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The Dirty Secrets of Clean Hydrogen

We placed a man on the moon in less than a decade after the call to action. Why can’t we do the same for hydrogen?

On June 14, 2011, Bloomberg News reported that Energy Secretary Steven Chu “whose mandate includes getting more fuel-efficient cars on U.S. roads, is disregarding advisers in his own department and seeking to cut almost half the federal funding for hydrogen-powered autos.”

Chu explained that “hydrogen fuel-cell technology” developed by carmakers “isn’t yet practical,” according to the story. Yet, Mary Nichols, chairwoman of California’s Air Resource Board, contends that Chu’s “explanations don’t make sense to me. They are not based on the facts as we know them.” In light of the Obama Administration’s and automaker’s July, 2011 agreement to achieve 54.5 mpg fleet averages by 2025, de-incentivizing hydrogen research hamstrings such goals. These actions undercut progress on hydrogen. So why take them?

As we look into the future, hydrogen must have a presence. While hybrid vehicles play a stop-gap role during our switch from reliance on oil, they do not hold long-term potential thanks to their incremental fuel savings and limited use for anything beyond a family sedan. Biofuels also have a dead end, seen in their need to replace food-producing farmland with energy-producing farmland. With our ever-increasing population on earth, that is unsustainable.

Electric cars are nice with which to play in the short term, but as their numbers grows, so too the demand for the electric to recharge them grows and, at some point, the carbon emissions saved by the electric vehicle is overtaken by the carbon emissions produced by the power plant that generates the electricity to recharge the electric vehicle. Besides, some as-yet unknown breakthrough technology will be required to truly boost battery capacity exponentially beyond what we enjoy today, the capacity that will be required to turn an electric vehicle into anything beyond an urban commuter vehicle.

All of these technologies hold short-term potential, perhaps even mid-term, but long-term potential? It is doubtful. Reaching substantial independence from oil will require a substantial seismic shift in our energy resourcing. Simply look at one vehicle category that electric and hybrid technology cannot answer, and that biofuels cannot answer in light of its above-mentioned shortcoming: trucks. Trucks, from pickup trucks to commercial panel vans to local delivery trucks to semi-trucks, will need to maintain their current engines to remain viable. Only the internal-combustion engine, at the moment, produces the torque required for trucks to haul or tow (or for off-road equipment such as bulldozers to do their jobs).

The beauty of hydrogen coupled with the IC engine.

There are any number of misconceptions running loose out there about hydrogen, but at this point one of them must be dispelled immediately: Hydrogen does not require the use of a special powerplant in vehicles. Hydrogen will burn in every internal-combustion engine in every vehicle today. [1] All that is required, from a utilization standpoint, is the reprogramming of onboard computers so that an engine can accommodate the use of hydrogen. Gasoline requires a air-to-fuel ratio of 14.7:1, or 14.7 parts of air to one part fuel, to burn in an internal-combustion engine. Hydrogen will require a different ratio, but that is easily rectified by reprogramming the parameters of the software operating a vehicle’s onboard computer in charge of the engine’s operation.

Another advantage of an internal-combustion engine burning hydrogen: Since hydrogen is clean burning, like natural gas, it does not create carbon-deposit buildup inside an engine. Carbon buildup is one of the main contributing factors for reducing the life of an engine. Reduce or eliminate the carbon buildup, and one can increase, substantially, the life of an engine. It would not be surprising to see hydrogen-burning engines reaching 500,000 miles before failure (unless manufacturers design shorter-term failures into the engine). That would mean a vehicle owner would be replacing transmissions far more frequently than engines over the lifetime of the vehicle. In addition, without carbon build up, synthetic oils could finally reach their full potential, allowing vehicle owners to run 50,000 miles between oil changes.

Above all else, hydrogen is clean. The only emissions from a hydrogen-burning internal-combustion engine is water vapor. [2] Assuming the water emissions do not collect unwanted fluids such as coolant or oil, which could only be caused by faulty internal leakages, the water dripping out of a tailpipe can be consumed by humans, albeit not as a desirable ongoing source of water. The main point here is that with this clean-burning hydrogen fuel, the need for onboard emission controls would be eliminated, entirely, and engines could return to their pre-1970 simplicity.

As one can see, hydrogen would greatly simplify the internal-combustion engine. In turn, this would a) substantially decrease service costs, b) substantially increase vehicle life, c) substantially reduce the recycling costs presently incurred by the ongoing scrapping of vehicles at life’s end, d) substantially decrease the required oil changes before the service life of a vehicle is reached, e) maintain the vehicle performance we have grown accustomed to with present vehicles, and f) allow more owners, so inclined, to readily repair their own vehicles due to the decreased complexity of the engine.

