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Hydrogen Won't Save Our Economy 723

Posted by kdawson
from the tell-us-something-we-don't-know dept.
anaesthetica writes " is featuring a story asserting that hydrogen is economically infeasible as a replacement for our current energy sources. The premise is that isolating and converting hydrogen into a usable energy source takes up a great deal of energy to begin with, and that subsequently converting that hydrogen fuel into usable energy results in an overall efficiency of only about 25%. Apparently, the increasing scarcity of water is going to make hydrogen too costly and just as politicized as oil." From the article: "[Fuel cell expert Ulf Bossel's] overall energy analysis of a hydrogen economy demonstrates that high energy losses inevitably resulting from the laws of physics mean that a hydrogen economy will never make sense. The advantages of hydrogen praised by journalists (non-toxic, burns to water, abundance of hydrogen in the Universe, etc.) are misleading, because the production of hydrogen depends on the availability of energy and water, both of which are increasingly rare and may become political issues, as much as oil and natural gas are today."
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Hydrogen Won't Save Our Economy

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  • by Colin Smith (2679) on Wednesday December 13, 2006 @06:32AM (#17220566)
    The hydrogen economy was an idea dreamed up by those with a vested interest to divert attention and money away from more promising and immediate technologies which compete with their own investments. Still, the government got to spend lots of money.

  • by guy-in-corner (614138) on Wednesday December 13, 2006 @07:30AM (#17220904)
    There's plenty of arable land left for now - so much so that certain governments pay their farmers NOT to plant crops.

    The problem with this is that (according to some sources) we don't have enough water suitable for irrigation. See this [] for example.

  • Re:Battery (Score:2, Interesting)

    by 15Bit (940730) on Wednesday December 13, 2006 @07:51AM (#17221046)
    The fuel cells guys like to call it an "Energy Vector". i.e. just a transport medium.

    You don't have to go too far in the research world to find people who are sceptical about the H2 economy ever becoming feasible. You can do the maths in a few different ways, but it requires some fairly serious fudging to make H2 look good in comparison to the competition, simply because it is energy-expensive to make and transport. Couple that with the engineering problems holding back fuel cells (water management in Nafion systems is hilariously complex, molten electrolyte cells are inherently limited in application and solid oxide systems are still very young) and i think its going to be more than a little while before you see the H2 economy take off, if it ever does.

    The academics don't talk about it publicly because they get their research money by writing "Clean Hydrogen Technologies" all over the grant proposal. The engineering and business guys don't talk about it because they also get their startup money for "Clean Hydrogen Technologies". The problem is thus one of politics - the politicians are paying for "Hydrogen Economy" research now. Nothing new here, though: Not too long ago you needed to write "Nano" in the proposal (and still do, to some extent), before that "Superconductors"....

  • Apples vs Oranges (Score:2, Interesting)

    by pinkfloydhomer (999075) on Wednesday December 13, 2006 @08:13AM (#17221158)
    Conventional energy sources have had 100+ years of intense research and development to make it effecient. Engines running on fossil fuels were not as effecient in the beginning as it is now. I am 100% positive that if we by some magic accident (legislation for instance) were _forced_ to use renewable energy sources exclusively, there would be much more brainpower going into this and much more technological advancement, and that we _would_ be able to sustain humanity energy-wise. But it is not going to happen if we keep things in the lab and wait for hydrogen to suddenly becoming an instant economical win.
  • by frankzeg (833017) on Wednesday December 13, 2006 @09:09AM (#17221572)
    As some one who works with hydrogen on a daily basis let me assure you that it is a true pain to deal with as compared to many other gases. It diffuses through many polymers and leaks are extremely dangerous due to its wide combustion mixtrue ratio range. WIth an invisible flame you can walk right into a large hydrogen fire. To get decent densities for storage you are working with either very high pressures or liquified H2. Both of these are problematic. One imposes hydrogen embrittlement issues, large heat of compression losses and many materials are useless and the other demands exquisite thermal control and imposes many other materials limitations. Hydrogen is a great fuel but only for certain uses and I would not say that everyday transport is one. It MAY be acceptable for fixed-base use in industry and less possibly in homes.

