The Truth About Hydrogen
Wild promises abound, but can the simplest element in the universe
really power our homes, fuel our cars and reduce our contribution to
global warming? PM crunches the numbers on the real hydrogen economy.
BY Jeff Wise
Published in the November, 2006 issue.
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Columbia, seals the critical component of fuel cells, which convert
hydrogen into electric power.
WHEN ASSESSING THE State of the Union in 2003, President Bush declared
it was time to take a crucial step toward protecting our environment.
He announced a $.2 billion initiative to begin developing a national
hydrogen infrastructure: a coast-to-coast network of facilities that
would produce and distribute the hydrogen for powering hundreds of
millions of fuel cell vehicles. Backed by a national commitment, he
said, "our scientists and engineers will overcome obstacles to taking
these cars from laboratory to showroom, so that the first car driven by
a child born today could be powered by hydrogen, and pollution-free."
With two years to go on the first, $20 million phase of the plan, PM
asks that perennial question of every automotive journey: Are we almost
And the inevitable answer from the front seat: No. Promises of a
thriving hydrogen economy - one that supports not only cars and
trucks, but cellphones, computers, homes and whole neighborhoods -
date back long before this presidency, and the road to fulfilling them
stretches far beyond its horizon.
The Department of Energy projects the nation's consumption of fossil
fuels will continue to rise - increasing 34 percent by 2030. When
burned, these carbon-based fuels release millions of tons of carbon
dioxide into the atmosphere, where the gas traps heat and is believed
to contribute to global warming.
At first glance, hydrogen would seem an ideal substitute for these
problematic fuels. Pound for pound, hydrogen contains almost three
times as much energy as natural gas, and when consumed its only
emission is pure, plain water. But unlike oil and gas, hydrogen is not
a fuel. It is a way of storing or transporting energy. You have to make
it before you can use it - generally by extracting hydrogen from
fossil fuels, or by using electricity to split it from water.
And while oil and gas are easy to transport in pipelines and fuel tanks
- they pack a lot of energy into a dense, stable form - hydrogen
presents a host of technical and economic challenges. The lightest gas
in the universe isn't easy to corral. Skeptics say that hydrogen
promises to be a needlessly expensive solution for applications for
which simpler, cheaper and cleaner alternatives already exist. "You
have to step back and ask, 'What is the point?'" says Joseph Romm,
executive director of the Center for Energy & Climate Solutions.
Though advocates promote hydrogen as a panacea for energy needs ranging
from consumer electronics to home power, its real impact will likely
occur on the nation's highways. After all, transportation represents
two-thirds of U.S. oil consumption. "We're working on biofuels,
ethanol, biodiesel and other technologies," says David Garmin,
assistant secretary of energy, "but it's only hydrogen, ultimately,
over the long term, that can delink light-duty transportation from
The Big Three U.S. automakers, as well as Toyota, Honda, BMW and
Nissan, have all been preparing for that day. Fuel cell vehicles can
now travel 300 miles on 17.6 pounds of hydrogen and achieve speeds of
up to 132 mph. But without critical infrastructure, there will be no
hydrogen economy. And the practical employment of hydrogen power
involves major hurdles at every step - production, storage,
distribution and use. Here's how those challenges stack up.
HURDLE 1: Production
The United States already uses some 10 million tons of hydrogen each
year for industrial purposes, such as making fertilizer and refining
petroleum. If hydrogen-powered vehicles are to become the norm, we'll
need at least 10 times more. The challenge will be to produce it in an
efficient and environmentally friendly way.
FOSSIL FUELS: At present, 95 percent of America's hydrogen is produced
from natural gas. Through a process called steam methane reformation,
high temperature and pressure break the hydrocarbon into hydrogen and
carbon oxides - including carbon dioxide, which is released into the
atmosphere as a greenhouse gas. Over the next 10 or 20 years, fossil
fuels most likely will continue to be the main feedstock for the
hydrogen economy. And there's the rub: Using dirty energy to make clean
energy doesn't solve the pollution problem-it just moves it around. "As
a CO2 reducer, hydrogen stinks," Romm says.
Capturing that carbon dioxide and trapping it underground would make
the process more environmentally friendly. In July, General Electric
and BP Amoco PLC announced plans to develop as many as 15 power plants
over the next 10 years that will strip hydrogen from natural gas to
generate electricity; the waste carbon dioxide will be pumped into
depleted oil and gas fields. And the Department of Energy is largely
funding a 10-year, $50 million project to build a coal-fed plant that
will produce hydrogen to make electricity, and likewise lock away
carbon dioxide to achieve what it bills as "the world's first
zero-emissions fossil fuel plant."
Whether carbon dioxide will remain underground in large-scale
operations remains to be seen. In addition, natural gas is a limited
resource; the cost of hydrogen would be subject to its price
ELECTROLYSIS: Most of the remainder of today's hydrogen is made by
electrically splitting water into its constituent parts, hydrogen and
oxygen. This year, a PM Breakthrough Award went to GE's Richard
Bourgeois for designing an electrolyzer that could drastically reduce
the cost of that process. But because fossil fuels generate more than
70 percent of the nation's electrical power, hydrogen produced from the
grid would still be a significant source of greenhouse gas. If solar,
wind or other renewable resources generate the electricity, hydrogen
could be produced without any carbon emissions at all.
NUCLEAR POWER: Next-generation nuclear power plants will reach
temperatures high enough to produce hydrogen as well as electricity,
either by adding steam and heat to the electrolysis process, or by
adding heat to a series of chemical reactions that split the hydrogen
from water. Though promising in the lab, this technology won't be
proved until the first Generation IV plants come on line - around
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