With all of the benefits surrounding the use of burning hydrogen within internal combustion engines, why do we frequently encounter the pairing of hydrogen with “fuel cell” vehicles? It’s simple: With hydrogen-powered internal-combustion engines reducing complexity and increasing engine life, the automotive and truck industries would be faced with a) fewer service visits, which would make dealership principles unhappy (the profit margins from vehicle servicing are high), b) fewer parts sales, which would make both manufacturers and dealers unhappy (the profit margins from parts sales are high for both manufacturer and dealer), and c) fewer vehicle sales, which would make the automakers unhappy as well as dealers, since any single vehicle sale produces little in the way of profit margins, so higher sales volume must make up for lower margins per vehicle. So how does a hydrogen-powered fuel-cell vehicle rectify these problems for manufacturers and dealers? A fuel-cell vehicle maintains complexity, and complexity cancels out the positive considerations discussed in the paragraph above.
Despite this cheery outlook for hydrogen-burning internal-combustion engines, let there be no doubt that hydrogen, used in this manner, has some issues of its own.

Hydrogen’s Hurdles

As it turns out, there are three major problems with hydrogen-burning internal-combustion engines:

1. The net energy costs associated with hydrogen’s refining for use as a fuel in vehicles.
2. The storage capacity and safety of hydrogen as a vehicle’s onboard fuel.
3. The political and economic hurdles that are facing the development of hydrogen.

The first two hydrogen hurdles are solvable with old-fashion, scientific research and development. The third hurdle may prove to be the most difficult to solve, and it has nothing to do with research and development, but everything to do with the status quo and power.

Let’s investigate these hurdles one at a time.

The refining of hydrogen.

As our technology stands today, hydrogen requires natural gas to refine it… enormous amounts. Energy Secretary Chu recognized this pitfall when, in testimony before the Senate Appropriations’ Energy and Water Development Subcommittee, he stated natural gas “will have to be significantly more abundant and less costly” to make hydrogen refining economically feasible. While the Bloomberg News article pointed out that natural gas prices have “fallen 66 percent since July 3, 2008,” this is short-term thinking. After all, if we made a concerted switch to hydrogen as our technology stands today, the increased demand for natural gas couldn’t help but raise natural-gas, thus hydrogen, prices. [3]

So there is a need for an alternative technology to refine hydrogen before it becomes a viable fuel. But simply because the technology doesn’t exist today, does this make Chu’s dismissal of hydrogen a viable one? Hardly, for all the alternative energy sources we are investigating today will require major technological breakthroughs before any can be counted on for long-term alternatives to fossil fuels. So why dispose of hydrogen so early in the process?

There are few viable answers to this question, so speculation must broadened the considerations. One of the more logical responses is that oil interests simply have not found a way to keep hydrogen collection and refining the proprietary process that oil drilling and refining has become today. In short, they have not found a way to maintain their grip on hydrogen revenues in the same way that they have maintained their grip on oil revenues. In their research and development activities, oil companies may have already discovered a way to cheaply – and with low energy requirements – refine hydrogen. Certainly we know that accessing hydrogen does not possess the same barriers as accessing oil fields. The problem is that any technology possessing a low barrier to market entry would allow anyone to follow suit. The competition would break the stranglehold of the oligopolistic fossil-fuel market. [4]

Safely storing hydrogen.

A problem with operating a vehicle with liquid hydrogen in the tank is that it could become a rolling hydrogen bomb in the event of an accident. To prevent this potential disaster, liquid hydrogen needs to be stored in a tank containing metal hydrides, which allows the liquid hydrogen to be stored as an inert substance until it is ready for consumption by the engine. Thus, with a metal-hydride tank-equipped vehicle, at any given moment the amount of liquid hydrogen onboard a vehicle is very small, and substantially reduces the hazards posed in the event of an accident.

The hitch – there is always a hitch – is that with the current state of metal-hydride technology, the amount of liquid hydrogen that can be stored in a tank provides a far lower driving range compared with a gasoline tank of the same size. Follow carefully: A tank holding liquid hydrogen in metal hydrides, with the external dimensions equivalent to a 16-gallon gasoline tank, would provide the driving range of 6 gallons of gasoline. Thus, a gasoline-powered vehicle obtaining a steady 25 mpg would have a driving range of 384 miles with a 16-gallon tank, while the hydrogen-powered vehicle (all other variables remaining equivalent: size of vehicle, size of engine, aerodynamic coefficients, etc.) with a tank of the same external dimensions would have a driving range of 150 miles. [5]

Thus, the hurdle here is to find the technology to develop metal hydrides that will absorb enough liquid hydrogen, with a tank possessing the same external dimensions as an equivalent gasoline tank, and provide the same driving range. Again, a concerted research and development effort is needed.

