portland independent media center  
images audio video
newswire article global

energy & nuclear

Hyping Hydrogen: The Energy Scam

"I have often thought that this 'hydrogen economy' seems intuitively flawed; using energy to make hydrogen to then be used as an energy source. Intuitively, it feels like the Escher painting with the water flowing uphill."
Not long ago I wrote a commentary, "The Great Hydrogen Myth," in which I opined that throwing another billion dollars at more research for the purpose of replacing oil, coal, or natural gas was a huge waste. Recently, that commentary was posted on an Internet site for those who work in industries that provide and use various forms of energy. It's a favorite among the many engineers and scientists whose lives are devoted to energy issues.

Here are some of the responses my commentary received. The names of the innocent have been protected because their jobs depend upon it.

"I have often thought that this 'hydrogen economy' seems intuitively flawed; using energy to make hydrogen to then be used as an energy source. Intuitively, it feels like the Escher painting with the water flowing uphill."

Therein lies central issue that undermines the hype about hydrogen as an endless, virtually free, source of energy. First of all, it is not energy. It is what the engineers and scientists call "a carrier." You have to break the hydrogen molecule free from others to use it and that requires energy. Thus, you have to use a lot of energy in order to use hydrogen to make energy. In real life there is no free lunch.

A chemical engineer with 35 years in the chemical and oil industry who knows a lot about catalytic reforming units that make and use hydrogen in the reformation processes, had this to say: "Not only does H2 (hydrogen) require a lot of energy to produce, collect, and store, it presents rather nasty safety problems."

Need it be said he thinks that Ethanol (made from corn!) is another bad idea the environmentalists have foisted on us? Why? "Ethanol costs far more to produce than the fuel value it provides and the Environmental Protection Agency in its wisdom forced industry to oxygenate fuels only to discover that covalent bonds of all oxygenates are very soluble and stable in ground waters when released." In other words, this environmental "solution" has led to the poisoning of ground water supplies throughout the nation. It also forces up the cost of gasoline.

He wasn't through. "While I'm at it - Greens have our environmental experts at EPA on another even wilder goose chase to capture mercury from coal fired utility plants across the USA. If you add up all the Hg (mercury) released from coal combustion and compare it to global sources, the current analytical and statistical techniques and technologies probably will not be able to detect any reduction in the global Hq pool in the environment."

Thank you, thank you, thank you! The Greens live to conjure up endless scare campaigns, always shouting that everyone, especially children, are being "poisoned" by things that pose no real threat. Or they find ways to force government mandates that either end up poisoning us, i.e., ethanol, are represent no real threat, i.e., mercury. The end result is higher costs for energy use of any kind.

Part of the hydrogen hype is its use in fuel cells. A retired General Electric engineer wrote to say, "I previously analyzed and designed fuel cells and it is apparent to me that they will always be too expensive for all but very special uses. They are twenty times the cost of a piston engine and are very likely to remain at least ten times more in spite of all the research done."

Like all realists, engineers and scientists believe we are, in fact, running a risk in our dependence on petroleum. Even with a trillion and maybe even two trillion barrels of oil available, at the present rate of use, the experts estimate we will go through it in about forty years. Others, however, believe there are vast amounts of undiscovered oil reserves.

Part of the problem of energy costs, energy dependency, and the cost of oil can be found in the fact that the US has experienced a drop in its refining capability over the past twenty years. We went from being able to refine 18.5 million barrels to 16.5 million barrels. There has been an even sharper drop in the number of refineries, from 315 to 155! Thus, the US is highly vulnerable if even a small number of refineries stopped producing, even temporarily. A major factor for the dramatic increase in oil prices is this lack of refining capacity.

This may explain why the oil industry and auto manufacturers are willing to spend billions to find a way to make hydrogen the transportation energy of the future. Hybrid vehicles that utilize a fuel cell could get more than 75 miles per gallon of gasoline and that's a good thing. Environmentalists support this and, if the technology can be developed to a point of being affordable, why not? It remains, however, a very big "if".

The real answer, of course, is to build more refineries and, in part, to tap the reserves of oil known to exist in the Alaskan National Wilderness Reserve. Environmentalists have fought both these options.

Here's the bottom line. Without energy, this nation shuts down, and so do all the others. The good news is that technologies are being developed whereby, for transportation and other uses, new engines will revolutionize the use of current energy sources. They will be far more efficient and they will be affordable.

Beware of the hype about hydrogen. Many engineers and scientists know it's baloney, and you should too.
Hybrids better 07.May.2003 15:18

SUVsRpigs

I think hybrids are better than hydrogen as they tap the energy of momentum in the vehicle which is basically free energy. Every time you apply the brakes in a hybrid you charge the battery. That's why you get slightly better gas mileage in the city in a hybrid than on the highway. The hybrid has 2 engines, the gas engine is small and very gas efficient and the electric motor helps out on accelerations. Bush doesnt even recognize hybrids, let alone encourage them. Apparently-he's only interested in smokescreen promises to pacify the environmentalists.

