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A NASA Shuttle crew member took this photo of the earth from space. In the original image, a diaphanous blue haze along the edge of the curved horizon marks the earth's surprisingly slender atmosphere. Will a hydrogen economy endanger this delicate and vital life support system?

Twenty Myths Challenged - Part IV

Concluding installment of series examining the myths of the hydrogen economy

By Dr. John Wilson

14 A large-scale hydrogen economy would harm the earth's climate, water balance or atmospheric chemistry

We agree with Dr. Lovins' conclusions in this segment, although we prefer an alternative interpretation of the influence of water vapor. We have long regarded the relatively rapid run up in atmospheric water vapor levels as the primary global warming agent with modestly rising anthropogenic CO2 levels a secondary and not very important effect, albeit one that is magnified by water. Recent data, including that of Held and Soden (Lovins, Ref. # 129) can be interpreted as supporting this view. We wholeheartedly endorse Lovins' view that this issue "must be carefully evaluated" before we proceed with any major shift in the energy system, but at present, it is far from clear that removal of current or future CO2 from the atmosphere will have any beneficial impact on global warming.

a. Using hydrogen would release or consume too much water

Release of combustion water is a non-issue since it will (given time) simply compensate for the water used in manufacturing the hydrogen and/or will equilibrate with global oceans and wetlands. In any case, there are so many large sources of water vapor emissions that the contribution made by either gasoline or hydrogen vehicles is relatively small. While water vapor is a key contributor to global warming, it does not appear that combustion water is a significant factor.

Consumption of water is another matter. Considerable amounts of water (for electrolysis) or steam (for reforming) are used in manufacturing hydrogen because water supplies at least half of the hydrogen produced by the reforming process. In some areas, this added demand for water could be a major concern. However, use of desalinated water or even recycled and treated industrial process water might be suitable – and necessary - in some cases to avoid aquifer depletion of curtailment of domestic supplies.

b. Using hydrogen would consume too much oxygen.

We agree with Lovins – it would not.

c. Using hydrogen would dry out the Earth by leaking hydrogen to outer space.

No comment is justified.

d. Using hydrogen would harm the ozone layer or the climate by leaking too much water-forming and chemically reactive molecular hydrogen into the upper atmosphere.

We agree almost entirely with Lovins that this claim, which persists in the popular media, is unfounded, although we do not support Lovins' repeated claims that all things good and wonderful should be credited to a hypothetical hydrogen economy (when we actually have one we will be better able to judge that). Hydrogen does leak from industrial equipment and is or was released by a few industrial processes, but is apparently quickly oxidized in the atmosphere, presumably by reaction with OH- radicals. Former coal gas operations leaked large amounts of hydrogen for many years (as did the many chlor-alkali installations in this country and elsewhere), but no ozone layer damage has ever been attributed to this.

Contrary to Lovins' statement that papers raising concerns such as these set back the cause of the hydrogen economy, we view them, however wrong they may be, as stimulating essential and long-overdue debate on the hydrogen economy and providing much-needed checks and balances on the "rush to judgment" that has characterized the entire hydrogen effort to date.

15. There are more attractive ways to provide sustainable mobility than adopting hydrogen.

Lovins seems never to have come to grips with the real world. There is little point in whining about what governments should have done but have not (that list, after all, is endless) or about the fact that the population in general has no interest, and will never have any interest, in electric vehicles, fuel cell vehicles of even hybrids until they reach the point where they have no choice. After all, despite the currently high price of gasoline, there is no public uprising against SUVs. Any future move to sustainable mobility will require the highest standards of safety and reliability in a technology that, in transition, will not be allowed to make undue demands on conventional energy sources that are in short supply.

a) We should run cars on natural gas, not hydrogen.

We agree that if distributed reformers ever make sense, they should be located at or close to refueling stations. But the questionable reliability of these miniature chemical factories makes them a risky and unsafe proposition. Given the questionable safety of fuel tanks, we would prefer to stick with CNG – although even there, we dislike the bulky, heavy and potentially dangerous tanks. LPG is preferred from this point of view, but LPG fires in vehicles have proven to be extremely intense and lethal (as this is written, there is news of a single-vehicle LPG refueling fire that burned down a $1 million refueling station in Western Canada). As we have said elsewhere, (a) we prefer coal-based syngas to LPG or CNG; (b) we prefer coal-based methanol as the "hydrogen transporter" and (c) we prefer not to see hydrogen anywhere in the personal transportation sector.

b) We should convert existing cars to carry both gasoline and hydrogen, burning both in their existing internal-combustion engines, to create an early hydrogen market and reduce urban air pollution.

