The Truth about the Hydrogen Economy
“Step right up” said the sideshow barker and see the mysterious things we have in the tent. Things to amaze you, and entertain you! This is how the concept of the hydrogen economy is being sold to the public and an alternative.
Granted we will head this way, but like the subtle tricks of the sideshow barker and his tent, things are not what they appear to be. Not that that is a bad thing other than with the side show we know we will be tricked in a way we want, and with hydrogen fuel we also are being tricked in a way we want. It makes a general public that is too busy to understand how things work and just wants them to work feel warm and fuzzy about how we head into the future.
Much like the person that forgoes beef (a renewable source for humans), in favor of ocean fish (a non renewable source), because they only look at a part of the puzzle. Or the person that becomes a vegetarian with the belief that fewer animals will be killed and that they are making a difference, when they are oblivious to the fact that most of the beef we produce by a long shot never is intended for the dinner table. Both though feel like they are doing something positive. The vegetarians though being blind that to the fact that natural food methods cant supply enough food for everyone, which has been true since the days of Jethro Tull (I am not referring to the rock group).
The same is true of hydrogen fuels often referred to as “Clean Energy”. Lets face it. There are no such things as clean energy. There is just cleaner energy than something else, and all if this is driven by economics. Not some inner based morality, but the bottom line. If we make it cost more to use dirtier fuels we will move to cleaner things, and there are even cleaner things than the hydrogen economy if we are willing to spend the money.
The magic of technology not understood is that we can ascribe to it qualities that it doesn’t have. So fuel cells are clean. They are not, and not by a long shot. Most of the materials we want to use in them are not pure hydrogen (we will get to this one too later), but are common gasses. Some renewable like methane others are not like Natural Gas. Such a pleasant name like the modern concept of man made not being natural and purification of something from nature isn’t. Just ask almost any one what the definition of a chemical is and what chemistry is!
These gases are hydrocarbons. When we use them we get energy from breaking them apart, regardless of how we actually do this. So the problem with these gases is not that we use them but when used their byproducts are not solids, but gases, which makes them appear to the average person as “clean”. We would have much cleaner sources if we could figure out a cheap way to separate the carbon from the oxygen in these sources the way that plants do. That way we would have solid blocks of carbon to dispose of, and not what is referred to as green house gases. Though this method would still leave nitrogen bound up when its better to be free.
All this ignores that we have to either make the methane or acquire the natural gas. Like the package of meat we buy to put on our table we forget all that happens to get it there. There is a process for these things. Natural gas must be removed from the ground, and so we are in effect releasing the carbon that is safely bound up in the earth. Methane is renewable, and is comparatively a better source since we will rebind what we will then release (that is unless we get it from the large hydride beds scattered around the world). However neither of these methods is efficient for we forget about the tanks or pipes to transmit them, and the trucks to haul them, and all the other things that go into their use. Hence they are not as clean as we would want to feel warm about.
Then comes hydrogen. Of course hydrogen is really the hydrogen oxygen economy, it’s not just about hydrogen. Is it clean? Not really. When we think of hydrogen we don’t think of where we will get it. Forgoing natural gas and methane previously discussed as they contain carbon too, we will get it from water. The earth has plenty of that, and most of it in a form that we cant freely use. Ocean water. So the hydrogen economy will be about taking sea water and extracting the hydrogen from that.
Here is where things get dirty. What’s the cheapest way to do this? Burn the fossil fuels that we are using individually to create electricity to split the water! Again we aren’t really getting away from the carbon, and the better methods for doing this cost more, so at first we will still use the same old thing, but farther removed from us as individuals. We will drive our hybrid cars, and we will use our cell phones with fuel cell technology and think its all clean when its not. This is not to say that it isn’t cleaner, it is.
The cleanest method of getting to the hydrogen economy though is one we are afraid of. Its an industry we look at with much less understanding than regular burning of fossil fuels and we also look at as if it hasn’t progressed or grown, or has gotten better. Mostly because we haven’t let what was already done be replaced. Barring a sudden leap in ability in fusion technology the cleanest fuel is nuclear. Pound for pound nuclear energy produces huge amounts of usable energy and comparatively small amounts of waste. Much of it can be reprocessed and what cant doesn’t amount to much.
The fact remains that if we want a clean hydrogen economy, we will either use fusion, which is a long way from being ready, or need to use fission, which is ready. This is not to say that solar energy wont help (but this is dirty too as the processes to make cells is very polluting, but again removed from our every day life). And windmills though again cleaner than other things are still made from metals and things and do wear out.
Hydrogen is not that clean either. No one is considering what will happen weather wise as we inject the air with more water. What will the average humidity increase be for a city as large as New York? What kind of water weather will the eastern US suffer when the western US is pumping more and more water into the air. When it all comes together we call it rain, and rain is damaging too as the ecosystems that exists are tuned to natural rains. We could capture it, but as we carry it along in our hydrogen cars our efficiency drops, and so we will have to dump it. we will drive on wet roads all the time which are less safe than dry ones. And more clouds will make for a colder earth as sunlight is reflected away. All in all this is a lot messier than anyone is saying. Especially the companies that want to sell you products they make over products that other already mature markets are making.
We will also change the amounts of fresh water available in ratio to salt water. As we make hydrogen we will be left with all the other stuff that is in the water. So if we don’t take the water from fresh sources we will be stuck with a lot of salt. To throw this back will change the local salinity of the oceans, which are not homogeneously salty anyway (whole global weather patterns are driven by this). The best we could do is to take the water runoff and combine it with the salt we store so that it’s put back near its natural state. Though we probably wont resist taking some other materials than salt out of this.
So is hydrogen really a solution, or is it a political spin? Its no cleaner or better than what we have, and a far cry from what we need. We don’t know what several billion cars running on it will do.
So what CAN we do? Here is the funny part. if we are generating electricity cheap and in abundance cleanly as we do with nuclear we don’t need hydrogen! We don’t need to burn fossil fuels. Now this article was never intended to be a vote for the nuclear energy system, but until we have fusion that’s what we have. to tell you the truth that no one is pointing out that we are going to store the nuclear waste in one place and that place is large enough to hold all of it and what we create until we have a better source. We look at that and think it’s a lot, but in truth, its inconceivable to be able to put all the ash from coal plants in one place, with all the solids from oil burning, and all the carbon from fossil fuels. The amounts are measured in the millions of tons. While the amounts from nuclear is not. Storing the waste is only a temporary problem anyway. In the future we will have better safer methods of getting into space, and space is where we will eventually throw this stuff away. The sun can swallow the earth and only burp, so it’s a good place to throw our waste and clean up the place. So until then, we have to just be better at holding on to it.
More efficient transmission of energy and better storage of electricity is actually the cleanest way to go. We already have the infrastructure to deliver it, its already in place, and can handle it, and would comparatively not add much pollution. Every wall socket and cable can deliver more than we use if we could just store what we are not using. If we could charge a source while we sleep, and the lines are barely used we can use the capacity that we already have more efficiently. Making a hydrogen economy is just converting the electricity into a storage method we think we can handle.
If we could create better ways to store the electrical energy as is, then we will have a very clean system. Its misplaced to put our money into hydrogen development and not into methods of cheap local storage reserves of large amounts of electricity. Its one of the reasons that solar is not more efficient. If we had that method we could use the sun in the desert. If we had improved transmission methods we would throw away less of it.
The future is not in hydrogen. Ultimately it will be in the electrical storage economy. What we really need is a way to store electricity in high volumes with high rates. If we could store electricity the way we could fill a bucket of water.. the world would be the cleanest it could be!! anything else is just a shell game.