Yes, Mercury is no real threat. I use it in my tea instead of sugar. 07.May.2003 15:26

Adam Bernstein zenarcade@attbi.com

I don't see what all the fuss is about Mercury. I sprinkle it on my food . It's chock full of minerals and it looks cool. It's in our teeth, our fish and our water, and we are all the healthier for it. Hydrogen? Look at the Hindenburg, how'd you like to drive that thing to work every day? Much easier to get Iraqi oil...so we have a little greenhouse gas, that never hurt any planets....too much. Really I like to breath in exhaust fumes from good old American internal combustion engines. Too much fresh air gives me a headache. So what if it increases the cancer rate and depletes the ozone layer? We have to many people on the planet anyway.


power of "Greens" 07.May.2003 15:52

which way up

Alan,
I am amazed at what you perceive to be the powerful Greens, pushing out agenda down the country's throat.
As far as I know we couldn't even muster 5% in the last presidential election.
I bet farmers with huge corn farms might push ethanol more than the greens (who might suggest not driving your car in the first place)
Mercury is a poison. And when it is released into our atmosphere is very dangerous to our health. Mercury in the environmental "pool" is suddenly much different when I am breathing it into my lungs, and drinking it in my water(which is fed by rain)
Do you want to talk about Hydrogen or, why the Greens suck so bad???
I walked to work today, that means my car was 100% efficient, and pollution free.... get it? That means there is another gallon of petroleum product available for your lazy ass to consume in your car tomorrow.
Hydrogen will be used as an energy storage and transmission device, not as an energy source. that is a no brainer...

bollox. 07.May.2003 15:52

this thing here

yet another attempt to destroy an idea before it gets off the ground, and to protect the established interests.

and i like this:

>The real answer, of course, is to build more refineries and, in part, to tap the reserves of oil known to exist in the Alaskan National Wilderness Reserve. Environmentalists have fought both these options.<

i think this makes clear where the author is coming from.

dear alan, i have some questions for you:

how much energy in total does it take for a car using hydrogen fuel to travel 100 miles, compared to the same car using a gasoline fuel engine? not only am i talking about the car itself, i'm also talking about the energy neccessary to creat the fuel that fuels the car. the energy neccesary to find the fuel, to produce and process the fuel, and to transport the fuel.

i'm not sure that i buy your logic. i don't think you can say that because petroleum may have to be used to produce hydrogen, the same amount of petroleum will end up being used in the end, for a net gain of zero. you are not clear on that article. that is why it is bollox. all you do is the guilt by association argument - that because it may take petroluem to produce hydrogen, well, that automatically means hydrogen is a worthless idea, and so we should keep using petroleum forever and ever. no, i don't think you can say that.

plus, your article is as if pollution and carbon dioxide emmisions didn't even exist and weren't an issue.

what about using wind or solar energy to produce hydrogen? or electricity for that matter...

Hydrogen's Dirty Secret 07.May.2003 16:07

SUVsRpigs

An Interesting article about hydrogen fuel-cell tech.  http://www.motherjones.com/news/outfront/2003/19/ma_375_01.html

Nice try 07.May.2003 16:19

Oil Industry

Brought to you from your friends at Exxon

Caruba hates greens, so what? 07.May.2003 16:45

solar guy

This author makes some good points about the fallacy of hydrogen as an environmental saviour. Hydrogen is not a "source" of energy, unless you can gather it up in space and send it home. Use of hydrogen, on Earth, is limited to use as a storage and delivery mechanism for energy, a "carrier" in this guy's terminology.

But the sub-text, not so subtle, in this piece is an over-generalized trashing of environmental efforts that is bogus in its intent and its evidence. Caruba goes after "the Greens", (not meaning the political party, but rather a basket to lump anyone who favors a clean environment into) for mistaken policies (i.e. the interesting example of the failed promise of ethanol), and sometimes misguided environmental choices. But his criticisms are red herrings, and logical fallacies to boot. A failed effort does not equal a bad goal. If you are lost in the woods, and you try a wrong path that leads you back to your starting point, that doesn't mean you don't still need to find your way out of the woods. Caruba uses some good points to come to an entirely wrong conclusion.

Caruba's real agenda comes out near the end of the essay. He writes, "The real answer, of course, is to build more refineries and, in part, to tap the reserves of oil known to exist in the Alaskan National Wilderness Reserve. Environmentalists have fought both these options." The real answer, I would ask, to what question? If the question were the same one the environmentalists ask, which is how do we reduce the level of destruction of the environment, lessen the quantities of pollution we pump into our air and then breathe, and preserve some portion of this beautiful, dynamic ecosystem of which we are a part, then his answer would be completely misguided and wrong. Perhaps his question is not environmental at all, but rather something like, "How can we maintain the oil and energy business in their current form for as long as possible?" That's the only question to which his answer is "the real one".

