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May 04, 2005

Of Heat and Hydrogen

I'm not sure why Matt thinks liberals should stick to environmental arguments when advocating for an end to fossil fuels, nor why he thinks that it necessarily leads to hydrogen, but I have to disagree. Making the environmental case against carbon is only really convincing from a global warming standpoint, and the right's ability to demonize and confuse that case is considerable (for more on this, see Chris Mooney's piece in the new Mother Jones). Last week, Dennis Miller took over the Daily Show with one of his now-tiresome rants, which included a nice little line about how his grandchildren are hardy enough to deal with a temperature increase of 1.5 degrees.

Global warming, because it's complex, weird, and arguing for massive impacts stemming from minor climate changes, is hard to sell on its own. But even if we could, that doesn't make the case for hydrogen, mostly because hydrogen can't yet make the case for itself. As a fuel source, it's simply not technologically mature enough to compete with oil, natural gas, coal, or anything else, really. The fuel cells we've been able to create are failures in both the power production and cost containment departments, and few feel they'll be working for decades yet (and remember, they were supposed to be powering our cars five years ago).

Folks know, at some level, that there's a finite amount of oil in the world. And as prices at the pump shoot skyward, they're primed to believe that we're on the wrong end of the supply curve. Explaining that the costs are only going to get worse, and that the more we use the faster they'll do it, is a great, pocketbook-based argument for why we need to start transitioning off oil. And that's an important point as well; too much hero-worship of hydrogen isn't good. We're likely to need some time on natural gas to give hydrogen time to mature (not to mention that natty gas utilizes our existing oil infrastructure), and we should be investing in wind, solar, biomass, and other research in the hopes of finding other bits for our energy quilt. With oil running down as quickly as it is and hydrogen as far from market as it insists on currently being, any move from oil is going to be a patchwork of power sources and conservation strategies. Arguing for such a strange reformatting of our energy economy simply because the world is going to get a degree or two hotter is, I fear, an almost hopeless battle. Arguing for it because you're not going to be able to afford fuel otherwise (and if we don't the earth'll heat up and we're all doomed) hits with more force.

May 4, 2005 in Energy | Permalink


It's also worth noting that there are other potential huge pitfalls of a "hydrogen" based economy, if we were to ever actually create one.

The research group of one of my professors, John Eiler, published a study in Science last year looking at what might actually happen if we switched fully to a hydrogen economy. Their ideas? Hydrogen, being lighter than air, would be really hard to contain. In most cases now, we lose some anyway when we're trying to store it or ship it; the stuff just wants to move to the top of the atmosphere.

The reason CO2 is such a worry in terms of a greenhouse effect is that there isn't much of it in the atmosphere, and it absorbs IR light in wavelengths that usually leave the atmosphere. This additional absorption of light is the major reason that global warming is expected with CO2.

The reality of the situation with Hydrogen is actually very similar. Hydrogen wants to rise in the atmospehre, and if it gets there, it also wants to react with oxygen to form water. When it does this, it increases the concentration of water vapor in the atmosphere, thereby increasing the absorption of reflected light in much the same way as increased CO2 does. In other words, it's a potential greenhouse gas as well, albiet indirectly. It also is highly reactive when it comes in contact with Ozone, so it could potentially do more damage to the ozone layer as well.

Posted by: Balta | May 4, 2005 1:02:57 PM

It was always a futurists' dream that petroleum would be phased out in such a way that new tech would take over as invented.Hopefully this happens fast enough that we don't run out of the energy needed for a technologically advanced society (or freeze in the dark). There's quite a bit of trusting to luck in the process, not to mention keeping up motivation before running out of capability.

Posted by: opit | May 4, 2005 1:29:07 PM

I'm not sure I understand your understanding here:

...that natty gas utilizes our existing oil infrastructure.

- Natural gas requires wholly separate pipelines from oil for land transportation via continuous supply

- Natural gas requires liquidification (under pressure) for sea transportation or land transportation via dis-continuous supply (via rail or truck).

- Natural gas requires a wholly different setup for storage (usually underground cave-like facilities)

- Natural gas can't be pumped and sold via existing retail service stations.

- Natural gas (like hydrogen) requires pressurized storage tanks in vehicles when used as fuels.

- Natural gas doesn't require refining, but it does require different processing, cleaning, odorification, and BTU normalization facilities.

So, how is the existing oil infrastructure of value for natural gas?

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | May 4, 2005 1:42:15 PM

hydrogen can't yet make the case for itself. As a fuel source,

Please don't use the phrase "fuel source" in reference to hydrogen. Until you can show me the hydrogen wells where we're bottling massive quantities of the stuff being given us for free, it's going to be a fuel transport system and nothing more. Its sole attraction is that it allows us to use energy in a different place than we pollute.

We're facing a (long, drawn-out, but no less real) energy crisis. We were fantastically lucky, as a species, to be given a great big pile of leftover sunlight, and when it's gone we'll either have to use less energy or use energy from other sources.

Let's pretend for a minute that we don't care about any environmental issues. Cool, now we can burn all our coal (and buy a few decades) and make lots of breeder reactors (buying a couple hundred years). Without the environmental factor, hydrogen is needless. My point is that we're still in crisis. I won't say that hydrogen is solving the wrong problem, but even if we had all hydrogen cars and a hydrogen pump on every streetcorner today we'd still have a real problem with energy sources.

Once again: hydrogen is not a source of anything (except pork-barrel projects).

Posted by: Allen K. | May 4, 2005 1:57:46 PM

Allen K...Hydrogen is also a cute way for Republicans who don't care a lick about the environment to sound environmental - i.e. our hummer driving governor here in CA (I don't think he ever followed through on his promise to move one of his hummers to a hydrogen engine, did he?)

