The Hydrogen Economy:
An Idea Whose Time Hasn't Come ... Again
Last updated 2014.04.12
Let's get past the hydrogen economy hyperbole and put our
efforts into things that might make a real and positive difference
to our economy, our environment and our quality of life.
The Good | The
Bad | The Hyperbole | The
Hydrogen - the Good
The appeal of hydrogen as a fuel is clear and simple and can be
summed up as: the ash of hydrogen is water.
There's lots of it - it's the most common element in the universe.
If we use
hydrogen in a fuel cell, we produce heat, electricity and water.
If we burn hydrogen in an internal combustion engine, we get
heat, water, noise, mechanical energy and some other emissions
resulting from the combustion of things other than oxygen in the
If we burn hydrogen in an external combustion
device, we get heat, water and likely some other combustion
impurities in small quantities.
It is possible to produce hydrogen from sustainable,
That's the good news. All of it.
Hydrogen - the Bad
The bad news about the hydrogen economy doesn't get the media
play, but the list goes something like this.
There are no hydrogen wells
For all practical purposes, hydrogen does not exist in a
natural state on Earth. It is highly reactive, so free hydrogen in
the atmosphere normally bonds with nitrogen (to produce ammonia)
or oxygen (to produce water or hydrogen peroxide). If the hydrogen
actually manages to reach the upper atmosphere without reacting,
it simply leaves the planetary atmosphere and moves into space.
So, if we want to have hydrogen, we have to make it, and then
store it and handle it and transport it so that it cannot come in
contact with air or any of a large number of other substances so
that it will remain sufficiently pure to be used. Given hydrogen's
affinity for bonding with other elements, it typically takes a lot
of energy to break those bonds to make and capture the hydrogen.
Hydrogen today is a dirty fuel
There is a mature hydrogen production industry in place today,
and it's big business. Hydrogen is produced, stored and
transported on a commercial scale today. Virtually all this
hydrogen is made by steam reforming natural gas or other
fossil-fuel-derivatives. The carbon that is left over from
breaking the hydrogen out of these hydrocarbons is typically just
released to the atmosphere, where it typically bonds with oxygen
to make carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. In addition, additional
fossil fuels are typically burned to generate the heat required
for the process, creating the regular witches' brew of pollutants,
toxins and carcinogens normally produced by burning petroleum
products. Some starry-eyed environmentalists believe the future of
hydrogen production will be based on sustainable energy sources,
and point to small production facilities as proof. However,
sustainable energy sources make up a small fraction of energy
production in North America, so there is no surplus to be used for
For example, the Canadian
Association for Renewable Energy argues in favour of renewable
sources for hydrogen production, but even they acknowledge that
hydrogen today is a dirty fuel, and a lot of work will be required
to correct this.
The reality is that for the foreseeable future any significant
increases in hydrogen production in North America will be powered
by one of the following.
1) Natural gas; either by steam reforming (most likely) or
producing electricity for electrolysis (less likely). However, as
natural gas shortages loom in North America, it may be more
important to use this fuel for electrical generation (growing
demand) and residential use (space heating, water heating,
cooking, clothes dryers).
2) Coal; either by production of coal gas and refining it to
get hydrogen, or producing electricity for electrolysis.
3) Oil. Older plants, now mothballed, could be put back into
production quickly to meet increased electrical demand to support
4) Nuclear. High availability source for electricity production
with low fuel costs, and the heated water (from cooling the
reactor) could be used as the feedstock for the electrolysis
process). However, permanent storage of nuclear waste has still
not been fully resolved or implemented anywhere on the planet;
more than 40 years after spent fuel waste started being produced.
No new nuclear plants have been ordered in North America since the
1970's. (This may be about to change given massive incentives from
governments in the United States.)
Take note that moving to a hydrogen economy will require
massive increases (several orders of magnitude) in production, and
the same U.S. Administration (Bush II) that has embraced the
hydrogen economy has slashed funding for renewable energy research
and production, and is inextricably bound to the fossil fuel
industry. The reality is that while hydrogen may burn clean, it is
destined to remain a very dirty fuel to produce. That means the
environmental cost of the hydrogen economy will be very high.
Release re: MIT Study on Environmental Impact of Hydrogen
If you want to encourage a shift to sustainable (renewable)
energy sources, the hydrogen economy is not part of the solution,
as hydrogen will be a proxy for either fossil fuels or nuclear
For now and the foreseeable future, hydrogen isn't green.
