.S. natural gas consumption in the future,? Romm writes, ?the energy lost in the process of making and shipping LNG provides one more reason why we should not make hydrogen from natural gas, which already offers little or no energy or greenhouse gas benefit over hybrid vehicles.? Renewables, particularly intermittent wind, could be used for electrolysis. But Romm notes that it will be quite a while before renewable-extracted hydrogen makes sense. ?How long will it be before the United States has enough excess low-cost renewable generation that it can divert a substantial fraction to production of hydrogen?? Romm asks. Say, in the best of worlds, hydrogen is generated from vast Midwestern prairie wind farms. ?What would be the infrastructure costs for delivering it?? Romm queries. He notes that tanker truck deliveries, like those of gasoline, are cumbersome. Pipelines would need major overhauls. In either natural gas extraction or electrolysis, you end up with less energy in the hydrogen than is put in to make it. With extraction, it?s a fairly easy chemistry step to break the hydrogen bonds, and only a fraction of the energy is lost. With electrolysis, Romm told me, 75 percent of the energy is ?thrown away.? He said that the nation?s current use for oil-based vehicle fuel is ?extremely? efficient, losing only about 15 percent of the potential energy from the point of extraction to the vehicle?s gas tank. The cost of alternative infrastructure?from producing to delivering to creating fuel cell vehicles?cannot begin to compete cost-effectively, he adds. There are also some safety hazards with hydrogen. If it?s not used as a fuel for fuel cells but directly runs combustion engines, as is suggested by energy gadfly S. David Freeman and adopted (at least initially) by Governor Schwarzenegger, there?s a difficulty with containing the high compression necessary to carry the gaseous fuel. And hydrogen has the little ?kaboom? factor. Hydrogen, if ignited, burns invisibly. When burning, hydrogen doesn?t give the sensory warning of flames that signals us to keep the hell away. Romm notes that someone could walk right into a hydrogen fire without seeing it. Compounding the problem of stealth fires, ?hydrogen is one of the most leak-prone of gases,? according to Romm. Because is it not liquid, it is difficult to contain. Adding odorants to hydrogen?like those used for natural gas so we can smell leaks?entails a toxin that contaminates many fuel cell technologies, incapacitating them. Although based in Washington, D.C., with his current nonprofit venture, the Center for Energy & Climate Solutions, Romm is quite familiar with California?s energy issues. In the book, he points to California (and Iceland) for making progress in hydrogen and fuel cells. He writes, ?State-based programs such as California?s have a number of specific challenges. They must demonstrate a long-term commitment to supporting vehicle infrastructure, or else their programs will meet the fate of natural gas vehicles and other alternative fuel vehicles. States that are today shifting money from clean energy funds into budget deficit reduction are sending a strong signal to the private sector that they cannot make the kind of long-term commitments that the shift to a hydrogen economy will require.? As someone who grew up choking on the L.A. Basin?s worst air, I like to dream of a better future. I?d like to think that there?s a semi-magic carpet out there. Romm says it?s not using hydrogen for vehicles, but he retains some faith that stationary fuel cells as a source of electricity might figure into the solution. If the process of cracking natural gas for hydrogen is used for stationary fuel cells, the cells have no moving parts and thus are more reliable than turbines. They can be sited in cities where no one wants a power plant in their backyard, and they are highly efficient if they cogenerate, says Romm. Right now, fuel cells are five times more expensive per kilowatt than conventional turbines, he adds, but the cost of technology will likely decline. So there just might be a reasonable use for the best of fuels/worst of fuels after all?O ye of little faith.

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