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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 Reality

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 atmosphere.
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, environmentally-friendly sources.

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 hydrogen production.

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 electrolysis.

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.

Press Release re: MIT Study on Environmental Impact of Hydrogen Vehicles
(The Report)

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 fission energy.

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)

Slides from Econogics presentation on the Hydrogen Economy (January 2003)

Paper 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.

EE Times 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 embrittlement.

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 related links.

American Hydrogen Association
Ballard Power Systems
California Hydrogen Business Council
Canadian Government
Global Thermoelectric
Canadian Hydrogen Association
H-Power (aka PlugPower)
The Hydrogen Community
Hydrogen Now
Hyweb's listing of over 150 hydrogen mockup, concept and prototype vehicles built from 1960's to present
National Hydrogen Association
International Association for Hydrogen Energy
QuestAir Technologies
Rocky Mountain Institute - Amory Lovins' "Twenty Hydrogen Myths" (PDF document)
Stuart Energy
United States Government (DOE) on hydrogen
United States Government (DOE) on hydrogen and fuel cells
United 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 rail).

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.

Don Lancaster on Hydrogen (go to page 4 - Hydrogen Realities) (October 2002)

David Morris of ILSR (2003.02.24)

Is Hydrogen Sustainable? by Oliver Sylvester-Bradley at EV World (2003.07.19)

"Twenty Myths Challenged" by John R. Wilson (2003.09.25) (for reference, "Twenty Hydrogen Myths" by Amory Lovins (PDF document))

Efficiency of Hydrogen Fuel Cell, Diesel-SOFC-Hybrid and Battery Electric Vehicles by Ulf Bossel at EV World (2003.10.23)

Feasibility of a Hydrogen Economy (2003)

The Hydrogen Report - Executive Summary Wilson & Burgh, TMG

NewRules' "A Better Way of Getting From Here to There: A commentary on the hydrogen economy and a proposal for an alternative strategy" (2004.01.06)

Report 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 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.

Last Words

"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 by CNN.

"Hydrogen power will dramatically reduce greenhouse gas admissions"

- President of the United States of America, George W. Bush, Feb 6 2003

(The speech text shows "emissions", but listen to the speech and hear for yourself what he really said. Freudian slip?)

"Forget hydrogen! Forget hydrogen! Forget hydrogen!"

- Booz, Allen & Hamilton Energy security analyst James Woolsey (and former CIA Director), Jan 2006

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