Hydrogen: Tomorrow’s Fuel of Choice?

Hydrogen: Tomorrow’s Fuel of Choice?

Hydrogen is widely abundant, but mostly unavailable.

Locked together with other atoms to form a multitude of substances, such as water, hydrogen must be separated from the compound it’s married to.

This is the first problem with any proposal for a hydrogen economy.

The second problem is that of transporting hydrogen to where it can be used. It’s possible to produce hydrogen from methane reforming of natural gas or hydrolysis of water at a central location, but it must then be transported to where it can be used, such as at refueling stations for fuel cell vehicles.

Transportation usually involves cryogenic trucks where a third of the energy is lost in lowering the temperature to transform gaseous hydrogen to a liquid and back again.

California is still wasting millions on its hydrogen fueling stations.

If reforming or hydrolysis is done at the point of use, such as at the refueling station, the problem becomes how to store the hydrogen on the fuel cell vehicle. 

For fuel cell vehicles it means large high pressure tanks at 10,000 psi taking up a great deal of space on the vehicle. 

Toyota Mirai Fuel Cell Vehicle

While fuel cell vehicles are an alternative to gasoline or battery powered vehicles, there are three problems with their use.

First, the problem of producing and transporting the hydrogen. Second, there is the problem of storing the hydrogen on the vehicle and finally there is the high cost of the fuel cell stack.

Unless the first two problems are eliminated, and the cost of the fuel cell stack is significantly reduced, perhaps by half or more, fuel cell vehicles will remain expensive and problematic.

The answer could be to produce hydrogen on the vehicle while the vehicle is being used, without the need for storing hydrogen on the vehicle.

There’s research work underway towards this end.

One example is the University of Massachusetts Lowell which is developing  a method of producing hydrogen from water, carbon dioxide and cobalt metal particles with nanostructure surfaces.

While this is still in the laboratory stage, and question remain, such as the source of water on the vehicle as well as cost, it shows that the problem with using hydrogen on a fuel cell vehicle is well recognized.

There is also a great deal of glib talk about hydrogen, and this was evident at the recent IHS CERAWEEK Conference.

There was glib talk about the ease of using wind and solar to generate electricity for producing hydrogen from water using hydrolysis. At present, there is overproduction of electricity from solar but there won’t be any excess if fossil fuels are eliminated. Any over generation during the day will have to be stored for use at night.

No mention was made as to where the hydrogen might be stored.

There was also glib talk about using existing natural gas pipelines for transporting hydrogen. Unfortunately, existing natural gas pipelines are chemically attacked by hydrogen which leads eventually to their failure.

While iHS Markit is writing articles for special sections of the Wall Street Journal, there needs to be a lot of research and objective thinking before jumping on a hydrogen bandwagon.

The glib talk about hydrogen is typical of the rhetoric about global warming and climate change and how easy it will be to eliminate fossil fuels.

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12 Replies to “Hydrogen: Tomorrow’s Fuel of Choice?”

  1. Beside the fact that I don’t want to drive around with a bomb strapped to my ass.
    Ca. Air board keeps saying that they want to push trucks and heavy equipment into hydrogen . How big would the tank have to be for a 600 hp machine to do a 12 hour shift .

  2. H2, especially when under high pressure, tends to diffuse into metal weakening its structure.
    Further, chemical bonds in H2O are quite strong and require considerable energy to sever, generally more energy than released when new chemical compounds of H are formed. H2 is a fuel best left to special situations, such as fuel cells on spacecraft.

    • Thanks. Excellent comment. These are both details that are often overlooked by advocates of the hydrogen economy.

  3. I once worked for a startup that made Hydrogen on Demand. Hydrogen was produced by NaBH4 and NaOH plus catalyst while operating the vehicle. This eliminated the need to have gas tanks to store hydrogen. Among the many problems encountered was the high cost of producing NaBH4. But I did get to ride in a Bronco fueled by the mixture. Never realized how much technology is involved in modern vehicles. We needed a drive train that could handle the fuel so the driving wouldn’t be so jerky. There’s so much more to vehicles than most people realize.

  4. Excellent article. As I have mentioned before I have worked on numerous H2 plants over many years and find it hard to believe that our politicians have been pushed into wasting our tax dollars on H2 cars. There are so many problems and issues that it will NOT be a viable fuel for public transportation. Besides not making economic sense there are so many other issues like parking a H2 tank in one’s garage with a 10,000 psi tank that is a literal bomb.
    Also do these people realize the cost of duplicating the fuel distribution system that currently exists through out the country?
    As you mentioned “The glib talk about hydrogen is typical of the rhetoric about global warming and climate change ” reveals a lot of ignorance about useful energy for the future.

    • Thanks Don. I appreciate your comments. Yes, there is too much ignorance out there.

  5. “The answer could be to produce hydrogen on the vehicle while the vehicle is being used, without the need for storing hydrogen on the vehicle.” I wonder how this can be worth it in under any circumstances, the laws of thermodynamics are unforgiving.

    • Without such a breakthrough, it’s very doubtful hydrogen can become an effective fuel for fuel cell powered vehicles. Time will tell whether researchers can develop such a technology, i.e., hydrogen on demand.

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