This is a guest essay by Geoffrey Holland, co-author (with James Provenzano) of The Hydrogen Age: Empowering a Clean Energy Future, which will be out in the fall. I know there are many hydrogen skeptics in the audience, so remember: keep it civil and substantive.
Of the vexing challenges humanity faces — and there are many — the most imminent is around energy. Beyond food, water, and shelter, anything more than basic survival requires a serious dose of energy. Oil, the fuel of choice for more than a century, is a finite resource facing a future of supply uncertainty and increasingly high cost to consumers. The use of oil also has very serious environmental consequences. Air pollution generated by our use of oil and other hydrocarbon fuels like coal is directly linked to global warming, the greatest manmade environmental threat Planet Earth has ever known. Our world desperately needs an alternative to oil that is both pollution free and endlessly abundant in supply. Fortunately, there is one alternative that meets those daunting criteria. That fuel — a fuel that will have a major place in powering our homes, businesses, motor vehicles, aircraft, and shipping in coming years — is hydrogen.
Some truths about hydrogen
- It is the simplest, most abundant substance in the universe. About 90 percent of all atoms that exist are hydrogen atoms.
- It is the chemical building block for all the other elements, indeed all that exists.
- It is the fuel that powers the stars, including our own sun.
- It is the fuel that powers life … the ultimate source of energy for all living things.
- It is the best fuel alternative to liquid and gaseous fossil hydrocarbons like oil and natural gas.
- When consumed, it is entirely pollution free in most cases and nearly so in all the rest.
- It is the only energy carrier that is essentially limitless in supply.
- It is the only fuel that will go down in cost to the customer over time, as demand increases.
- It is no more dangerous to use than gasoline or natural gas. The evidence suggests that, in some ways, it may well be safer
Hydrogen is an energy carrier in the same sense that gasoline is an energy carrier. It is a fuel that can be used on demand, when and where needed. Hydrogen cannot be pumped from the ground or mined; it is made by separating hydrogen atoms away from one chemical compound or another. Ultimately, the best way to get hydrogen is to split water molecules (H2O) in a process called electrolysis. It takes about 50 kilowatt hours of electricity and about two gallons of water to generate a kilogram of hydrogen. That would be roughly equivalent to the energy content of one gallon of gasoline.
In cost, it is competitive, given a transparent and level playing field, with gasoline, natural gas, and other established forms of energy. Electricity and hydrogen are often seen as interchangeable sides of the same coin. Electricity is ephemeral in nature. It has to be used immediately or be stored in some other form. Chemical batteries are improving, but will always be limited in the amount of electricity they can store. The best, most readily adaptable way to store large quantities of electricity is to convert it to hydrogen, which for many decades has been traded as a major industrial commodity. In 2004, more than 40 million tons of hydrogen was consumed by industry worldwide.
There are a handful of issues that come up when skeptics attempt to characterize hydrogen.
Hydrogen is a fuel. Like other fuels it burns and can even be explosive in a confined space in the presence of oxygen. But hydrogen is no more dangerous than other fuels. The space program has a long, mostly trouble-free record with hydrogen. Retired NASA Engineer Addison Bain, an expert on management of hydrogen systems, says, "Hydrogen is very predictable. We’ve had very few problems over the years."
A University of Miami study commissioned by the Ford Motor Company concluded that hydrogen is different than gasoline and other hydrocarbon forms of energy, but not more dangerous, and in fact in some circumstances safer. We’ve grown accustomed to pumping gas into our cars and using natural gas in our homes; there is no reason to think we cannot find the same level of safety and comfort with hydrogen.
An official who makes policy for state government on renewable energy recently said to me, "Why waste energy converting electrons to hydrogen?" A person in that position should know better. The answer is neither complicated nor illogical. Where vehicles are concerned, electricity may work — may even be the best source of energy, in some instances — but where a lot of power and any kind of range between refills is required, electricity is not the answer.
As for commercial aviation, it would not even exist if airliners had to run on stored electricity. Hydrogen is the best fuel for powered flight in the future.
The world has a very real need for a clean energy currency that can be stored for use on demand. Hydrogen is that clean energy currency. Yes, it’s true there is an efficiency penalty that goes with converting electricity to hydrogen, but that is true for every kind of fuel. It takes energy to make energy. What matters is the fuel cost per mile driven. On that basis, hydrogen, when all factors are considered, fares well against the cost of gasoline and other hydrocarbon fuels.
Lest anyone think that providing energy in the form of gasoline is efficient, keep in mind: all the cheap, easy-to-find oil is long gone. Oil is a finite and increasingly scarce resource. The most recent find reported by one of the world’s oil giants is in the deep water of the Gulf of Mexico. Getting to it required a floating drilling rig, built for something like a billion dollars. To reach the oil, the rig had to sink a drill through 9,000 feet of water to the ocean bottom then grind through another 20,000 feet of rock. Add on the cost of bringing the oil to the surface, sending it to a refinery, processing it, then dispersing it to filling stations across the country. Is that efficient? In the end, efficiency only matters in so far as it affects the cost of the fuel at the pump.