This is not, in general, a very smart suggestion – two fuels mean two sets of problems and the added complication inevitably means less reliability. We like the idea of hybrid vehicles much better and we really don't care what the fuel is, although, to us, ultra-low sulfur diesel makes the most sense. Like Lovins, we like the idea of trying hydrogen in buildings first. However, just as any industrial pilot plant that uses or consumes hydrogen in large quantities is normally located outdoors or within an explosion-proof room (hydrogen accidents do happen in even the best-regulated societies), so hydrogen generators and furnaces should be similarly located.

c) We should improve batteries and increase the required electricity storage capacity (battery-electric driving range) of hybrid cars.

Obviously, we agree with Dr. Lovins that early-generation battery-electric cars such as GM's EV1 have not been a commercial success (or, in our personal view, a technical success, as was best appreciated on freeway ramps when attempting to merge with traffic). However, we understand that fast-charging, battery-powered EVs with a range of up to 300 miles at 70 mph are now being tested and are expected to be on the market long before cost-effective fuel cell cars. The hybrids that we have evaluated are, in our view, more attractive. We have already indicated our preference for the DI diesel engine in this application and we have been impressed by the descriptions of experimental vehicles from BMW and Honda that use ultra-capacitors, rather than (or in addition to) batteries for enhanced acceleration. Plug-in hybrids that can be used as energy storage devices (offering improved efficiency and a grid interface) may be seen in the not-too-distant future. And the Chinese are known to be working on "pure" electrics.

Battery technology is improving slowly (too slowly!) but is still not where it should be for an optimal EV design or for battery hybrid vehicles (all hybrids currently use battery power storage). Since, in our view, the diesel hybrid with battery or capacitor or a battery vehicle with long-range capability makes the most sense for transportation for the indefinite future, we hope that battery development evolves rapidly in the direction of higher power densities and much lower costs.

d) If we have super efficient vehicles, we should just run them on gasoline engines or engine-hybrids and not worry about fuel cells.

Although we would prefer modern high-performance direction-injection diesels running on ultra-low-sulfur fuel in our hybrids, we will take any hybrid over a fuel cell vehicle at any time, just on the grounds of convenience and safety. We agree with Lovins that hybrid vehicles will conveniently pave the way for any future fuel cell vehicles by promoting the development of electric traction subsystems and the like. Then, if hydrogen fueled vehicles ever become powerful enough, safe enough, reliable enough and sufficiently inexpensive, they may be able to penetrate the market more quickly because these systems developed for hybrids are available.

Once again, we should remember that fuel cell vehicles, especially those that also have radical designs such as the Hypercar ‘Revolution', are not likely to be accepted quickly in the automobile marketplace, except by the fanatic few. Hybrids, now that we are past the first-generation Prius and Insight and Civic proof-of-concept vehicles (all look very acceptable in 2004 format) will sell far better. Acceptance of these – a sort of "half way house" vehicle – may make any future hydrogen-fueled vehicles much more acceptable. In any case, it will be many years before the necessary hydrogen infrastructure is in place. Hybrids are an unavoidable intermediate solution – provided (and this applies to all alternate-fuel vehicles) that a sufficiently large "audience" can be persuaded to buy them.

Interestingly, Lovins seems much more interested in saving oil than he is in saving natural gas, perhaps because his "vision" of the hydrogen economy requires natural gas in large quantities. If we had to choose between only the two, we would rather place our bets on oil. But coal, combined with zero-emissions technologies, is a much better bet.

16. Because the U.S. car fleet takes roughly 14 years to turn over, little can be done to change car technology in the short term.

We agree with Lovins that incentives, rather than taxes, are the best way to get people to buy alternate-fuel or alternate-technology vehicles. And we have long supported the concept of a :"bounty" to get polluting clunkers (many of which, as we have noticed at local meetings, are driven by the most vocal environmentalists) off the road, especially if they are to be replaced by more modern, less polluting vehicles of any kind.. Beyond that, since Lovins' discussion of this topic has little to do with hydrogen, we have no comment.

17. A viable hydrogen transition would take 30-50 years or more to complete, and hardly anything worthwhile could be done sooner than 20 years.

Again, we agree with Lovins, except that we do not accept that "the stakes are too high to dawdle". It is that kind of exaggeration that has driven the current and premature "rush to hydrogen". We need to make rational decisions, not rushed ones. There is much information to be gathered before those choices can be made intelligently. And there are many technologies that, in our view, offer much better solutions.

18. The hydrogen transition requires a big (say $100-$300 billion) Federal crash program on the lines of the Apollo Program or the Manhattan Project.

We certainly support Lovins in his rant against tax breaks for $100K Hummers, but we don't think it helps his argument for either hydrogen vehicles or hybrids. Those who buy Hummers would not be candidates for Lovins' vehicles even if there were no tax breaks. But this particular tax loophole should be plugged.