The political and economic hurdles.

Actually, the above subhead should read “economic and political hurdles,” for the economic hurdles dictate the political hurdles. What with a hydrogen-powered internal-combustion engine providing longer life, fewer parts and less service, it is clear the vehicle manufacturers and dealer networks do not want to see such a powered vehicle come to market. What with the oil industry unable to retain their oligarchic grip on the energy market they, too, have little incentive to see such a vehicle come to market.

Here, then, may be the impetus for the Obama Administration – in fact, any administration – to downplay the development of hydrogen power for the internal-combustion engine. It simply represents too great of a threat to the status quo and power structure within the energy and vehicle markets.

The detractors from the hydrogen-powered internal combustion engine are many and widespread, and it is difficult to objectively research what negative variables truly represent a hurdle to using hydrogen energy, and what negative variables are simply lies and falsifications to pull our attention away from the hydrogen-powered internal-combustion engine. Most of the criticisms, however, are aimed at hydrogen technologies as they exist today. And in the present state of economic and political hurdles, we will never know how much research and development has not been pursued because certain powerful actors do not want such activities to be pursued, or how much activity has already been pursued but will never reach our awareness because these same actors do not want such knowledge disseminated.

Setting such concerns aside, and assuming we truly do have substantive hurdles standing in the way of utilizing hydrogen, it is hard to believed that a nation that placed a singular focus on placing a man on the moon could not replicate that intensity with the desire to make hydrogen a truly viable energy source. In the bigger picture, developing hydrogen as a new energy alternative is far more important to us in the short term than space exploration.

We live in a nation built on the promise of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” An energy source like hydrogen – one that provides a cleaner environment, an energy infrastructure free of foreign influence, and a cheap source of energy – encompasses all the considerations that address our ideals for a better life:

Cleaner environment: Hydrogen provides for a cleaner environment, reducing the pollution pressures on our environment, raises the possibility for industry to manufacture more cleanly and thus spark economic growth, and may eliminate a main source of our rising cancer and respiratory-illness rates.

Free of foreign influence: Hydrogen reliance takes away the U.S. government’s need to support corrupt Mideastern governments that supply oil to us, thus removes a main justification of the terrorists for attacking the U.S.

Cheap source of energy: Hydrogen certainly contributes to lowering energy and related costs (such as vehicle costs) for Americans in this time of economic want, and thus provides a freedom from financial woes. Above all else, these considerations give across-the-board access for all Americans to the pursuit of happiness.

This is why the debate over the hydrogen economy must never subside, nor the demand for real answers as to why the development of the hydrogen-powered internal-combustion engine has not been actively pursued.

End Notes

[1] In fact, hydrogen conversions of gasoline-fueled vehicles is entirely possible, and such conversions could help speed the changeover of the petroleum infrastructure.

[2] It may prove that as hydrogen-burning vehicles increase in number, and before greenhouse gases start to diminish, we may find the aggregate water vapor from these vehicles adding moisture to the atmosphere and, trapped in the old greenhouse gases, could increase rainfall in the short term. As the old greenhouse gases disperse, however, this effect would diminish. This effect, of course, would be dependent upon the rapidity of conversion to hydrogen-powered vehicles.

[3] According to Ed Kiczek, senior business development manager for Air Products & Chemicals, Inc. (the second biggest industrial gas producer in the United States), at the company’s present costs, hydrogen can be sold for $5 per kilogram (1 kg = ~2.2 lbs). Since liquid hydrogen weighs 0.268 kg per gallon, a kilogram of hydrogen is equivalent to 3.73 gallons, thus the cost would be $5 / 3.73 = $1.34 per gallon. This ignores the costs of the negative externalities associated with producing hydrogen using present technologies (but so do present gasoline prices). In addition, this blogger has been unable to find the fuel economy rate (miles per gallon) for liquid hydrogen burning in a typical internal combustion engine.

[4] At present there are numerous publicly known refining methods for the production of liquid hydrogen, each with their pros and cons, but could it be possible to discover a refining method that consumes hydrogen – the most plentiful element in our universe – to refine liquid hydrogen?

[5] Liquid hydrogen weighs 0.59 pounds per gallon, versus 6.3 pounds per gallon for gasoline. In an apple-to-apple comparison, 16 gallons of liquid hydrogen weighs ~9.4 pounds, while 16 gallons of gasoline weighs ~100.8 pounds. Thus, gasoline weighs some 10 times more than an equivalent amount of liquid hydrogen, giving the latter the benefit of lighter weight. This, however, must be balanced against the heavier tank that will be required to store liquid hydrogen on a vehicle.

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E.L. Beck

E.L. Beck