    Transport batteries ( I think we all agree that is what we are discussing here) require a few things to be practical: low cost of materials and ease of fabrication, high energy density, ease of movement of the material from one vessel to another and finally ease of synthesis and also conversion efficiency. Non-toxicity is important as is the effect on the atmosphere. There are very few materials that can match or better liquid hydrocarbons.

    There is one candidate that should at least be considered. Nitrous Oxide. N2O is a saturated fluid under about 750psia at room temperature and it has a density the same as hydrocarbons. This means that vessels to store it are efficient. It is non-toxic although it is an anesthetic gas. It is very safe to handle and compatible with nearly all materials. This means that the devices to handle it are cheap to make. It is a liquid so heat of compression losses for movement are minimized. If it leaks it has a distinct odor and will generally not pose an explosion hazard- at least compared to H2.

    N2O is a monopropellant- in other words it will decompose to N2 and O2 when passed over a heated catalyst. It reacts very completely and almost no NOx species are produced- good for pollution. Better still it has a high flame temperature which makes for high thermodynamic efficiency. So a turbogenerator running N2O does not have to have a compressor- it can work at least part of the time off of the storage tank source pressure. Heat from the environment or directed waste heat from the exhaust can help keep the remaining N2O warm and vapor pressure high. N2O has a decent energy density but more importantly you can add any fuel and increase the power release enormously. So you power with N2O when you can and add fuel when you need to accelerate. The power increase is rapid and significant.

    It does have problems though- synthesis is complex and not presently at large scale. What would be great is to develop a catalytic system that could take atmospheric N2 and O2 and under proper conditions directly synthesize N2O which could then be stored. Sounds hard to me but you never know. In any case there is no shortage of the precursors. It is however a nasty greenhouse gas. This could be its worst issue- lareg releases of unreacted N2O could be worse than CO2. But at least these are accidental and incidental- not part of everyday operation.

    Anyway it is something to ponder. I always thought that a N2O vehicle with ethanol fuel assist sounded pretty good- and what a party car!

  • by JackOfAllGeeks (1034454) on Wednesday December 13, 2006 @09:22AM (#17221728)
    I like the idea, but... who pays for the increased cost of businesses? That is, right now, my company pays for the lights, computers, heating etc in their building. If you move the tax off or my income and onto energy, it'll mean more of my pay goes to me, but there's a higher cost to the company -- which at first blush at least implies that I won't see any benefit because the company will have to cut my salary to make up the increased taxes (so I'm not being taxed, I'm just being paid less) and worse off it would make it much more difficult for smaller companies to get off the ground, firstly because they can't pay the energy tax and secondly because they can't compete with the higher-salaries possible at already-established businesses.

    At least, that's my first impression. I can't really claim to know what I'm talking about.
  • Re:FRAUD Alert? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Cyno (85911) on Wednesday December 13, 2006 @11:19AM (#17223052) Journal
    Yes, but I can still extract Hydrogen from mud, so what's your point? Why are you commenting on the lack of clean water for hydrating animals as if its relates to energy economics? Its a completely different problem altogether. Once the energy problem is fixed, then I think getting clean water everywhere will be a lot easier by truck than by foot, don't you?

    So by your logic its too hard to distribute clean water and too hard to extract "industrtial levels" of hydrogen from probes in the middle of the ocean, so what, just die when the oil runs out? Gee thanks, brilliant. Got any other ideas?
  • by Temkin (112574) on Wednesday December 13, 2006 @11:33AM (#17223254)

    Electric car tech works. The problem not discussed in the movie is the amount of lithium reserves in the world. It's mostly produced from an oddball mineral called spodumene, and other pegmatite related minerals. There's enough lithium available to us to make about 500 million Toyota Priuses. These use much smaller battery packs than a true electric like the EV-1.

    We need to come up with battery tech that uses raw materials we actually have available. Li-ION is nice for laptops, but doesn't scale.

  • Re:FRAUD Alert? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by EsbenMoseHansen (731150) on Wednesday December 13, 2006 @12:17PM (#17223966) Homepage

    Why not just use sea water? Electrolysis of sea water should produce reasonable clean hydrogen, if I recall correctly, and fresh, truly clean water is not very suited without additives.