The cycle efficiency of hydrogen production is poor
Making hydrogen and using it is a complex and multi-step
process - with energy losses at every step. While it is possible
to make hydrogen from renewable and sustainable sources, it is
simply a bad idea relative to other options such as using the
produced energy directly (e.g., as electricity) while powering
transportation by other means (human powered vehicles, biofuels,
electric vehicles, biofuel-electric hybrids).
Fuel Cell EV
Reality Check by Darryl McMahon (August 2002)
Econogics presentation on the Hydrogen Economy (January 2003)
by Bossel, Eliasson and Taylor (April 2003)
If you are looking to encourage energy efficiency, hydrogen is
not part of the solution, as it takes much more energy to make
hydrogen available as a fuel than it embodies. The hydrogen
economy is not an effective solution at the system level.
Fuel cell technology is not ready for widespread use
Note how many companies are working on developing viable
hydrogen fuel cell technologies - more than 160 years after the
original discovery of the hydrogen fuel cell. The technology
simply is not ready for mass deployment. Life for in-vehicle use
does not meet vehicle life expectations. The cells are easily
contaminated. The technology simply is not sufficiently robust or
cost-effective, despite the fact that it was invented before the
internal combustion engine or the rechargeable battery.
Article "Fuel cell R&D is far from easy street"
by Charles J. Murray (2003.05.22)
Nature abhors free hydrogen almost as much as a vacuum
Hydrogen is highly reactive. In the atmosphere it bonds with
nitrogen (to form ammonia) or oxygen (to form water or hydrogen
peroxide). It also reacts with many metals, leading to
Hydrogen requires special handling
Hydrogen is explosive. If it is restricted from floating away,
it becomes flammable/explosive at concentrations as low as 4% (and
up to 75%) in an environment that also contains oxygen (e.g., the
surface and atmosphere of Earth). Storage and transportation
typically require use of high pressure tanks, cryogenic
temperatures, metal hydrides or chemical bonding via carbon
nanotubes, the latter two being relatively rare. Cryogenic
temperature storage carries its own specific hazards (e.g., frozen
body parts in the event of accident or mishandling). High pressure
storage also has its own set of hazards.
For more on hydrogen handling and storage issues relative to
other fuels, see the European Community paper by J.L. Alcock (also
L.C. Shirvill and R.F. Cracknell - co-authors) of Shell Global
Solutions titled "Compilation
of Existing Safety Data on Hydrogen and Comparative Fuels".
Particularly interesting is the finding that leaks of pressurized
hydrogen can be self-igniting due to the static electrical charge
generated by the leak itself.
Hydrogen will require a new infrastructure
While there is a mature hydrogen production,
storage, transport and distribution network, prices today would
not be competitive as a transportation fuel. Essentially, a whole
new infrastructure will have to be developed to handle hydrogen in
the volumes and at the prices required to make it a viable
transportation fuel for the masses. There is talk of moving
hydrogen via a more friendly carrier (e.g., ethanol, methanol),
but this will require extensive reforming facilities either
on-board vehicles or large centralized facilities. If the hydrogen
is to be carried as ethanol, which can be produced as a biofuel,
it is probably easier, more efficient and more economical to
simply use the ethanol in an E100-capable internal combustion
engine than reforming it for use in a hydrogen fuel cell. Methanol
is not normally a biofuel in commercial production, but typically
produced from petroleum.
There are other concerns, e.g., extensive use of hydrogen could
lead to increased levels of water vapour in the atmosphere thus
increasing greenhouse effects. I don't think the evidence is in on
this one. And there will be those that will over-state the hazards
associated with hydrogen use. So, it is necessary to try to
maintain some perspective on the topic.
