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Hydrogen is no super fuel PDF Print E-mail
Tuesday, 31 May 2005

In an era of growing concern over the security of our energy supplies, federal and provincial governments are funding development of alternative sources of energy.

Hydrogen is no super fuel

This seems to be taking place without sufficient regard for the underlying scientific and economic constraints that govern likely success.

A case in point is the so-called "hydrogen economy." This seductive concept idealizes clean power, a virtuous cycle of hydrogen from water, energy from hydrogen, and clean water as the only byproduct. Unfortunately, hydrogen is too expensive to become a useful fuel in our modern world.

Of the two main methods for producing hydrogen, steam reformation of methane/natural gas and electrolysis of water, steam reformation is easily the cheapest. Reforming natural gas requires the natural gas feedstock, but also uses additional natural gas as fuel to create the steam that is integral to the process.

Basic thermodynamics tells us that the hydrogen coming out of the reactor will be more expensive, per unit energy, than the natural gas that went in, since any such process is less than 100-per-cent efficient.

So, those waiting for a cheap, gaseous fuel that can be burned in automobiles already have one, and that fuel is called natural gas. Yet there is no significant use of natural gas in automobiles, likely because of the lack of filling infrastructure.

Some would argue that if the price of oil continues to rise, hydrogen will become economically viable. This is probably incorrect. As oil prices increase, natural gas prices will also likely rise since natural gas is a substitute, pushing up hydrogen prices as well.

For those placing their wager on hydrogen from electrolysis of water, one can also count on electricity costs rising along with fossil fuel prices, since substitution is possible and the current supply of electricity is finite.

The net result is that natural gas is almost certain to remain less expensive, per unit of energy, than hydrogen, at least in areas with the price structure of North America. No one talks about the viability of natural gas as a replacement for gasoline, and no one should consider hydrogen as anything but an even less likely alternative.

Hydrogen is also difficult and costly to handle when compared with current liquid and gaseous fuels. While safety concerns tend to be overblown, there are other, more immediate problems.

Optimistic studies on the use of hydrogen as a fuel usually fail, for example, to take into account the storage costs associated with a highly compressed gaseous fuel. Hydrogen has such a low fuel value per unit volume that it is difficult to ship or pump meaningful quantities of energy from point to point.

Hydrogen-economy advocates are well aware of these issues, but propose quick fixes such as the storage of hydrogen in solid hydride materials. A cursory knowledge of physics suggests that many attendant problems remain. The hydrogen gas to be stored in the hydride material must still be compressed before storage, consuming energy. Further energy is lost removing the hydrogen from storage, reducing efficiency even further.

Hydrogen is touted as an alternative to gasoline. However, even assuming inexpensive hydrogen, fuel cells to power vehicles are likely highly remote, despite decades of development. Power from internal combustion costs $100 to $200 per kilowatt (one kilowatt is about 1.34 horsepower.) Today's hydrogen fuel cells cost about $2,000 per kilowatt of power produced. If we need 40 kW of power in a small car, $80,000 for the power plant seems expensive.

The cost of fuel cells is strongly tied to the platinum catalysts needed to make the reactions in the cell occur at useful rates. Cutting costs means significantly reducing the use of platinum, but doing so to the required level without sacrificing the reaction rate will likely win the lucky researcher a Nobel Prize. While I can dream, setting government policy on this basis seems ill advised.

Yet there are novel alternative technologies that could easily make economic and commercial sense with only a small push from economies of scale. One is solid oxide fuel cells.

SOFCs are already showing they have the longevity to be used to generate electricity and be a source of heating for homes or multi-unit dwellings. The cost of power produced in this manner is still high, but cost reduction does not require a scientific breakthrough, only the scale associated with higher production volumes.

Government intervention to encourage the development of the skills and technology to automate the manufacture of the currently low-volume and expensive ceramic tubes used in SOFCs would help create a new and potentially powerful industrial base.

Lead-acid battery packs are widely used as a backup power source in a variety of industries. Having more cost-effective and energy-dense rechargeable batteries to store power would have a significant impact in a number of markets. Further, significant research is being done on rechargeable batteries that could buffer the power produced by generating technology, such as wind turbines. The output of a wind farm might be made much more dependable than the current state of the art allows.

Fuel cells of the correct capital cost, when applied to the correct end market, would be useful. For example, alkaline fuel cells (which consume hydrogen, but use nickel catalysts rather than platinum) can provide long-term backup power and be cost-effective compared with the continuing testing and replacement of lead-acid batteries in the cellular telephone industry. In fact, this technology could even serve as a reliable backup generator for homes and businesses, if used for short periods to bridge disruptions in the electrical grid.

The above technologies (novel rechargeable batteries, alkaline fuel cells, SOFC) are being successfully developed by Canadian firms. These companies would likely welcome government support for their work and would make better use of it than companies now receiving support for hydrogen research.

As someone with a strong interest in the commercialization of new technology, I favour continued research into hydrogen uses, but at a reduced pace, with the research conducted primarily within university environments, such as the Fuel Cell Research Centre in Kingston, Ont.

At the very least, however, government support should be apportioned in a bloody-minded fashion, cutting funds flowing to technologies that are not demonstrating results. A judgment of which technologies are producing results in line with their hype can be derived from the financial returns generated by public companies working in these areas.

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