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Practicality of Hydrogen?

Guest blogger, Arnold R. Miller, PhD

As president of a company that develops large prototype fuelcell vehicles, such as a 130 t railway locomotive that exclusively utilizes hydrogen as fuel, I’m often asked about the practicality of hydrogen. Many people believe that, because more energy is required to produce hydrogen than can be gotten out of it, hydrogen is not practical. However, this statement is only half true.

Hydrogen is an energy carrier like electricity. About 3 MJ of primary energy is required to produce 1 MJ of electricity. That is, the overall efficiency of electricity production is on the order of one-third, and obviously more energy is required to make electricity than is in the electricity. But few people would conclude from this that electricity is impractical.

High-temperature steam electrolysis can produce hydrogen from water and electricity with a thermodynamic efficiency of about 0.9. Thus, hydrogen production can be nearly as efficient as electricity production. The part of the statement “more energy is required to produce hydrogen than can be gotten out of it” is true, but the part “hydrogen is not practical” is not true for the same reason that such a statement is not true for electricity.

Why do people hold the contrary opinion? It probably stems from the belief that fossil fuels, because they’re pumped from the earth, are “free” in the sense that no energy cost was incurred in their creation. They are viewed as a primary energy. However, the cost of interest is generally not energy cost but monetary cost: it’s because energy inefficiency has an associated monetary cost that we’re interested in efficiency. Monetary cost is also the lingua franca that allows mathematical combination of various costs.

While crude oil itself does not require chemical synthesis, there are many monetary costs along the way to market as a vehicle fuel. Four components of any cost are (a) capital or infrastructure cost, (b) operating cost, (c) maintenance cost, and (d) social cost. Petroleum exploration, oil tankers, and gasoline refineries represent large capital, operating, and maintenance costs. However, the largest cost of fossil fuels is social cost. These include diseases caused by noise and air pollution, global climate change, and wars to protect the supply of crude oil. A number of studies have investigated the true cost of gasoline, which factors in social cost, and one well-known study [1] calculated the true cost – when the pump price was around $0.25/L ($1/gal) – to be above $3.75/L ($15/gal).

In the final analysis, however, the question of whether oil is cheaper than hydrogen is moot. We have only a finite amount of oil, and on the civilization timescale, it will soon be consumed. Any fuel we then use (hydrogen, methanol, or biofuels) will be synthetic and must be viewed as an energy carrier.

Fossil fuels were produced during millions of years of sedimentation and subsequent chemical decomposition of biological materials. The bulk of these materials derived from carbon dioxide absorbed by plants from the Earth’s atmosphere. History shows that we will likely burn most of these deposits in a total of 200 years. Thus, millions of years of carbon dioxide removal will be returned to the atmosphere in 200 years. What’s wrong with this picture? This state of affairs has without doubt increased the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, and there is a good chance that the consequence will prove negative to civilization.

Because we are so close to the problem, some do not see the big picture. The 200 years of consumption of fossil fuels is a very narrow blip in the history of civilization. Because we are immersed in this blip, we view the burning of fossil fuels as the norm. Alas, in the large scheme of things, it is not. When the blip has passed, if civilization survives climate change, the synthesis of fuels – energy carriers – will be the new norm.

Reference

[1] A. Kimbrell, The Real Price of Gasoline, Report No. 3: “An Analysis of the Hidden External Costs Consumers Pay to Fuel their Automobiles,” International Center for Technology Assessment, Washington, DC, November 1998:

 

About the Author

Until 1998, Arnold R. Miller was a research professor at research universities, including the University of Illinois. In 1998, he founded Vehicle Projects Inc, which develops large prototype fuelcell vehicles such as the locomotive that is presently the largest fuelcell land vehicle. A sister organization, the nonprofit Supersonic Institute, educates the public on the benefits and challenges of supersonic transport and of hydrogen as a transportation fuel. Dr. Miller holds a PhD degree in chemistry and MS degree in applied mathematics, both from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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8 comments

  1. Michael C. Robinson

    There is an unfortunate focus on using impressive and excessive amounts of energy to acquire hydrogen. Bacteria know how to release hydrogen probably better than scientists will for at least a decade or longer. I’m not convinced that hydrogen can’t be procured in a thermodynamically less extreme manner than traditional electrolysis. Nature knows how to work with hydrogen and has been doing so for seemingly millions of years. Besides, the doctor didn’t bring up the fact that you have to procure hydrogen to treat most of the OIL that is converted into fuel these days anyway. So why produce a carbon based fuel when you already have hydrogen?

