Monday, August 27, 2007

The Hydrogen Myth

The first prototype hydrogen fuel cells were built in the 1960s. Over forty years later energy experts and engineers generally believe that practical delivery is still decades in the future. In far less time we went from the Wright brothers' 1903 landmark flight at Kitty Hawk to intercontinental commercial jetliners and our first ventures into space. Any technology like hydrogen fuel cells that is still decades away today and depends in any way on fossil fuels for its development, its eventual delivery or in any way as a source of fuel is not likely to ever see fruition.

Hydrogen has been the fuel of the future for the past fifty years..... and will continue to be so for at least the next fifty years. It's like Al Gore saying he used to be the next president of the United States. Hydrogen's reality is a future that has never come to be. There is also a realistically strong possibility it never will.

The list of technological, economic and political barriers[7] standing in the way of achieving the hydrogen dream is still prohibitively long. Nearly forty years after a 1969 report predicting Americans would be driving fuel cell vehicles in 10 years[1] nearly every report examining the hydrogen potential is replete with words and phrases such as "could", "might", "may", "in theory", "predict", "assuming that", "need to", "must" the ubiquitous "if", and "if all things were perfect". Of course, they have not been and never will be perfect. Those interest which conveniently hide behind such a qualifier know it.

Yes, there are custom built vehicles available on the market today, at a price. "The Shelby Cobras start at $149,000, the pickup is $99,995 and the Hummers run $60,000 for the conversion alone — you supply the Hummer."[1] "A small price to pay for starting a green revolution, says" Tai Robinson, who runs Intergalactic Hydrogen, a company converting Hummers, none of which they have yet managed to sell.

But major carmakers are also heavily invested in research on hydrogen vehicles. Unlike the above options which burn hydrogen in an internal combustion engine like gasoline, the major car makers are all focusing their efforts on hydrogen fuel cells, a technology that has been in testing now for over forty years. Though some of them loudly proclaim that they can roll out hydrogen vehicles within five years those proclamations are filled with qualifiers and ifs that shift the responsibility for achieving that promise to a myriad of others. ".....only if fuel storage limitations can be solved, public fear of hydrogen can be allayed, filling stations set up, and gas prices stay high." says the CBC report Ford: Hydrogen cars could be in production within 5 years.[3] They claim they have the technology but the world is not ready.

Which is the chicken and which is the egg? Should the world build a hydrogen infrastructure for a technology that has always been and remains decades away or wait until somebody delivers on their optimistic promises? Even with that, President Bush has allocated approximately $2 billion in hydrogen highway research and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is pushing to get 200 hydrogen filling stations built by 2010 stretching from Vancouver, British Columbia, all the way down to Baja, California.[2] And one small country, Iceland, has put itself forward as the guinea pig to become the world's first hydrogen economy.[6] "Iceland is full of natural energy and by harnessing these resources, its waterfalls and hot springs, it wants to become the world's first hydrogen economy. ..... Over the next 30 years, it aims to do away with polluting fossil fuels like petrol and diesel altogether....." Several multinational energy and manufacturing companies are partnering with the Icelanders to develop their plans and infrastructure.

But don't expect to see the impact from any of these efforts in your neighbourhood anytime soon. In a rare moment of frankness, a leading Iceland politician stated, "People my age will see the beginning. My children will see the transformation. And this will be the energy system when my grandchildren are grown."[6] Everything about hydrogen is, as it has always been, in the future. And the future for which it would be needed is moving perilously close as we reach the global peak in oil production and begin the inexorable decline in supplies. Considering the naive optimism of past hydrogen predictions his grandchildren, when they are grown, might be making the same statement about the future of their hydrogen economy. And considering the naive optimism of past predictions, it is unlikely that any other nation will commit itself to energetically pursuing a hydrogen economy until the jury is in on the results in Iceland. As the BBC report Hydrogen Economy says ".....the rest of the world is waiting to see if this small country can show the way ahead."[6] In the meantime it is safe to assume they will be carrying on with business as usual.