Anyway, can't go on at more length now, but you get the drift. This guy is a shill, and his message is simply "environmentalists are bad". Fuck him. Hydrogen as a delivery system, combined with renewable forms of energy production, is an elegant and effective answer to some of the environmental problems now plagueing our planet. But the second part is the real answer: renewable forms of energy production. Until our government is no longer run by the minions of the current energy business, renewable energy will not come into wide use, and pollution, ecosystem destruction, and the poisoning of people and the rest of the world, will continue unabated. Caruba, Dick Cheney may thank you for this propaganda effort, but the rest of us see through your crap.

Hey Solar guy 07.May.2003 17:11

solar guy 2 lovethatsun@hotmail.com

Hey Solar Guy...
I'm a solar guy too, I'd be interested in chatting with you sometime...
Especially if you are in the Portland Area,
send me an e-mail if you would be interested

wake up call 07.May.2003 18:35

realistic human

ok, so "alan caruba" is full of shit. propaganda tool, simple and plain. how long are we going to continue to be energy slaves to the elite?

"caruba" does give us some useful information, nonetheless. he states: "Thus, the US is highly vulnerable if even a small number of refineries stopped producing...Without energy, this nation shuts down"

hmmm, interesting...that little info-bit may come in handy some day.

personally, i have come to the point that i am no longer willing to feed the machine that is destroying this planet. and i am doing everything i can to lessen my footprint and withdraw my support. i no longer have a car, i eat a plant-based diet, i turn down the thermostat, and turn the lights off, i don't ever buy anything new anymore. we need to get to the point where we wake up and realize that if a product is destructive of the environment, we simply do without it. i am tired of the reformist crap. we don't really "need" anything except food, water and shelter from the elements. we don't need suvs that get a few more miles per gallon, we need to scrap the whole concept. for transportation, we need to focus our energies on building high speed electric rail powered by wind generators on the columbia river and solar panels in the sunny eastern cascadia deserts. if we can't power our lights without pollution, we get candles and low-power l.e.d. lights that can be powered by a bike generator. wake up boys and girls, the revolution will NOT be motorized. ween yourself now!

Candles? 2nd thoughts follow: 07.May.2003 20:12

Adam Bernstein zenarcade@attbi.com

Realistic Human I concur with your post except this part:
"if we can't power our lights without pollution, we get candles and low-power l.e.d. lights that can be powered by a bike generator. wake up boys and girls, the revolution will NOT be motorized. ween yourself now!"--
I mean the bike generator part is fine, but candles? Just a quick statistic to burst that bubble: candles are responsible for the overwelming majority of house fires, and in pre-electricity era MUCH more than that. So go solar, go fuel cells, go nuclear (hey if it's good enough for France...), but candles..forget about it.


I dunno about this ... 08.May.2003 08:59

me

"... wind generators on the columbia river and solar panels in the sunny eastern cascadia deserts"

Wind generators on the Columbia are already frowned upon because it's a scenic area. No matter how great they are in other ways, windmills aren't designed to enhance the appearance of an area.

As for the solar panels in the deserts ... what about the fragile desert eco-system? I don't think covering the desert with solar panels is going to be without it's opponents.

to Adam B 08.May.2003 09:01

me

Adam ...

White against black is ugly, but readable. Yellow against light green is not.

Suggest you select colors that are a little easier on the eyes ... please.

Hybrids are better?? 08.May.2003 13:43

SuvsRPigsRBaconISTasty

....but they still use OIL!!
NO BLOOD FOR OIL
NO BLOOD FOR OIL!!!!

what on earth? 08.May.2003 14:35

stinky

the lack of scientific knowledge among the people who post here is amazing. you guys all need to take a few college level chemistry classes...

"I think hybrids are better than hydrogen as they tap the energy of momentum in the vehicle which is basically free energy."

no, hybrid cars still burn gas. energy is *NEVER* free. they don't tap the enegy of momentum, heck, that has absolutely nothing to do with anything. when the car is breaking, the engine isn't being used to propel the car, so the energy from it is used to charge the batteries. no momentum stuff. momentum is defined as p=mv, where p = momentum, m = mass, and v = velocity.

"Bush doesnt even recognize hybrids, let alone encourage them"

sources? no, you're probably just making that stuff up. i suppose you forgot about all the tax breaks one gets for buying a hybrid car...