Hydrogen - the Hyperbole
There are plenty of apparent "true believers" in the
Hydrogen Economy - they certainly outnumber the naysayers, but
that is to be expected given the vested interests. (There's no
money in critiquing the hydrogen economy. I speak from personal
experience.) And the supporters got a big boost in the January
2003 U.S. State of the Union Address where President G.W. Bush
announced US$1,200,000,000 (since raised to US$1,700,000,000) in
funding for development of hydrogen fuel cell powered vehicles -
the FreedomCar. In the interests of fairness, here are links to a
representative selection. Do your own research, then do your own
thinking, then make up your own mind, and then act accordingly. If
this isn't enough, get some relevant books, e.g. "The Forever
Fuel" (Peter Hoffman) (our
review), "The Hydrogen Economy" (Jeremy Rifkin) (our
review) and do your own Internet searches. Many of the links below will lead to more
Hydrogen Business Council
[link http://www.nrcan.gc.ca/media/newsreleases/2003/200338_e.htm has bit-rotted]Canadian
[website has disappeared http://www.hydrogensociety.net/the_hydrogen_community.htm] The
listing of over 150 hydrogen mockup, concept and prototype
vehicles built from 1960's to present
Association for Hydrogen Energy
Mountain Institute - Amory Lovins' "Twenty Hydrogen Myths"
States Government (DOE) on hydrogen
States Government (DOE) on hydrogen and fuel cells
States Government Hydrogen Posture Plan (PDF document)
(February 2004) (The U.S. Hydrogen Hype shifts into overdrive)
Hydrogen - the Reality
Hydrogen has been successfully used in space by NASA. It makes
sense in an environment where you want all the outputs: heat (the
major output); water (for drinking, because space is the ultimate
desert); electricity - and you are carrying around pure oxygen
anyway and cost is not a real object. Things are a little
different here on the planet's surface.
The hydrogen economy as postulated by North American
governments, the mainstream media and the existing energy industry
is at best hyperbole and wishful thinking, and more likely, a
cynical hoax being perpetrated on the majority of the residents of
planet Earth. None of this should come as news to us. The hydrogen
fuel cell is an older technology than the internal combustion
engine or the rechargeable battery; being created in 1837. Modern
research on the hydrogen fuel cell dates back to at least the
1950's. General Motors developed a hydrogen fuel cell powered van
prototype by 1966. It was not pursued because of economics.
Technology almost 40 years later is not significantly more robust
or efficient than this 1966 vehicle. Hydrogen was championed by
Dr. Roger E. Billings in the 1970's, and then by Dr. David Scott
in the 1980's, and then Dr. Geoffrey Ballard in the 1990's. Fuel
cell vehicles were produced as early as the 1950's
(Allis-Chalmers). A major breakthrough is still required to make
the hydrogen economy viable on basic efficiency grounds. The
hazards of working with hydrogen are well-documented, if not well
publicized by the clique in power today who are steering the
debate (or lack thereof) according to their own desires. Hydrogen
gas had its day (as city gas - used for gas streetlights and
heating), and lost out to superior technologies (notably
zero-emissions electricity). Basic historical research on city gas
works of the 1800's and 1900's will give you a slight sense of the
hazards implicit in the widespread use of hydrogen gas.
Hydrogen does not make an efficient transportation fuel.
Methanol and ethanol are more effective hydrogen carriers than
pure hydrogen; for that matter, so is gasoline. But on-board
reforming coupled with poor combustion or mobile fuel cells lead
to a losing formula. We are definitely better off focusing our
efforts on any of telecommuting, human powered vehicles, biofuels,
battery electrics, hybrid drives, better traffic planning and
control, increased use of mass transit as part of a multi-modal
transportation system, and mass transit based on electric drive
(subways, streetcars, trolley-buses, electrified inter-urban
As for hydrogen as a fuel for generating grid electricity, so
far its efficiency doesn't match up to existing technologies for
peak demand including pumped storage, flywheel storage, battery
storage or even state of the art peaking plants.
We have been trying to deliver this message since early in
2002, after we did our own research and learned the dirty truth
that underpins the Hydrogen Economy. Others are beginning to
figure it out.
on Hydrogen (go to page 4 - Hydrogen Realities) (October 2002)
Morris of ILSR (2003.02.24)
Hydrogen Sustainable? by Oliver Sylvester-Bradley at EV World
Myths Challenged" by John R. Wilson (2003.09.25) (for
Hydrogen Myths" by Amory Lovins (PDF document))
of Hydrogen Fuel Cell, Diesel-SOFC-Hybrid and Battery Electric
Vehicles by Ulf Bossel at EV World (2003.10.23)
of a Hydrogen Economy (2003)
The Hydrogen Report - Executive Summary Wilson & Burgh, TMG
"A Better Way of Getting From Here to There: A commentary on
the hydrogen economy and a proposal for an alternative strategy"
Questions Bush Plan for Hydrogen-Fueled Cars by Matthew L. Wald
(NY Times article - 2004.02.06)
Even some hydrogen advocates are beginning to see the light.