There are, of course, other contestants in the hydrogen lottery. Ongoing research and development aimed at solving the myriad of technical problems being encountered continues to give rise to new, and often innovative, technologies such as "Polymer Electrolyte Membrane (PEM) fuel cells, Direct Methanol Fuel Cells (DMFC), and related technologies such as the electrolyzer (a fuel cell in reverse, liberating hydrogen from electricity and pure water)."[2] It has also led to the development of a new nano-based generation of molecular sieves for deconstructing complex gas and liquid molecules (like air and water) into their constituent parts. Some of these technologies are finding application quite separate from the hydrogen-based use for which they were developed. One of the more interesting (still overly optimistic and very future) developments has been "a method that uses an aluminum alloy to extract hydrogen from water for running fuel cells or internal combustion engines, and the technique could be used to replace gasoline."[5] This came out of quite unrelated research at Purdue University. As yet the developers only foresee that "The technology could be used to drive small internal combustion engines in various applications, including portable emergency generators, lawn mowers and chain saws." Seeming reluctantly they add "The process could, in theory, also be used to replace gasoline for cars and trucks....." One serious limitation of this process, however, is that it relies on pellets made of an alloy "which is made of aluminum and a metal called gallium." Gallium is a metal with a low (30C) liquefaction point. It does not, however, freely occur in nature. "Most gallium is extracted from the crude aluminium hydroxide solution of the Bayer process for producing alumina and aluminum. A mercury cell electrolysis and hydrolysis of the amalgam with sodium hydroxide leads to sodium gallate. Electrolysis then gives gallium metal. ..... As of 2006, the current price for 1 kg gallium of 99.9999% purity seems to be at about US$ 400."[5a] As with all hydrogen options the application of this process is definitely relegated to a not-so-near future.

To date, and it would seem for the foreseeable future, hydrogen is proving difficult to isolate from fossil fuels as both an energy source and as a raw material. "The US Department of Energy estimates that by 2040 cars and light trucks powered by fuel cells will require about 150 megatons per year of hydrogen. The US currently produces about 9 megatons per year, almost all of it by reforming natural gas. ..... It takes energy to split the water molecule and release hydrogen, but that energy is later recovered during oxidation to produce water. To eliminate fossil fuels from this cycle, the energy to split water must come from non−carbon sources...."[8] The problem is, as this report makes clear, ".....producing hydrogen from fossil fuels would rob the hydrogen economy of much of its raison d'ĂȘtre: Steam reforming does not reduce the use of fossil fuels but rather shifts them from end use to an earlier production step....." This report also takes a surprisingly realistic look at the costs of hydrogen as a fuel and some of its other limitations. "Even when using the cheapest production method—steam reforming of methane—hydrogen is still four times the cost of gasoline for the equivalent amount of energy. And production from methane does not reduce fossil fuel use or CO2 emission. Hydrogen can be stored in pressurized gas containers or as a liquid in cryogenic containers, but not in densities that would allow for practical applications—driving a car up to 500 kilometers on a single tank, for example. Hydrogen can be converted to electricity in fuel cells, but the production cost of prototype fuel cells remains high: $3000 per kilowatt of power produced for prototype fuel cells (mass production could reduce this cost by a factor of 10 or more), compared with $30 per kilowatt for gasoline engines."

And it is that cost of producing, distributing, storing and using hydrogen which will ultimately, when reality finally settles in, be its undoing. The problems of cost never have been overcome and never will be, even if fossil fuels are not involved in any stage of the process. Hydrogen can never be more than an energy carrier, not an energy source. It takes energy to produce hydrogen fuel (H2) which does not occur freely in nature but always has to be derived by splitting it away from a complex molecular structure such as water or hydrocarbons (fossil fuels). But hydrogen forms very robust molecular bonds and the amount of energy required to break those bonds, plus the energy required for downstream processing, conversion, transportation, storage and usage will always be greater than the amount of energy hydrogen can deliver as a fuel.

When will we see the hydrogen economy? You decide.

1) Hydrogen cars ready to roll — for a price: Companies offer internal combustion engine, fuel cell versions
2) Hydrogen Cars
3) Ford: Hydrogen cars could be in production within 5 years
4) Hydrogen fuel-cell cars in dealer showrooms by 2015: industry experts
5) New process generates hydrogen from aluminum alloy to run engines, fuel cells
5a) Gallium
6) Hydrogen Economy
7) How the Hydrogen Economy Works
8) The Hydrogen Economy


Anonymous said...

