Flatulent hydrogen puffery: what the future of driving WON’T look like

Every once in a while, the over-subsidized and under-performing hydrogen transportation industry suckers some gullible reporter into doing a story about how one day our cars will all be powered with hydrogen.

What a bunch of flatulent puffery. A couple of years ago, a client asked me to review a funding proposal from a company that wanted to build the hydrogen highway. Here’s what I said (don’t worry, I won’t name names).

“It is about time someone shone some light on the real prospects of hydrogen becoming the primary motive fuel for cars. Maybe then some scales will fall from some star-struck eyes. I simply cannot see hydrogen displacing even the most obnoxious fossil fuels, unless there is a major—and I mean MAJOR—scientific breakthrough that enables us to cheaply produce hydrogen from a source other than natural gas.

“Steam Methane Reformation (SMR) and other ways of getting it from natural gas won’t do, because as long as natural gas is the feedstock to the process, hydrogen will always be more expensive. Besides, North American gas reserves are dwindling, which is why gas prices have spiked in recent years.

“Forget about methane from waste. This is negligible: in Canada, just over a million tonnes per year. And biomass gasification technologies remain highly unreliable and unproductive [see my article on the dubious waste-to-power prospects of the Ottawa plasma gasification project].

“Absent SMR, the only other viable means of renewable hydrogen production remains electrolysis from water. However, to be truly sustainable this would require vast amounts of renewable electricity—and I mean VAST, because if renewable electricity ever were to become available in sufficient quantities to make large-scale hydrogen production via electrolysis viable [and it never will], we would of course also want to use it to displace non-nuclear thermal electricity generation, which currently accounts for a fifth of Canada’s generating capacity and a fifth of its anthropogenic greenhouse gases (GHGs).

“In other words, hydrogen via electrolysis depends on a major and fundamental restructuring of the current power industry. Good luck with that.

“As things stand now the hydrogen economy is a distant-future proposition, so far distant that you need the Hubble telescope and a science fiction writer’s imagination—not to mention some good hallucinogenic drugs—to see it with any coherence. We should steer clear of this red herring.”

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Luke Hallam
16 years ago

Stephen, I agree with you comments on using natural gas as feedstock and the pitfalls of coal based electricity for electrolysis. However, this (http://envirofuel.com.au/2007/04/21/organic-hydrogen-power-without-the-need-for-cylinders/) may just be the breakthrough that brings hydrogen into the mainstream of vehicle power. Hydrogen on demand from an onboard generation system. No refuelling and therefore no high pressure hydrogen tanks. Gotta love it.

Steve Aplin
16 years ago

Luke, thanks for this. Interesting… plasma-based electrolysis. Maybe you’re right: maybe this is the major breakthrough I was talking about. Of course, the system would need new water from time to time (e=mc2 and all that) and its widespread adoption wouldn’t solve GHG problems since H2O would replace CO2 as the principal exhaust gas. But I’d gladly take H2O over the other nasty stuff that comes along with burning gasoline (NOx, SOx, VOCs, CO). We’ll see where it all goes.

Jim Baerg
16 years ago

What about the other problem of how do you store hydrogen compactly & safely enough for a reasonable sized H2 tank to take a car a few hundred km?

Lots of nuclear reactors might provide the energy for getting hydrogen from water, but we might be better off using the hydrogen to make a reasonably compact fuel from CO2 extracted from air.

Steve Aplin
16 years ago

Good point Jim, even if we solve the economic problems there are the practical problems related to storage, etc. We could use nuclear to electrolyze water, but why generate electricity to manufacture hydrogen to generate electricity? Why not just use the first electricity in electric cars etc.?

[…] that is supposed to be environment friendly. It would take a major scientific breakthrough, I told one client, to make hydrogen viable as a transportation fuel. Well, it looks like that breakthrough may have […]