    The only reason left to produce a carbon based fuel that I see is handling. Carbon based fuels have been handled for a hundred plus years whereas hydrogen has been used more as a curious gas than a fuel. At the very least, finding an environmentally friendly way to acquire hydrogen makes sense even if you choose to continue refining crude Oil. Better than refining crude Oil is producing biofuels, though biofuels deserve some criticism for producing certain carcinogens and other nasties. Health wise, the best choice hands down is a hydrogen/oxygen PEM fuel cell.

    The issue that I feel deserves attention isn’t, “will global warming wipe out civilization.” This question just turns people off. The question, “What can hydrogen be used for and why should we use it that way?,” is far more compelling.

    Has the handling issue been solved? Laser metal hydrides, hydrnol, specially cooked chicken feathers to lower the pressure requirements for hydrogen gas tanks, and this short list can surely be fleshed out further. Hydrogen seemingly can be handled efficiently and safely even in gaseous form (the hardest form next to cryogenic liquid to deal with).

    Fantastic to have someone with a Phd in Chemistry who has the credentials to speak speak about hydrogen. Now, can we ask more compelling questions that give people hope instead of dashing their hopes for the future? No offense intended to the blogger.

  2. Yes this is truly a great bog discussing cost broken down. They say Hydrogen cost more. Please once infrastructure is built we can control our prices.Fuel Cell Batteries Hydrogen. Clean fuel I think cleaner than coal. Utilities can be run.
    Good Job

  3. Bless you for finding the time to explain the terminlogy towards the starters!

  4. well we can’t blame anyone of saying that hydrogen cost more because we are basing or comparing it to the cost of hydrocarbon fuel we are using now a days… the only concern here is that how will we be able to produce hydrogen gas abundantly even without limits to meet the demands of hydrogen fuel in the years to come? in my own analysis the only practical and easiest way to produce hydrogen gas is through the electrolysis of water using sulfuric acid as an electrolytes… why use sulfuric acid? because only water has been consumed in the process of electrolysis and the sulfuric acid remains at ease, hence, no need to constantly add electrolytes into the water from time to time… using inert metals or carbon as electrodes solves the problem in order to prolonged the life of electrodes… the only remaining problems we have now is where can we get an energy in the form of electricity for us to produce large quantity of hydrogen gas through water electrolysis? the answer lies in the hand of every concern individuals that cares in this subject matter… it should be noted that the minds of the inventor/people must be redirected or focus in finding ways to create a device, machines, and the likes that will produce an energy(electricity) needed to electrolyze water abundantly… it is more practical if a dc generator of high current (as much as hundreds of mega Amperes) at the lowest voltage(enough to split water) will be made, in my research i found out that the the homo-polar generator can suppose to produce a very high current/low voltage electricity, however, there are lots of drawbacks in this type of generator, one example is that not all the electrons is being transferred and passed through the carbon brush, hence, a homo-polar generator becomes impractical in this case… other ways of extracting hydrogen gas besides electrolysis are more complicated than you could imagine, so i myself will prefer water electrolysis because it’s the most simple and convenient way of extracting hydrogen gas… i believed that in one way or another, sooner or later… an electric generator will surface and will be use to extract hydrogen in large quantity inexpensively… I’m saying this because i myself have done wide research on this matter and hopefully will be able to materialize my newly found ideas and designed of the said device/machine i mentioned earlier in this text… but i can’t do it by myself, no one can do it alone… i need support to carry out my plans and ideas.. hoping that maybe someday, somehow my invention will serve as a great contributor to the advancement of the fuel for the future, the Hydrogen gas.

  5. P.S

    issues on the safety of handling, storage, dispensing, and other concerns of hydrogen gas wont matter to me, I’d rather focus on one aspect only and that is how to produce hydrogen gas in large quantity inexpensively to meet the demands of hydrogen fuels in the near future….

  6. Well……MAYBE THERE IS A WAY TO PRODUCE HYDROGEN WITHOUT USING ELECTROLYSIS OR ACID ETC…..ETC…
    – MATTER OF FACT THERE IS A WAY …… AND AT A FRACTION OF THE COST AS WELL … WE SHALL SOON KNOW MORE ABOUT THIS NEW HI TECH ……FROM OVER SEAS…….IN THE NEAR FUTURE !..

  7. Hi, We have found a cheap and effective way of activating Aluminum (without Gallium) which will cause the atoms in water to split making a natural hydrogen gas freely available. With the right investors this could be the new Green road to travel. view the video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RcUVVAY_qN8

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