Great article Richard - I agree.

Enormous expenditure required for Hydrogen infrastructure.

The reasonable thing to do is, according to Nobel Prize Winner in Chemistry George Olah, is to look closely at Methanol.

Richard Embleton said...

I would strongly disagree about the options. The one option (and really the only viable option long-term) that never seems to be put on the table is to begin the process of powering down and learning to live with less energy and within the sustainable energy budget of the planet. As long as we continue to exceed that planetary energy budget we are not living sustainably and inexorably moving toward collapse.

Methanol is not the energy panacea that some people choose to portray it as. The core of their argument is the "poor us" lament that the devious forces pushing corn ethanol have unfairly pushed methanol out of the running. The reality is that it has its problems and limitations. I do not intend this list to be exhaustive, rather indicative of the obstacles to methanol.

1. Methanol has a number of significant safety issues:
a) It is poisonous (can cause significant brain damage, a problem too common in certain communities where methanol is sniffed as a drug or even drunk as an alternative to alcohol) and needs significant precautions to be taken for those handling it on a regular basis.
b) It is highly combustible and the smokeless flame it produces in combustion is invisible and odorless meaning that a significant blaze can be initiated before it is clear there is a fire. Offsetting this is that it is extinguishable with water wherein it's energy is spent and disipated boiling the water. This danger can also be offset by blending it with gasoline which causes it to burn yellow and produce grey smoke.
c) It is highly corrosive of containment vessels, gaskets, valves and other equipment with which it is in regular contact. Containment breaches are common and when it escapes from underground storage, because of its ease of mixing with water, it will quickly contaminate grounwater systems.
2. Gasoline has a 70% higher energy density than methanol. To be used as a replacement for gasoline it would need double the delivery and storage infrastructure of gasoline or diesel.
3. To date almost all methanol has been produced from natural gas, a resource that is as finite as oil and already in decline in many areas such as North America. Although it can be, and originally was, produced from wood (also from coal and raw methane such as that sequestered as methane hydrates) these alternatives present significant scaleability problems. To revert to wood would put further pressure on our already diminished forests which will be vital to future survivability.
4. Although flex-fuel vehicles can use methanol fuels as readilly as ethanol fuels, these vehicles need significant (though not complex) retrofitting because of the highly corrosive effect on conventional flex-fuel equipment.
5. Because of the critical and seemingly unavoidable need for multiple stages of catalysis in the production of methanol (using complex alloys of declining metals such as copper, zinc, nickel and platinum) methane production does not lend itself to small scale local and personal production as is possible with ethanol and bio-diesel. This, therefore, continues reliance on a viable manufacturing society in order to accomodate centralized production and an extensive distribution system.
6. The preponderance of the research and development efforts around methanol are not for using methanol as a combustible fuel but rather for use in DMFCs (Direct Methane Fuel Cells). Though suitable for cars (Ballard, for one, have produced produced prototypes of DMFCs for vehicles) most of this effort seems to be aimed at electronics like lap-top computers and cell phones.
7. Combustion of methanol, or the catalysis of it in DMFCs does not eliminate the greenhouse gas problem of gasoline as one of the primary bi-products is CO2.

There is no question that the main obstacle to date for methanol has been the corn-ethanol lobby. Amongst others, major roll-outs of methanol as a transportation fuel were blocked in both California and Brazil. The constant focus on the uneven playing field and the unfair lobby tactics simply serve to deflect attention away from the problems and limitations that methanol would have. Like hydrogen, it remains an energy option of the future though, in my opinion, a far more viable future option than hydrogen.
Richard Embleton

Richard Embleton said...

I also forgot to add that Methanol has a very narrow range of ignition temperatures. This means that pure methanol engines are difficult to start at low temperatures, a definite problem and concern from my Canadian perspective. To be used in a climate like Canada's, it would have to be blended with a fuel like gasoline or diesel to be practical across the wide range of temperatures we experience in this country. This, of course, can be done but it perpetuates the link to and reliance on fossil fuels.
Richard Embleton