Friday, October 28, 2005

A Different Perspective on the Hydrogen Economy

For a long time I have been interested in the subject of alternative fuels and electric cars. As a result I have become fairly knowledgeable about the subject. There has been an awful lot of hype in the media and all over the web about "the hydrogen economy." In this post I would like to take a look at the relative merits of this "hydrogen economy" to see what is feasible and what is not. Also I will discuss the direction I see the energy infrastructure heading in and why.

The first point about hydrogen I will make is that it is NOT a fuel. Yes you can burn it in an ICE and yes you can put it in a fuel cell. The problem is that it doesn't exist naturally in a pure form on this planet. This means that it must be made and the only way to make it is to give a molecule which is holding a hydrogen atom an extra electron. This can be done in a number of ways but all of them require energy input. Now petroleum is a fuel. You drill a hole in the ground and out comes 'a bubblin crude. Yes it requires energy to drill and process oil, but if you do the math the amount of energy put into getting oil is dwarfed by the amount of pure BTU that comes out - which is why oil has been a very profitable business.

What hydrogen is is a form of battery. It is a way of storing energy. Oil is stored energy sitting in the ground. Hydrogen is stored energy only after an equivalent amount of energy has been put out to achieve it. So now that we have hydrogen properly labeled - not as a miracle fuel but as merely one form of storing and transporting energy, the question arises as to how effective is this energy storage and transmission system compared to other potential competitors.

Now things begin to get a little more interesting. How will the hydrogen be produced? This is the first question we must examine. There are three basic ways of producing hydrogen that I know of. These three basic ways are electrolysis, thermal extraction, and photo-chemical. Electrolysis, of course, involves splitting the chemical bond with electricity and is very inefficient. Thermal extraction is accomplished in more than one way. With water the water must be super heated to the point where the hydrogen disassociates from the oxygen. This can be accomplished with some efficiency through thermo-nuclear reaction or solar collector. Hydrogen can also be extracted from hydrocarbons using heat but this really doesn't solve the source problem at all. The last and best way of extraction is using genetically modified algae and sun light and water. This method is purported to be promising.

So lets rehash. Hydrogen carries energy as a battery, therefore it is not a source of energy and cannot be said to be a fuel or the basis of an economy (unless its H3 but that's another story). To produce Hydrogen we need either electricity, heat, or photons.
This means that the real source of our economy must come from either fossil fuels, nuclear reaction, some form of solar power (this includes wave, wind, water etc.), or a combination thereof.

In my mind the real issue can now be reduced to what is the most efficient and sustainable way to produce, distribute, and utilize energy. We have solved the greater part of this problem already. The answer is electricity. We know how to produce it efficiently and sustainably through nuclear and solar means, we know how to transmit it effectively to stationary locations, and we know how to utilize it highly effectively with our highly efficient electric motors and LED lights etc.

So the last problem that remains to be solved is how to distribute electricity in a sustainable and efficient manner for mobile use. There are two basic contenders for this: fuel cells and high enery density, quickly rechargeable batteries. Lets see how these two models compete.

In the battery category the most likely contender is lithium-ion. Li-ion batteries are already the battery of choice for our electronic needs - everything from laptops to cell phones to cameras. Also there are now a number of electric cars either already on the market or coming to market soon that use li-ion technology. The advantage of li-ion is that it has a very high energy density and the infrastructure is already set up to use it. You simply plug your device into a wall socket and it stores electrons for use on tap. Electric cars using batteries like this can simply be plugged in and recharged right at home. Also it would be very easy to build charging stations all over the country using the already existing power transmission network.

The main battery fuel being considered for fuel-cells is, of course, hydrogen. Now whereas batteries can be recharged right in the home with ease hydrogen must be produced, compresses, and shiped to a fueling station. Once at the fueling station consumers must then uncompress and then recompress hydrogen into an onboard fuel tank. This all requires a lot of infrastructure investment, which invariably means goverment involvement - and we all know how efficient that is. There are other possible ways of distributing hydrogen but none of them look very efficient to me.

