More Hydrogen Economy

My previous post cited research at Purdue University, supported by GM, that promises to advance the practicality of hydrogen fueled cars, by improving on-board hydrogen storage capabilities. That, in itself, is good news, but it still leaves us a long way from hydrogen as solution to our transportation fuels or greenhouse gas problems.

The biggest question is “Where will all that hydrogen (H2) come from?” The glib answer we usually hear is “from water … it’s all around us.” Well, true enough, we can, with enough effort and expense- and a lot of electricity – turn H2O into H2, through a process called electrolysis. Unfortunately, today the large majority of our electricity comes from burning coal or natural gas. Some basic laws of nature dictate that the cycle of coal-to-steam-to-electricity-to-H2 consumes large amounts of energy and generates large amounts of CO2 greenhouse gas to create a relatively small amount of H2.

Worse than that, essentially none of the world’s capacity to produce H2 uses the electrolysis process today. Instead, in a process that uses steam and very high temperatures, hydrocarbons – that is coal, oil or natural gas – are broken down to H2 and, unfortunately, more CO2. As before, you use large amounts of energy and generates large amounts of CO2 to create a relatively small amount of H2.

The trick to making the hydrogen economy actually work on a large scale is to totally bypass hydrocarbon fossil fuels on the way to H2. This, in turn, requires solving two problems:
1. How to build and operate cost-effective electrolysis factories on the huge scale necessary to support a hydrogen economy?
2. Where to get all that additional electricity, without burning more coal or natural gas?

Addressing the first question will require a huge investment of resources and national will, but it is largely an issue of engineering, of scaling up known technology, with some federal ‘pump-priming’ encouragement and support in the early days.

Addressing the second question is where ‘renewable’ energy opportunities really gets interesting. In future posts, we’ll look at the attractiveness of winds, tides, ocean waves and geothermal – and even nuclear – as source of electricity to power a hydrogen economy.

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