We also agree that a coherent message on hydrogen (or hybrids) would be helpful, but it must be truthful. The current "PR" about hydrogen, much of it coming from RMI, simply sweeps a lot of very real problems such as safety and infrastructure costs and delays under the rug and leaves the impression that the hydrogen economy will be here soon. It will not, for many reasons, not the least of which is that there are not yet any safety codes or standards in place. The auto industry is at least realistic about what it faces; RMI is not.

We believe that it would be wise to encourage less safety-sensitive applications of hydrogen initially. At TMG, we believe that coal-based hydrogen (or syngas, or methanol, but preferably the former, via methanol) will find many applications in building heating and cooling, but we would prefer to see proven reliable systems for the production and use of hydrogen (in more ways than Lovins' preferred "distributed reformer" methodology) in place before they are used in buildings housing large numbers of people or in automobiles. This concern, as we have said, is based on our experience with complex pilot plants not unlike a small-scale reformer and with hydrogen in a number of applications.

19. A crash program to switch to hydrogen is the only realistic way to get off oil.

In the near term, for strategic reasons, the U.S. needs to get off imported­ oil much more than it needs to get off oil. And it does not need to do that by switching to imported natural gas, as Lovins proposes. Future vehicles will continue to be fueled by petroleum distillates (e.g., gasoline, diesel) for a very long time. The only practical solutions to the problem of dependence on imported oil are, roughly in declining order of importance (a) hybrid-power or battery-powered electric vehicles (the hybrids preferably using diesel fuel in direct-injection engines as soon as ulta-low sulfur fuel is available in 2006-2008; (b) more efficient gasoline engines (these are coming – direct injection gasoline engines are making great progress in Europe, the land of high-priced fuels); (c) European-type direct-injection diesel engines (which require low-sulfur diesel fuel) (d) a renewed effort on the development of zero-emissions coal à oil (or fuels such gasoline or diesel) technologies; (e) more exploration and production for and of crude petroleum within the U.S. and Canada, especially of tar sands and other major synfuel sources.

A switch to biomass and/or hydrogen may eventually happen but, in our view, much later than Lovins thinks. There is simply too much to do, too much resistance to making the necessary changes and not enough market for the resulting products.

We look forward to debunking RMI's forthcoming:"Out of the Oil Box". It will happen eventually, but not for a very long time – nor should it happen any sooner.

20. The Bush Administration's hydrogen program is just a smokescreen to stall adoption of the hybrid-electric and other efficient car designs available now, and wraps fossil and nuclear energy in a green disguise.

FreedomCAR and FreedomFUEL are certainly inadequately funded if they are to achieve anything useful, but now is probably not the time to be asking for more money for them. However, like President Bush's approach to Kyoto (to paraphrase very loosely) "let us understand what we are doing and why we are doing it before we do it". It makes sense to approach both programs carefully to compensate for some of the effects of the "rush to judgment" problems that both the Kyoto Treaty and the (non-existent) "Hydrogen Economy" have brought. Lovins and his Hypercar people would no doubt like to see earlier progress, given their premature investment in that technology, but it will not and should not happen.

Aside from that, we agree with the Wall Street Journal that the funding of these programs are "neither smart nor honest", if only because the President and his decision-makers seem to be have been very poorly informed about the downside aspects of the "hydrogen economy" and the advantages of alternative automotive power technologies. Given the limited funding available in the face of what is now projected to be a $525 billion deficit for FY 2004, we think that the money could be better directed. It is doubtful that the U.S. will have the patience to hang in with hydrogen for what will be a very long - and probably unsuccessful – haul.

The Author
John R. Wilson is a chemical and materials engineer. A former expert on liquid metals, Dr. Wilson served a total of twelve years in academia in the UK and Canada, then worked on product and process development in the energy industry for several years with Esso (now Exxon) R&D Co., Shell Canada's Tar Sands group and Shell Oil's Shell Development Co.) before moving to Detroit to manage a New Business Development program for the Bendix Corporation. Bendix later become part of Allied Corporation, where John became VP-Research for Allied Canada. He left Allied to join Lord Corporation (Erie, PA) in 1985 as VP-R&D and then moved on to set up his own consulting company, now called TMG/The Management Group, in 1987. The company is a professional services organization that specializes in funding and managing research, technology and commercial development with special emphasis on developments in alternate energy, energy-related environmental, specialty materials and transportation. TMG can be contacted in the Detroit area at 313-434-5110 or in Windsor at 519-966-0545. (email: tmg@tmgtech.com; web site www.tmgtech.com).

Download Dr. Wilson's complete paper: 20 Myths Challenged.rft

Times Article Viewed: 5056
Published: 01-Nov-2003


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