The real point of this post, however, is not to bash hydrogen fuel-cells but rather to point out that the real issue is energy production and storage. Whether or not fuel-cells or batteries ultimately become the means of energy storage and transmission for mobile use we are still faced with an enormouse problem that many do not seem to see. Once we stop using petroleum as an energy source that energy must be replaced. In other words our electricity producing infrastructure is going to have to produce a LOT more energy in the near future, and preferably it will need to do it in an environmentaly friendly manner. Our electrical grids are already taxed to the gills. This is the real problem facing us economically. We need many more nuclear and solar (as well as solar derived) power sources. Also I beleive that the energy economy should move toward a decentralization of energy production. As solar cells and wind generators become more and more efficient there is no reason why a large percentage of the nations electricity can't be produced at home (more on this later).

* I encourage my readers to respond to my articles. I welcome reasoned criticism and will respond to any questions or comments via the comments or email.


Very well said.

I have been deeply puzzled over the last few years about the hoopla around "the hydrogen economy". It's as if someone announced "we've found a way to store gasoline in gas tanks, except now it's less dense (requiring larger tanks), burns with an insivible flame (so it's a bigger danger to firefighters), depends on an infrastructure that does not yet exist, and has unproven economnics".

...and the entire world has started doing a happy dance "Oh, FINALLY! Someone has solved all the problems we used to have with old-fashioned gasoline tanks! That nasty old devil has been banished!"

By Blogger TJIC, at 28/10/05 15:08  

Yeah, I'm really not sure where all the misunderstanding is coming from.

By Blogger Micah J. Glasser, at 28/10/05 15:22  


Let me take issue on a couple of things.

I've heard the argument before that hydrogen is not a fuel. It strikes me as a semantic argument.

Let me offer a deal - if you accept that hydrogen is a formed of stored energy (and you did within your post), then I'll accept that hydrogen is not a fuel. :-)

Your definition of a fuel being something that doesn't require chemical processes to get to. Of course petroleum has to be refined, but I agree that's not the same thing.

So we have an UNfuel that can burn in an internal combustion engine not unlike gasoline. That's what the Israeli scientists are working on that has the blogosphere stirred up this week.

So, the real issue in my mind is whether these claims are for real. IF these scientists really have completed the proof of concept phase and are now ready to scale this up for development, then this is a very big deal - whether or not hydrogen is a fuel.

Otherwise, this hydrogen internal combustion engine project is a hoax.

Frankly the engine is easier to believe than some wild conspiracy. I'm excited.

By Blogger Stephen Gordon, at 30/10/05 06:55  

Hey, Stephen. Thanks for the input. I agree with you for the most part. I'm quite sure that this is a legitimate development. And to a certain extent I find it exciting as well. The problem is simply that the fuel is really electricity. You see the aluminum must be recovered from the alumimun oxide via electralysis (the same way hydrogen is split from water). This requires electricity. So the real question is how efficiently are those electrons being extracted back from the aluminum and transformed into mechanical motion. I would argue that it is not as effective as current generation Li-ion battery electric vehicle - though aperently it will be less expensive. What I am really excited about is the Mitsubishi in-wheel motor, Li-ion powered electric car. This thing is planned to arrive in 2008. That's just around the corner. Once these things are on the road anything using combustion will seem 'so twentyth-century'. So its not that I'm unhopeful about overcoming petrloleum its just that I think the promising solutions are coming from battery technologies. Any how thats my take on it.

By Blogger Micah J. Glasser, at 30/10/05 11:27  

"What I am really excited about is the Mitsubishi in-wheel motor, Li-ion powered electric car."

I hadn't heard about this! Time for me to read up.


By Blogger Stephen Gordon, at 30/10/05 23:32  


Mitsubishi to Partner With Tokyo Electric on New Electric Vehicle
18 August 2005

Daily Yomiuri. Mitsubishi Motors (MMC) is reportedly working with Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) on the development of its previously announced electric car. (Earlier post.)

TEPCO will provide the recharging system—which can use a standard household circuit—and the rechargeable batteries to support the new EV minicar being developed by MMC. With the new partnership, Mitsubishi is advancing the planned release of the EV from 2010 to 2008.

The new EV will be based on the i, a minicar scheduled to be launched at the end of the year. (Earlier post.)

The proposed EV will use the Mitsubishi In-wheel motor Electric Vehicle (MIEV) system. Mitsubishi is currently planning a 250-kilometer range for the car after a four-hour recharge, at a price of below ¥2 million (US$18,000).

By Blogger Stephen Gordon, at 30/10/05 23:36  

Good stuff.

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