    Not sure about the biological means of producing hydrogen.

  • by capnchicken (664317) on Wednesday December 13, 2006 @12:44PM (#17224384)
    Yeah I know, think of how catastrophic it would be to not have to deal with natures natural way of cooling down the oceans. You know, hurricanes.

    In all fairness, smart people would need to be in charge to get something like that just right and not overdone, and smart people in charge are a rare commodity. /Wait for troll to say they're glad I'm not in charge in 3...2...
  • by Johnny5000 (451029) on Wednesday December 13, 2006 @12:45PM (#17224412) Homepage Journal
    Huh? How about a source on this, because I am not buying it. People in hunter/gatherer societies basically spend all their waking hours providing for their basic needs.

    It's the theory of the original affluent society. []

    Modern hunter-gatherer societies generally only spend about 3-5 hours per day in search of food.
    Of course, this assumes a rather small, stable, mobile population. If every person on earth today decided to drop what they're doing and go forage the countryside for food, we'd pick the earth clean by the end of the day.
    Agriculture allowed a large surplus in food, which in turn created tremendous growth in population, which allowed for the specialization of labor. In a hunter-gatherer society, people generally take the food that they need for the day, and then they're done, they spend the rest of the day in leisure, and start over with the hunting and gathering the next day. They get enough food to maintain their lifestyle, but the system doesn't lend itself to creating a large food surplus that would support the creation of specialized labor.

    Also contributing to the specialization of labor was the sedentary lifestyle that the agricultural revolution would bring. It's hard to create industry when your people are constantly on the move.

    I'm not saying we should all just drop what we're doing and become hunter-gatherers. There are indeed huge advantages to agricultural society, but a lot of our views of hunter-gatherer societies are based on the cultural myth that looks down upon them as what basically amounts to savages making a poor choice for their society, and wouldn't-it-be-great-if-we-civilized-them, or else they're just taking up space on land that could be developed for agricultural/industrial society.
  • by TFloore (27278) on Wednesday December 13, 2006 @12:55PM (#17224544)
    As the movie points out, electric cars are the real answer: they're simple, cheap, fast, efficient, convenient and low maintenance

    Electric cars have 2 major problems.

    First, recharging takes hours. Electric cars are only useful for commuters. No long-distance driving. This can possibly be overcome by making recharging stations that swap battery packs instead of recharging in place. This requires a degree of standardization that I wouldn't expect to see in the American automotive industry, however.

    Second, the electric grid is not capable of supplying the energy needed to recharge 60 million electric cars every night. Remember the power outages over the last 5 years? California, the Northeast. WAY worse if you start plugging in electric cars by the millions. A large number of new electric generating plants, and a lot of new high voltage transmission lines, would need to be built.

    Most of this is also nighttime charging, so don't expect things like solar power to provide energy for this. On the plus side, with nighttime charging, you are drawing power during what is traditionally a low-usage time period, so you won't need as much new electricity production capacity as you'd first think. Still a bunch. Got a green solution for this? (Personally, I like nuclear power.)

    This also means a LOT of changes in how cars are parked. Plugging in at home in your garage is easy... How about in the parking garage down the street from your apartment building? Can you imagine the power draw for a 10-level parking garage? Yipes.

    Not insurmountable problems... but they require a lot of thought to let them scale to the level that we require.
  • Re:House of Cards (Score:3, Interesting)

    by RingDev (879105) on Wednesday December 13, 2006 @01:21PM (#17224928) Homepage Journal
    One of my papers in college was on the feasability of distributed electricity generation and I came to 3 primary conclusions:

    1) Centralized energy generation is usually cleaner and more efficient
    2) The price of silicone limits the adaptation of building integrated solar arrays (solar shingles for instance)
    3) Distributed electricity generation will not likely replace the need for centralized energy generation, but it can reduce the need for MORE centralized energy generation as demand grows.

    There have since been some great advances in photo voltaic cells that have increased efficiency and decreased silicon requirements. And with government/industry incentives, replacing an ageing roof with a new photovoltaic roof is getting competetive against a standard replacement roof.

