Hydrogen Economy

Peak Oil,  Background:

The plausibility of hydrogen economies gets an undue bad wrap among the many authors concerned about life after Peak Oil.  In part this is a reaction against the  USA's President Bush's administration's weasel speech that the hydrogen economy is a real solution to the world energy crisis  (which it is not). In part it seems to be a hostility in the USA to answers from  else-where that coincidently are more help to folks out-side of the USA.  But first let us be crystal clear about what we are talking about.

Hydrogen is an Energy Transfer Medium
NOT a Raw Energy Source.

In other words Hydrogen has to be busted out what ever substance molecule it is locked up in naturally.  The most plentiful substance on the planet containing hydrogen is water, H20. But  extracting hydrogen from water uses energy, then when you finally burn that hydrogen in your motor you can not get more energy than what was originally invested extracting that hydrogen.  The apparent advantage of  hydrogen is that you can not strap a industrial strength renewable electric energy source (like a geothermal power station) to the back of your vehicle,  but you can use green energy to extract hydrogen from water,  so that elsewhere you can burn that hydrogen to make your vehicle go while blowing water out of your tailpipe.

Lots of pages link to the 'From the Wilderness' article  "Why Hydrogen is No Solution - Scientific Answers to Marketing Hype, Deception and Wishful Thinking"  sadly the  article is  miss-named, as it is about why Hydrogen fuel-cell are a dodgy idea for personnel cars, not why Hydrogen should not be part of transportation solution in a post-carbon world!

Hydrogen being smallest atom and lightest  gas,  has a plethora of material science and engineering drawbacks against convenient deployment.  An excellent  technical report " The Future of the Hydrogen Economy: Bright or Bleak? " is on the net < http://planetforlife.com/h2report.pdf >. A more readable article highlighting some the main obstacles is " The Hydrogen Economy - Energy and Economic Black Hole " (despite the confident tone the reasoning has some significant flaws).   John McCarthy's  webpage "Hydrogen ( 5-Nov-2003)" is also worth checking-out. Many people think nuclear power is the logical source for the electricity. Taking the nuclear option further some in  the industry champion removing the electricity generation step altogether,  capturing Hydrogen directly by dedicated high-temperature thermo-chemical processes in specifically designed  nuclear reactors.  If a country has sufficient nuclear fuels and power for such a Hydrogen  strategy they'd be nuts not to ditch all the material problems of broad scale Hydrogen deployment,  and move straight to the far more user friendly Methanol Economy (which conveniently can utilize large parts of  the existing petroleum infrastructure)! Checkout "Hydrogen or electricity? A nuclear fork in the road" by David B. Barber < http://www.iags.org/n032805t2.htm >

This possible (but dumb) nuclear power link is probably another reason why some folk are anti a hydrogen economy. But I am in full agreement with John that conventional engines burning liquid hydrogen look the most promising, such as BMW in Germany are now building along with a German wide network of refilling stations.

As I see the two biggest problem facing hydrogen economy are;-

  1. lots of greenhouse free electricity near year round water
  2. an economy compact enough that the infrastructure roll-out cost do not kill the project before it is fully operational.

Iceland with plentiful geothermal power is already aiming to be the worlds first hydrogen economy.  New Zealand also with good hydro and geothermal power resources could be another.  Likewise some small  Pacific Island nations using wave & tidal power may also be successful if New Zealand or Japan succeed first. Relying on nuclear power Japan and by extension Korea may also manage the feat.

Europe is a lot bigger  proposition but with a mix of renewable energy,  hydro and nuclear it may also be able to get a hydrogen economy up and running, if for no other reason than government commitment.  But beside that short list  and Argentina as a long-shot on the strength of their nuclear research developments, I am not holding my breath for any other countries to achieve a nation wide reliable hydrogen economy.

To circumvent an avalanche  of whinging email the reasoning behind some of standout omission off this list. Starting at home Australia is simply too vast and sparsely populated for a feasible continuous nation wide hydrogen infrastructure, rural  mobile phones coverage (a simpler cheaper infrastructure) is still full of holes that will never be filled. USA for a long list of reasons (on top of  all the problems I have previously mentioned ), foremost being the ideological addiction to competitive business (read conflicting agendas, vested interest, commercial hostilities, proprietary standards, obsession with short-term bottom lines, etc. etc.).

{ A good example of all this is the USA's sorry dysfunctional efforts since the 1950s to get from  numerous visionary concepts ( Hypercar & FreedomCAR programs ) to delivering a practical alternative to iconic Yank-Tanks (big heavy gasoline thirsty  internal-combustion engine automobiles ).  Now in the 21 century the USA still has the world's worst fuel  performances, leaving the best alternative & hybrid vehicles to the  Japanese's or Europeans! }

 As for most other countries, while they may have some isolated pockets around particular cites, or even a trunk linking a few cites on the whole they are too dry, or climates too hostile, or the terrain too  difficult or prerequisite technological sophisticated populations is too sparse to plausibly attain a nation wide hydrogen infrastructure.  Such will be life in a post-carbon world.

 But of late while the world has started to push the Hydrogen dream an old nightmare has cast a long shadow over the wisdom of using unbounded hydrogen in any form. Elementary chemistry tells us;-
H2 + O3 --> H2O + O2 {translation hydrogen meets ozone to become water and oxgen. .}. The reaction goes in this direction because the resultant molecules are more stable

So Hydrogen in the upper atmosphere will certainly chew-up the critical supply of ozone. Less ozone more ultraviolet rays cooking the Earth. Wired article "Hydrogen's Future Up in the Air" on the net at < http://www.wired.com/news/autotech/0,2554,59220,00.html > reports on the California Institute of Technology's2005 research. This upper-atmosphere risk has already ruled out H2 as a fuel option for starocaster-jets now on the drawing board. But the vast majority of any future H2 fuelled transportation solution will be at ground level. There is argument already as to if the quantities of any future H2 leaks will be as sad as those in the CalTech study. But the big question no-one seems to know is what will actually happen with H2 leaks at ground level. Will the H2 happily float lazily up to the Ozone layer. Or will it madly react with lots of other stuff;- ground level O3, photo-chemical smog, other air born pollutants etc., to the extent that none of the ground level H2 leaks ever could reach the Ozone layer?

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