The hydrogen fueling infrastructure
At the moment, with the exception of California, which has a small but growing network of hydrogen fueling stations, the U.S. has no fueling infrastructure for delivering hydrogen to the general public. But then, at the moment, there are only a few hundred hydrogen vehicles in the U.S. That will change.
General Motors has announced that it will lease about 100 of its Chevy Sequel fuel cell vehicles to U.S. customers starting later this year. Honda will do the same thing with its fuel cell FCX vehicle in 2008.
Still, for hydrogen to become a major energy player, fueling stations must be put in place all across the country. This is a challenge, but not so big as it might seem. A hydrogen fueling station costs between $400,000 and $1,000,000 to install. A study commissioned by General Motors indicates that a hydrogen infrastructure with a fueling station within about six miles of 70 percent of the nation’s population could be put in place with an investment of about $12 billion dollars. That may seem like a lot, but put in perspective, it’s about what our government spends every month to maintain the armed occupation of Iraq.
Europe, Japan, and China have launched plans to develop extensive hydrogen fueling networks. In the U.S., hydrogen powered vehicles could arrive in auto showrooms in as little as five years from now. They will come to California first because that state is already building a hydrogen highway refueling network. Other states have declared their intention to do the same.
Hydrogen technologies are advancing rapidly
Over the past decade, a frenzy of research on the hydrogen fuel cell, an electrochemical device first used in the manned space program, has led to the development of a variety of fuel cell types designed to produce electricity to meet just about every kind of energy need. In Japan, one kilowatt fuel cell systems are now being installed to power private homes. The Japanese government is providing substantial incentives to put tens of thousands of these self-sufficient, residential fuel cell units in place over the next few years. Micro fuel cells designed to provide extended endurances for portable devices like laptops, cell phones, PDAs, and iPods are on the verge of commercialization.
The auto industry has poured billions into the development of fuel cell and internal combustion engines that run on hydrogen. Virtually every auto company has some kind of hydrogen powered vehicle positioned for commercialization in the next decade. Larry Burns, Vice President for Research and Development at General Motors has said, "A new automotive DNA is emerging … General Motors absolutely sees the future of the world being based on a hydrogen economy. Forty-five percent of the Fortune 500 companies will be affected, impacting almost two trillion dollars in revenue."
Over the long term, hydrogen offers the world the best chance to end its addiction to oil. Technologies are sufficiently advanced now to begin a major deployment of hydrogen technologies.
Growing a hydrogen constituency
My friend and colleague, William Hoagland, who once ran the U.S. government’s hydrogen energy research program, said at an energy conference in 1993, "What hydrogen needs more than anything is a constituency." That is still true today. Each of us has a big stake in the energy choices being made right now. The world must wean itself from dependence on oil and other fossil forms of energy. We must do it now, not decades from now.
In the current discussion, a number of energy alternatives are aggressively being positioned as a replacement for oil. A lot of money is being spent by deep pocket players who seek an expanded share of the energy pie for natural gas, corn-based ethanol, other forms of biofuel, and nuclear power. For better or worse, each of these well-financed alternatives will have a place at the energy table in the foreseeable future.
In the coming era, there will be no single dominant source of energy. Over the long term, the vision that will ultimately prevail is the one that relies on a diverse portfolio of clean, renewable forms of energy like wind, solar, hydro, ocean wave, geothermal, and biowaste. Hydrogen is the key to this sustainable energy vision. It is the common currency by which all of these clean sources of energy can be linked together and stored away for use on demand, safely, cost effectively, when and where needed. The technology also exists to cleanly convert traditional, polluting forms of hydrocarbon energy like coal to hydrogen. Existing nuclear facilities offer great potential for hydrogen production during off-peak hours.
We are at the beginning of the most important energy transition in the history of humanity. We are moving into an era powered by cheap, abundant, and environmentally benign energy. The future of the human family will be built with electricity and hydrogen as interchangeable energy currencies.
Fully implementing the era of clean, limitless renewably generated hydrogen energy is in every person’s interest. Growing a hydrogen constituency is critical to that process. It is about individuals educating themselves. It is about environmental groups, social justice organizations, and those who champion indigenous rights recognizing that coming together and becoming enthusiastic hydrogen constituents is one of the best ways to support their own noble goals while working for a dignified, sustainable energy future that leaves no one behind.
All things considered, who wouldn’t choose a world powered by unlimited quantities of pollution free energy that exists as either electricity or hydrogen? The sooner it happens, the better for all the world’s people.
Get Grist in your inbox