  • Re:House of Cards (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Rei (128717) on Wednesday December 13, 2006 @03:01PM (#17226464) Homepage
    Hydrogen is not an alternative fuel. That's the problem. So far, whatever source of energy you're using to make the hydrogen - electricity, natural gas, etc. - can be better used directly instead of pissing away half of it using hydrogen as an intermediate.

    You seem to be missing the two fundamental points of a hydrogen economy.

    1) A hydrogen economy is not bound to a specific liquid fuel. Ultimately, a hydrogen economy is an electric one. Not many are predicting "peak electricity" any time soon.
    2) A hydrogen economy is very efficient. That is, to say, electric vehicles (which is what hydrogen-fuelled vehicles are) can easily recover energy, electric engines are very efficient, fuel cells are up to ~70% efficient, electrolysis of water is ~90% efficient, etc.

    Of course, in the mean time, until thermolysis of water (say, from nuclear power) or farmed hydrogen (say, from genetically engineered bacteria) is available, producing the hydrogen is a somewhat wasteful stage that's reliant on natural gas. Only "somewhat", however. Natural gas reforming produces H2 and CO. CO can be burned for heat. As a result, apart from incomplete combustion, all of the energy of the natural gas either goes to H2 or heat. Heat can be used to do work. Indirectly (subject to carnot cycle losses), it can generate power. More usefully, however, is it can heat processes that need heat inputs -- industry or even home water/house heating. In such a case, you only "lose" a tiny amount of the natural gas's energy.

    Of course, even if you consider all of non-H2 energy wasted, as this article does, you're left with the following possibilities:

    1) 30% efficiency on your typical ICE gasoline engine.


    2) 25% efficiency on your typical natural-gas derrived hydrogen engine, which is automatically a "hybrid" and can thus save power by regenerative braking. And, since it uses natural gas for the hydrogen, which is currently more available than oil, it reduces stress on the oil market. If natural gas prices rise too much, pressure on natural gas markets can be allieviated by switching from natural gas power plants to coal/nuclear (as happened with the oil-driven power plants in the 70s).

    Is the second option really that bad -- present day? Especially with some of the new high-density hydrogen storage systems hitting the market? I think not.

    As an aside, I ran into an interesting proposal for hydrogen storage that costs 1/3 as much as conventional storage tanks: commercial-scale wind turbines. They're huge hollow shafts. The extra cost to make the turbine able to hold hydrogen is something like 85k$, and an equivalent-sized tank costs something like 250k$.
  • by BeCre8iv (563502) on Wednesday December 13, 2006 @03:10PM (#17226654)
    TFA fails to see the big picture and that compatative cost is not the only value.

    Heres how it could be made to work.

    Liquid hydrogen is the coolant for superconducting wires for your power grid.
    These reduce the energy lost between power plant and the home.
    Seeing as you are pumping hydrogen around anyway... you may as well go into the distribution business.

    A quick google found these links releases/20010528_first_service.html [] ticleID=00003872-159C-1498-959C83414B7F0000 []

    and []

    Has some cool pictures

  • Ummm.... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by AugstWest (79042) on Wednesday December 13, 2006 @03:59PM (#17227548)
    Since when is water the only source of hydrogen? It makes up 75% of the mass of the known universe. It can be produced by plankton in large quantities, and countless means other than extraction from water. This argument is like saying that sand is a precious item, since refining cement sidewalks back into sand is expensive.
  • Re:FRAUD Alert? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by shmlco (594907) on Wednesday December 13, 2006 @04:08PM (#17227750) Homepage
    "Last I checked oil was not explosive."

    Bu oil vapor is. Why do you think oil companies go to such great lengths to ensure that no ignition sources are around? Or as to why air is flushed from commercial tanks and replaced with nitrogen?

    And I really want to see you execute your "drop a match and the pool of gasoline will extinguish it theory". Perhaps with you standing in the pool, since you're so sure of your point? But you do mention the vapors, and it's those that will ignite before the falling match even touches the pool.

    And while your water-is-scarce argument doesn hold some water [sic], have you given any thought as to just how much water we'd actually need? And how low that percentage is as compared to, say, watering the grass?

    Or, for that matter, what happens to hydrogen when it burns?

APL is a write-only language. I can write programs in APL, but I can't read any of them. -- Roy Keir