It's also a source of some potentially major environmental problems and it's worth discussing those now before we start more heavily using it.

Posted by: Balta | May 4, 2005 2:01:53 PM

If we replaced fossil fuels with Hydrogen we aren't helping our global warming problems at all. Large amounts of hydrogen would escape into the stratosphere and cause indirect depletion of the ozone layer.

CALTECH did a study and it showed that 10-20% of the hydrogen source would leak from pipelines, storage facilities, processing plants, in
fuel cells in cars and at power plants.

The hydrogen would travel upwards(duh), oxidize in the stratosphere, form water and cause a cooling in the lower stratosphere thus disturbing ozone chemistry. The result would be bigger and longer-lasting ozone holes in both the Arctic and Antarctic regions, and an 8% overall depletion.

That's CALTECH's assesment, not mine.

So ontop of making hydrogen a viable fuel source--which has yet to have been accomplished--we'd also have to develope technologies that would stop hydrogen release.

We don't have enough time to fuck around with hyrogen, we need to focus on other sources that are already viable or very close to being viable, such as the ones Ezra pointed out. Eventually hyrogen could be used, but we don't have time to wait it out.

Posted by: Tony | May 4, 2005 2:23:28 PM

For an April Fools stunt, I thought Al Gore should have announced a plan to buy every American citizen who owns a car a compact hybrid over a six year period. People who want bigger cars or a hybrid SUV would have to pay the difference. At the end of the six year period, only hybrid engines would be sold in the US. And all of these new cars wouldn't cost the taxpayers and the government a single penny. You see, once the program starts, the price of oil will plunge. The Federal government will slap a tax on oil that will keep the price the same. That oil tax will fund the whole car purchase program. Everybody is happy. People would mock Gore and ask for details of his plan. Gore would then reply, "Well, the President has been talking about privitizing Social Security for 6 years now and has yet to present a plan, so I figure I have 6 yeats to work on the details." The whole point of the proposal is to poke fun at the President's inability to come up with a plan for Social Security and about how the media hasn't called him on it. I occasionally wonder if my idea is really workable.

Posted by: HippoRider | May 4, 2005 2:52:15 PM

If we replaced fossil fuels with Hydrogen
So ontop of making hydrogen a viable fuel source--which has yet to have been accomplished

Tony, please read what I wrote above. No replacement is possible, hydrogen is not a fuel source. (I realize we're on the same side!)

Posted by: Allen K. | May 4, 2005 3:08:27 PM

There are many ways to sell better energy policy besides global warming. Try "We're #1-ism:" Do you want Europe and Japan to kick our asses and corner the post-petroleum energy technology markets? No? Then we better lead the way in subsidizing/incentivising solar/wind/tide/geo/hybrid/etc. research so American businesses don't lose their competitive edge.

-John I

Posted by: John I | May 4, 2005 3:43:21 PM


I'd planned to use trackback for this, but it looks like you've taken it down. I've responded to you and Yglesias at sustainablog:

Posted by: Jeff from sustainablog | May 4, 2005 3:45:36 PM

Jim -- I was unclear. Certainly we need to get the stuff here, through tankers (LNG) and pipelines, but natty gas works the same way as oil, particularly when transformed into a liquid fuel, which is to say it can power our energy economy in the same way we do now, unlike hydrogen which would require a reworking and reinvention of most everything. THat's why it's called a "bridge fuel", it's a bit different, but it doesn't demand a wholesale tranformation of how we use and utilize energy. Hydrogen does.

Posted by: Ezra | May 4, 2005 4:06:14 PM

Making the environmental case against carbon is only really convincing from a global warming standpoint,

Only if you're limiting it to CO2. There are plenty of other environmental arguments to be made against fossil fuels in general (and some of them are health-related).

Posted by: Tom Hilton | May 4, 2005 6:19:36 PM

Tom: That was my point. I don't think the other reasons are convincing. People live in car-filled cities now, convincing them that oil is killing their children will be a hell of a battle...

Posted by: Ezra | May 4, 2005 6:35:54 PM

convincing them that oil is killing their children will be a hell of a battle...

Now you're totally joking. We can't even convince them that cars are killing their children!

Posted by: Allen K. | May 5, 2005 12:21:29 AM

hydrogen = nukes. simple.

The way you produce hydrogen is you take water apart. That takes a lot of energy. Then you put the hydrogen into your car, where you put it back together with oxygen to make water again. That releases energy, which drives your car.

So where do you get the energy to take the water apart in the first place? You do it with electricity. And where do you get the electricity? Nukes.

Hydrogen means you'll be driving your car around with nuclear energy.

Right now you can't drive your car around with nuclear energy because there's no way to store the energy in a car. Batteries are too heavy and bulky. Hydrogen will change all that.

Maybe you think that's okay. But don't pretend that hydrogen will replace fossil fuels. Hydrogen is a way to make it possible for nukes to replace fossil fuels.

Posted by: JR | May 6, 2005 2:59:15 AM

Why not let the inventors invent? Maybe it sounds whacky, but I live in Vegas and on Channel 8 about a year ago on the 6 o'clock news, a guy professed to run his car off pure water. He was supposed to come back the next night at 6 and explain it further. He didn't show and the news made no mention of him, in fact the article they had put up on their web site was gone> same thing happened in the 30s, a guy took a water hose and stuck it in his gas tank, and fired up his car and drove off, this was documented by some filmmakers. That guy was never heard from again, at least not publicly. Big oil will never let this happen untill we run out of oil, then they will find a way to charge us for the water, like bottled water is like 8 bucks a gallon. I'm lookin for the anti-gravity machine myself, when that come down we'll be able to power our vehicles with flashlight batteries!

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