Cryogenic Hydrogen Bulk Tanker
Braun envisions huge cryogenic tankers like this one plying the oceans full of liquid hydrogen instead of fossil fuels.

Harry Braun on Hydrogen - Part 2

Conclusion of interview with the author of the Phoenix Project.

By Bill Moore

"It's important for people to understand that oil companies are already in the hydrogen business," explained Braun as we continued talking about who the players are in the slowly developing hydrogen "game." They use hydrogen, he pointed out, in the refinery process to make gasoline.

"The trouble is, they get all of their hydrogen from natural gas . . . and natural gas is running out. You can't depend on it. It's like building your castle in the sand. They are going to wash away soon."

Braun believes we don't need some huge new infrastructure to begin the transition from non-renewable fossil fuels to renewable hydrogen. He told EV World that every gasoline service station in America has water and electricity from which they can make hydrogen. The same applies to nearly every home in America, he added. "You could be using electricity in the middle of the night from the utility power plant that otherwise sits idle to make very cheap hydrogen."

Of course, not everyone agrees with Braun's assessment and vision. UC Davis' Dr. Andrew Frank points out that it would be far more efficient and less costly to use wind power to charge large banks of batteries than to try and convert water into hydrogen. Frank estimates it would take one-quarter of the number of wind turbines to achieve the same energy result.

He also added, "The efficiency from the wind mill to the wheels of the car would be 4 to 5 times higher than all the problems with hydrogen. Besides we already have a distribution system for electricity. It's call the electric grid."

Braun noted that Arizona Public Service or APS - - the largest investor owned utility in Arizona - - recently build a hydrogen refueling station for its small fleet of hydrogen powered vehicles. He sees this as the perfect model for making the jump for polluting gasoline cars to non-polluting hydrogen automobiles and trucks. Whereas battery electrics are, in his view, fraught with shortcomings that most consumers don't want to accept, hydrogen-fueled vehicles have no such limitations. Though this, strictly, isn't totally accurate. Assuming you use liquid hydrogen in an internal combustion engine, similar to what BMW is doing, you still have a somewhat limited range of a couple hundred miles, at best. And burning hydrogen in an IC engine still creates some NOx emissions.

Hydrogen Drawbacks
Interestingly, Braun believes that the biggest drawback to using hydrogen is the cost of converting America's tens of millions of cars from burning gasoline to burning hydrogen. He estimates that it would cost about the same as converting a vehicle to run on natural gas, roughly $1,500 to $2000. He'd also like to see tax credits offered that would rebate the owner most of the cost of conversion.

"We've got to get the existing fleet of cars, particularly the older cars that are the biggest polluters, those are the ones we need to get."

Braun does want to wait around for fuel cells. He calculates that on an installed kilowatt basis, a fuel cell today costs about $8,000/kw while a gasoline engine costs only $10/kw.

We asked him if there are any safety concerns. He replied, "Yes, if you use gasoline."

"What most people don't realize is that hydrogen in any accident you'll want to tell me about is going to be much, much safer to the inhabitants of the vehicle than gasoline, natural gas, propane, butane, any of the hydrocarbon fuels because they are hideously dangerous in an accident. They will burn your skin off.

"Hydrogen will never do that. The laws of physics prevent it. It's the lightest element in the universe. The minute you rupture a tank, you have maybe a second before it's all gone."

Not only is hydrogen safer than fossil fuels, in Braun's view, it is also better from the engine's perspective. He contends burning hydrogen in an internal combustion engine will mean longer engine life and far fewer oil changes.

Freedom CAR Program
Braun sees the recently announced $150 million Freedom CAR program as "great news."

"It was the first significant positive initiative [from] the Bush Administration. I haven't liked all the rollbacks on power plant emissions, arsenic in the water. I think its been kind of a slash and burn policy from the environmental perspective. But this was a significant change in the right direction and its encouraging to see senior administration officials from both parties supporting hydrogen and the research and development for hydrogen."

Braun went on to list some of the organizations promoting hydrogen including the International Association of Hydrogen Energy , a technically-oriented, peer-review group. The National Hydrogen Association is an industry lobby group in Washington, DC.

The Phoenix Project
Braun's book, The Phoenix Project investigates how long it would take to convert America from fossil fuels to hydrogen if it were done on a war time basis similar to World War Two. He speculates that if we went about the conversion with the same level of commitment and energy that was demonstrated by American industry in 1942 that we could be energy independent in two years time and shortly there after we'd be exporting hydrogen. This is clearly an ambitious plan and given the fact that America's daily oil import bill is about $250 million dollars, perhaps even doable financially.

He sees the real obstacle to implementing such an ambitious plan as a lack of understanding and knowledge. He told EV World, "I've been watching the hearings in the Senate on energy. . . and listening to people on both sides of the hill it's amazing how misinformed these people in the Senate are." By "misinformed" he referred to the belief that that America is somehow going to drill its way out of oil dependence. "It's like they don't realize that we have only three percent of the world's remaining oil in the US. You're never going to make this country energy independent with oil."

"The fact is we are consuming 4 barrels of oil for every one we're producing and we're not going to win this game. There is only one thing we must do and that's to get off of it as soon as possible."

One way Braun and his colleagues hope to push forward their hydrogen agenda is a program called the Fair Accounting Act, which they are trying to promote in the Senate. The act would adjust the price of oil to its true economic and environmental cost.

"We're subsidizing oil now to make it appear cheap," he stated. "And since we have to import oil and gasoline and since it's highly polluting [and] very toxic if you have a spill, think that's a bad idea. We shouldn't be subsiding that."

"No other industrialize country in the world pays a $1.50 a gallon for gasoline. Germany's been paying $4.20 for ten years. So has Japan, so has Great Britain, so has France. We're the only country that subsidizes this product to consumers and making them think it's cheap. It's not. It's very expensive and the sooner we realize that with a fair accounting system the sooner everybody's going to be going to the pump to buy hydrogen, Ĺ’cause it's going to be less expensive.

Braun believes that switching to hydrogen isn't going to put oil companies out of business. They will just be switching to a different product.

Finally, he sees neither major party willing to come up with a meaningful plan to move the nation beyond petroleum.

He asks, "Why should we wait?"

Times Article Viewed: 5132
Published: 16-Mar-2002


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