Consider Joseph J. Romm. He was acting assistant secretary of
energy for energy efficiency and renewable energy during the
Clinton administration in the U.S., and remains a proponent of
hydrogen as a fuel. Which makes what he says in an article titled
Hype about Hydrogen (dated 2004.03.17), very interesting
indeed. For example, he says:
"Neither government policy
nor business investment should be based on the belief that
hydrogen cars will have meaningful commercial success in the near
or medium term."
Perhaps there will be a breakthrough in the future that will
render the Hydrogen Economy viable. Until then, funding for
hydrogen should remain in the areas of research and development of
environmentally-friendly and sustainable means of producing
hydrogen efficiently; improved methods of storage, transport and
handling; and improved efficiency in transforming the embodied
energy into useful work. Only after those barriers are surmounted
should we be thinking of deployment into mainstream use, even 20
or 30 years in the future. We certainly should not be betting our
future, near or distant, on this ever-unready technology, betting
that the long-awaited major breakthrough will happen within the
next couple of years. For a real wake-up call on the hydrogen
reality, check the archives
of the Usenet sci.energy.hydrogen newsgroup, or join the list
yourself for a while. (apologies for difficulties with this link
as Google continues to experiment with the old Usenet groups.)
Instead of chasing the hydrogen mirage, we need to focus on
techniques and technologies that we know are viable today.
1) Negawatts. We need to work on reducing our overall energy
consumption, without sacrificing quality of life. No matter what
energy sources we use today or tomorrow, using less of them should
always be looked at as the first option. This does not require any
technology breakthroughs, just better planning and utilization of
resources. Examples can be as simple as hanging laundry to dry,
instead of using clothes dryers powered by natural gas and
electricity, or upgrading insulation.
2) Increased production and use of sustainable energy
production technologies. This includes hydro (preferably low-head
and run-of-river installations, but also pumped storage); wind;
solar; biofuels, etc. Admittedly wind and solar power are
intermittent sources, but the fuel is free and environmentally
benign. In some instances, biofuels can be produced from materials
that are otherwise treated as waste products. While photovoltaics
(solar panels to produce electricity) may not be economically
viable in low-insolation areas, solar heating (water, buildings,
cooking) is viable in most parts of the world. Not always as a
sole heating source, but certainly capable of displacing a large
fraction of other energy sources over a reasonable period of time.
Given the tiny penetration of sustainable energy technologies in
North America to date, we should not be thinking of the hydrogen
economy as a clean option until at least 50% of electricity is
generated from sustainable sources.
3) Increased use of sustainable energy use technologies. We
need to build infrastructures that cater to a mix of lower-energy
use solutions instead of homogeneous, high-energy use systems. For
example, walking, cycling, other human-powered vehicles and
mass-transit systems that are integrated into a multi-modal
transportation system produce less pollution and congestion and
use less energy and space than a car-centric system. Electric cars
produce no emissions at their point of use (i.e. where we are
breathing), and become environmentally cleaner as the electrical
generation sources become cleaner. That has to be better than
automobiles powered by internal combustion engines using fossil
fuels, which become dirtier with age. Charging batteries to run an
electric car is more efficient than using electricity to
electrolyze water to produce hydrogen and then use it in a mobile
fuel cell to drive a car. (Most rechargeable battery technologies
are highly recyclable.)
You are not dependent on the status quo. You can make your own
energy plan. You can choose to use less energy (reducing
natural gas use, reducing
electricity use), and use energy more effectively for the
benefit of your planet, your quality of life and your pocketbook.
It truly is up to you to make a difference.
"Don't hold your breath on fuel cells. Every 10 years they
say commercial deployment is only 10 years away. We're still not
seeing any real fuel cells that can run, say, a car,"
- Robert Lifton, chief executive of Medis Technologies, January
2004 at Davos, Switzerland, as reported
"Hydrogen power will dramatically reduce greenhouse gas
- President of the United States of America, George W. Bush,
Feb 6 2003
text shows "emissions", but listen
to the speech and hear for yourself what he really said.
"Forget hydrogen! Forget hydrogen! Forget hydrogen!"
- Booz, Allen & Hamilton Energy security analyst James
Woolsey (and former CIA Director), Jan 2006
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