Today its expected that oil could get over the dreaded $100 per barrel line or it seems that it will soon. This prospect is driven by speculation, risk premiums from media reports and machinations by bankers and government officials to drive down the value of the US dollar. All of which is good news for the promoters of the hydrogen economy.

The hydrogen economy is theorized as a fueling system where hydrogen replaces most if not all liquid fuels such as gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. It would allow a continuation of life, as we know it with cars and remote suburban homes with most things we need and use coming from far and wide.

So here is a hard look at where the hydrogen economy really is in the solving of the problems that hold it back.

The awful truth first- hydrogen isn’t energy at all. It’s a fuel that needs an energy input to get it made more than what the hydrogen burned will produce (at least 1.3 units in to get 1 unit out). Now that by itself is on its way to several solutions but they all rely on an abundance of solar, wind, geothermal, atomic fission or nuclear fusion to power the hydrogen separation. Even the use of the heat remaining from a nuclear plant that’s generating electricity with the stream first as discussed here on November 1st is developmental, not a sure economic thing. On the other hand the contracted installation of windmills through 2010 will set up windmills and wind farms worldwide equal to 25% of total US peak demand of 2006. So production is an achievable target now, especially if the Bussard or Rostoker fusion projects come to fruition. But keep in mind that all of these ideas rely on much more energy going in to separate the hydrogen from the oxygen of water molecules than we get back. Right now and for the measurable forecasting future hydrogen production isn’t likely to displace any of the current fuels used. The raw fuel stock is water and for any practical purpose it’s inexhaustible, which leads us to the next issue, the cost. Splitting hydrogen out of water, be it by electrolysis, thermal decomposition, and chemically assisted thermal decomposition remain even at $100 oil – uneconomic. That isn’t even to consider that the water needed to produce a full US petroleum replacement would consume 5% of the Mississippi River every day.

The hydrogen economy also must address the problem of energy density. Hydrogen is a gas at most any temperature one could reasonably expect any of us normal everyday people to handle and control. The prospect of liquefying hydrogen is very costly and itself would consume substantial amounts of energy to achieve and maintain. At such a cold temperatures the hydrogen fuel wouldn’t be usable, it would need to be warmed to a temperature that reactions to release the energy from the chemical reaction of burning in an engine or oxidizing in a fuel cell could occur.

Even then the hydrogen economy has a fuel density problem of another sort. The energy equivalent of a US gallon of gasoline is about a US pound of hydrogen. The volume ratio is almost 40 to 1, or you’d need about 40 times the size of a fuel tank for the car, which might be bigger than the whole car. Hydrogen can be compressed easily though, but keeping it is a serious problem.

Hydrogen is the smallest free element in nature with one proton and electron, which makes it the devil to contain. Anything invented so far to store it will be made of more complex molecules, which would leave voids the hydrogen can pass through. That makes storage for any length of time very problematic from two perspectives; the first is that the paid for hydrogen will escape.

The second is that the escaped hydrogen sets up a set of problems quite unlike anything people are used to now. We have some habits on handling gasoline and other petroleum based fuels that can serve to set up disasters when handling hydrogen. With diesel and other longer hydrocarbon chain molecules rather difficult to ignite and gasoline itself ignitable in a comparatively narrow range of concentration to air we are set up for serious issues with hydrogen. Petroleum fuels are heavier than air and sink, hydrogen is lighter than air and rises, so hydrogen stored in a home garage wouldn’t exit with each opening of a door rather it will tend to accumulate near ceilings or attics. Freed hydrogen is extremely reactive. Extremely reactive as compared to any of the hydrocarbon fuels even including natural gas, propane as used for grills and butane for lighters. It is ten times more reactive than gasoline and twenty times more explosive. The hydrogen fire, if one avoids the explosion, is clear and not visible, so you wouldn’t know you’re going to get burnt until it’s too late.

Lets assume that these problems find solutions. Can we use the hydrogen? What will we need to buy? The largest share of liquid fuels the normal consumer uses is for transportation. Thus, can an engine be converted to use hydrogen? The short answer is yes, with a huge addendum for all the provisions. In addition is the matter of how efficient an engine would be compared to the fuel cell. Here the fuel cells win, and win by far. There is a great deal of development under way and considerable success over the years, but the issues raised above have the sharp pencils leaning backing the chair thinking, “these other problems have got to catch up with solutions.”

I am cheered by the news discussed on August 23 2007 and August 28 2007. The notion that one would have a non-explosive source of hydrogen available that would meter out hydrogen fuel as needed for power is heartening.

But by no means has the breakout of oil past $100 a barrel brought the hydrogen economy any closer, rather I think the price of oil may well set the hydrogen economy back as the vast investment needed to make any changes for alternative energy and fuel is being eaten by the need to serve the current master, the price of oil.

So call the Congressmen and Senators folks, no more bailing out the banks and driving down the value and purchasing power of the dollar with the Federal Reserve dropping rates to bail out the banks. All we’re going to get is higher prices from weak dollars and it will be followed by inflation to sop up all the dollars left over. Sound like the 1970s and 80s all over again? But this time there won’t be any cheap oil on the back side . . .


6 Comments so far

  1. L’occhio di Romolo » Blog Archive » 8 novembre 2007 on November 8, 2007 5:47 AM

    […] A Hydrogen Economy reality Check, da newenergyandfuel […]

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