I had the privilege recently to interview author Dan Sweeny of Visant Strategies who wrote an industry analyst report titled, World Hydrogen Generation 2006: Established and Emerging Markets. The 300-page report talks about the status of the current hydrogen market and forecasts the future of hydrogen as well.
Here’s the interview:
HK: How does one take a leap from the wireless industry into hydrogen technology?
DS: Midlife crisis! Oh, I was seeking my fame and fortune during the dotcom boom as a journalist. When the tech boom descended, I started asking myself what do I want to do? I have a background in electrical engineering and was curious about the new energy technology and decided, what’s more vital than energy since it’s what everything else is based upon.
HK: What do you see as the new and upcoming methods for producing hydrogen?
DS: Overwhelming right now, steam reforming is in first place and electrolysis is second. Chemical-thermal processes are upcoming, which is really a form of hydrolysis, where you’re using water and various chemicals and a heat source. Next generation nuclear reactors will also be used to produce hydrogen.
HK: What do you think of using current nuclear reactors and fitting them with systems for high-temperature thermal reforming of hydrogen?
DS: They don’t get hot enough for direct cracking method, although there has been some research on lower temperature cracking.
HK: Do you think ethanol is viable for producing hydrogen?
DS: There are a bunch of little companies that have reformers for ethanol. Methanol is favored though because its cheaper and can be produced from coal or natural gas. I prefer, though, to see ethanol over methanol, though, because methanol is dangerous stuff.
HK: What’s the biggest obstacle in storing hydrogen?
DS: Well, storage is the biggest problem the industry faces right now. There are a lot of ways to store hydrogen. Compress it, liquefy it, put it in metal hydrides or for large-scale use store it underground. Or store it as a hydrocarbon. Storing it as a hydrocarbon is most feasible, but you’ll still have trouble with emissions.
For the future, ideally it would be a better way if chemical storage of hydrogen took off. If I had to bet, I would guess that chemical storage would be the best arena for a breakthrough. It’s been very frustrating to date.
HK: What do you see as the role of small reformers for hydrogen cars?
DS: There are a lot of designs out there. The automotive industry, besides Peugeot, has rejected small reformers. If you’re going to use a fuel cell, you already have a complex system. A company called Nuvera has developed a small auto reformer and has a relationship with Peugeot. Exxon-Mobile did an interesting white paper on the subject and they said that the reforming of petroleum stock was the best mid-term strategy for reducing emissions. But, you always have to come back to the costs.
HK: What do you see as the role of advanced batteries for future cars?
DS: Further research is needed and this area tends to be ignored by fuel cell advocates, which is unfortunate. I believe, though, that advanced batteries will catch on faster than fuel cells.
HK: What do you see as the most viable renewable energy sources now and in the future?
DS: Muscle power! Oh, that just came out. My father was involved in city planning and he used to lecture on peak oil in the U. S. in the 1960’s. As far as renewables, wind is probably the most viable. Hydroelectric doesn’t have a very bright future. The problem with wind in regards to heavy deployments in replacing fossil fuels is that wind is an intermittent resource and nobody knows how to handle this on the grid and you start to hit a wall. I tend to be high on solar energy. Photovoltaic will be coming down over the next few years, but it is an intermittent source as well.
HK: What do you think of tidal energy?
DS: Tidal is feasible. The older systems are a problem. The newer ones with lower velocity turbines are more viable. The issue is that how many good areas in the ocean are there? Ocean energy is intriguing, though.
HK: For distribution, what’s more likely, centralized or decentralized?
DS: With centralized, I don’t see how you can make that work. When you have a centralized distribution system, you have leakage problems and volume issues. When you look at decentralized distribution, this will happen in off-grid communities first.
HK: Thank you for your time.
DS: My pleasure.