"how much energy in total does it take for a car using hydrogen fuel to travel 100 miles, compared to the same car using a gasoline fuel engine? not only am i talking about the car itself, i'm also talking about the energy neccessary to creat the fuel that fuels the car. the energy neccesary to find the fuel, to produce and process the fuel, and to transport the fuel."

an assload more. it's not like you can just make hydrogen and transport it. heck they're still having trouble figuring out ways to transport hydrogen gas. it's stupid reactive and dangerous. some groups have theorized storing H2 molecules in alloys, but that's incredibly expensive right now.

"what about using wind or solar energy to produce hydrogen?"

like i said, you can't just "produce" hydrogen gas. it's very VERY rare to find it naturally occuring. besides, those methods are way too ineffiecient to be able to break apart compounds with hydrogen in them to extract the gas.

"or electricity for that matter..."

no, it takes a bunch of electricity to do that. where is the electric power going to come from? you enviro-weenies hate coal power (which is the most dominant source of electricity in the USA), really have nuclear power (which would be suitable for this application), and no other alternatives are strong enough to be able to do something like this on a mass scale.

"Hydrogen is not a "source" of energy, unless you can gather it up in space and send it home. Use of hydrogen, on Earth, is limited to use as a storage and delivery mechanism for energy, a "carrier" in this guy's terminology."

damn yes it is a source of energy. do the chemistry! when hydrogen (H2) and oxygen (O2) mix in a hydrogen fuel cell setup, 4 electrons are released per every 2 moles of reactant. hydrogen is a pain in the butt to store, and there's no good large scale delivery mechanism.

"we need to focus our energies on building high speed electric rail powered by wind generators on the columbia river and solar panels in the sunny eastern cascadia deserts."

THOSE DON'T PRODUCE ENOUGH ENERGY TO POWER ELECTRIC RAIL. dang you guys. wait, we couldn't use solar panels though because of all the toxic chemicals used to create them. another dead end by the enviromental movement...

"wake up boys and girls, the revolution will NOT be motorized."

yes, yes it will be. you don't know jack about science and mechanics. gas/diesel power will be the way to be for a long long time.

stinky, you're not answering the questions. 08.May.2003 15:12

this thing here

>an assload more. it's not like you can just make hydrogen and transport it. heck they're still having trouble figuring out ways to transport hydrogen gas. it's stupid reactive and dangerous. some groups have theorized storing H2 molecules in alloys, but that's incredibly expensive right now.<

you accuse people of knowing nothing about science, but where the hell is the science in your answer? why the hell should i trust you?

>like i said, you can't just "produce" hydrogen gas. it's very VERY rare to find it naturally occuring. besides, those methods are way too ineffiecient to be able to break apart compounds with hydrogen in them to extract the gas.<

duh, you think i don't know that hydrogen doens't just pour easily out of faucets? and like i said, where your's science? why should i be believe anything you say?

>no, it takes a bunch of electricity to do that. where is the electric power going to come from? you enviro-weenies hate coal power (which is the most dominant source of electricity in the USA), really have nuclear power (which would be suitable for this application), and no other alternatives are strong enough to be able to do something like this on a mass scale.<

no, no, no. i don't mean using electricity to produce hydrogen. i just meant using wind and solar to produce electricity alone, "for that matter". sorry for the confusion.

gas and diesel power will the way to be until it runs out stinky. then you'll be in a real tough spot. which is the whole point of trying to use something else. get it?

hmm 08.May.2003 22:09

stinky

ok, how bout we use nuclu-er ( :P ) power? it's much cleaner, safer, and efficient compared to burning oil and/or coal to produce electricity.

wait, environmentalists don't like nuclear power, so we've got a problem there.

 http://denbeste.nu/cd_log_entries/2002/09/Obscureenergysources.shtml
 http://denbeste.nu/cd_log_entries/2002/09/Morepracticalproblems.shtml

yeah, he's a "conservative" writer i guess, but none of those articles really have any political flavor to them. he's an engineer and knows his stuff. read up!

To be fair ... 09.May.2003 09:44

me

In the spirit of fairness, I will add that while Den Beste is an engineer ... he's a software engineer. I like what he says and how he says it, but his background doesn't neccessarily qualify him as any more of an expert on this topic than most of the rest of us. Read what he says, but use some critical thinking too ... beware the false-authority syndrome.

Indeed 09.May.2003 14:15

Isaah9

But the best solution of all is (god help me) a lifestile change. If we all decided to WALK or RIDE a BIKE we would use far fewer fuel. Limit our use of fuel costly and environmentally damaging methods of transport to those neccesitated by circumstance. Abandon your sub-urbs, SUVS and sixty-some percent obeisity rates! BUY SECOND HAND goods! you know, act intelligently instead of relying on pie in the sky solutions, or pretending that if we ignore the problem it will go away... For goodness sake especially in portland where it is so bike friendly and public transportation is so good!

Alternatives 31.Jul.2003 11:44

Canuck

There are other hydrogen alternatives, some already in use. Check this out:  http://www.dynamicfuels.com