Monday, November 7, 2016

H is for Hydrogen Dreams

I can clearly recall one day in 1997 when I was working for a large company in the UK energy sector and one of heads of the Corporate Strategy department came down to give us a talk. He confidently predicted that inside 10 years "almost every car on the planet" would be powered by hydrogen. This sounded a bit fishy to me, and even though I was a corporate flak at the time, something didn't ring true about his claim. I asked him a question: "But where will the hydrogen come from?"

His eyes boggled at the sheer stupidity of such a question. "Where will it come from?" he repeated, his mouth curling into a smile at the corners as if I had made some kind of joke. "Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe! It's everywhere! You yourself are 10% hydrogen!" There was a ripple of laughter around the room and I felt like the stupidest kid in the class. How could I be such a dumbo!?

Now, almost 20 years later, I have yet to see a car powered by hydrogen. But why?

For a start, hydrogen might be abundant, but it is not a primary fuel. It had to be turned into a useable fuel by employing methods that involve using other fuels. Electrolysis is the main method used to extract hydrogen from water, and most electricity is currently produced using fossil fuels.*

Never mind, let's ignore this energy usage for now and continue making hydrogen. Once we have extracted some pure hydrogen from water (or natural gas, as if often the case - but shhh! don't tell anyone!) we will notice that it is incredibly light and fluffy. To get it into a liquid form we'll have to compress it using a compressor. 10,000psi should do it so that it's usable for a car. Of course, it'll need to be stored in a very thick and heavy high pressure tank.

Okay, so now we've arrived at the stage where we've burned up loads of coal, natural gas or even uranium making water into liquid hydrogen fuel. We have compressed it and stuffed it inside a heavy steel tank ready for using. Can we just store it there until we might need to use it? Well, actually this is also problematic as hydrogen has a boiling point of -253C — which is damned cold by most accounts. Anything above this and it will boil off and evaporate. So forget filling up the tank of your nifty "green" hydrogen car and leaving it sitting on the drive for a few days — you need to use up your fuel before it disappears, which it typically does at a rate of 3-4% a day.

Does it still seem so attractive? Leave you car for a couple of weeks while you go on holiday and you'll likely come back to an empty tank.

Anyway, assuming none of the above really bothers us, what about our good friend the Second Law of Thermodynamics — you know, that old Cassandra party-pooper who endlessly repeats that energy is lost at every stage of conversion, increasing entropy as it does so — does he have anything to say about hydrogen powered motoring? Well yes, quite a lot actually. It turns out that using electrolysis to create hydrogen, compressing it and storing it gives it an energy return (EROEI) of about 0.25. Yep, that means we have to put in four units of energy to get one back.

If anyone still thinks this is a good idea go and grab the nearest six-year old and ask them to explain it to you.

But ... assuming you don't care about the energy loss, the burning of fossil fuels to turn natural gas feedstock — sorry, water — into hydrogen, the compression costs, the storage losses and the fact that your hydrogen car weighs twice as much as a normal one due to the giant onboard tank — assuming none of that matters — where are you going to fill it up? According to the US Department of Energy there are 31 stations nationwide where you can fill up your vehicle. Yes, that's 31 that have hydrogen, compared with about 90,000 that have gasoline. As far as I can tell, there are around two in the UK "with another four planned". Yep, the hydrogen future is already here.**

So, for our hydrogen fuelled cars — which will inevitably also feature lithium ion batteries — to be usable to those people who don't live across the road from a hydrogen fuelling station and who like to travel more than 10 miles from their homes, we'll need to retrofit more or less the entire energy infrastructure.

Need I go on ...?

So, here we are, still waiting for the great hydrogen future ("It's everywhere! The only pollution is water vapour! The fossil fuel industry doesn't want this to take off!") It probably has some industrial application that could be useful but if we think that hydrogen is a straight substitute for petrol we're going to be sorely disappointed.

In the meantime, here's a "zero emissions" train that's just hit the tracks in Germany. Apparently it is entirely pollution free and "runs on water" (like Jesus, but faster?***) Want to play a fun game and lose all you friends in the process? Every time one of them posts a link to the train on Facebook, leave a simple reply saying 'BS' and link to this post. It works wonders — I've already lost several friends as a result, and expect to lose more in the future.

But don't mind me, I'm just a dumbo, and I'm 10% hydrogen.

* Yep, I know you can make electrolysis happen using solar PV or other renewables, but please refer to the bit where I mention the Second Law, and also consider the sheer amount of solar PV that would be needed to do so on a large scale to keep us on a happy motoring course and how it might be better employed.

** In my second career as a journalist/editor, we got invited to meet the late Shimon Peres in a darkened hotel room in Copenhagen during the shambolic COP15 conference. Peres wanted to push his 'Better Place' hydrogen/electric car initiative on us. We were not allowed to ask questions, such as whether it would actually work. "Better Place" went bust a couple of years later due to the unwillingness of the Second Law to negotiate, and the plug was pulled on it — as were several articles that reported on its demise such as this one in The Guardian "Better Place: What went wrong for the electric car startup"

*** As a small footnote, there's a personal irony in this. The Jesus Train was built by the company Alstom, for which my father, gods rest his soul, used to be a purchasing director. In his time he negotiated and purchased all the major parts for the first trains to run through the Channel Tunnel, as well as the French high speed TGVs. I actually spent a summer working in Alstom's French train factory when I was 21. My father would have hated all this BS — he's probably turning in his grave right now.


  1. It's very simple. You pour water into your cold fusion generator at night, and in the morning you have hydrogen.

  2. Huh, interesting that they'd pull an article like that. Out of curiosity I checked, and yup, there it is on the Way Back Machine.

    p.s. "The Jesus Train". LOL

    1. Thanks for finding that. In my experience, pretty much everything to do with green technology is a PR exercise. I say this because I have worked with these companies writing the greenwash (hey - I was really hard up at the time). And if something doesn't look good there will be pressure that it is dropped. There is a lot of money at stake in the green tech industry, and they are very scared of frightening the horses.

  3. You forgot to mention that hydrogen is a lot less energy dense than petrol, so you have to carry more of it to get the same speed/range etc. However you also forgot to mention fuel cells which don't require the big heavy refrigerated tank. Fuel cells seem to be the way that hydrogen would be used to power vehicles. You also forgot to mention Iceland. Then you forgot to mention that there is plenty of solar power available and unused (in terms of the amount that falls on the earth), so you can use excessive amounts of it in inefficient processes if the end product is useful and the solar/wind/geothermal/tide/wave power collection process doesn't occupy too much useful land

    1. Hi Sitalkes,

      Do solar panels appear at the click of a finger? Or do they also not require large supply chains and infrastructure to manufacture?

      As an exercise you could calculate how many panels are required to generate 100 million barrels of oil equivalent energy a day. To keep it easy, assume a 1:1 ratio, and not the 0.25 suggested above.

      Once you have that figure which dwarfs the global solar PV production of the past 20 years by many orders of magnitude you can adjust upwards for the following:
      - panels are rated for clear summer days. They will only average a fraction over the year
      - panels degrade year on year, replacement is required at the 25-30 year mark
      - 1/2 of the cost in solar PV installations is for the controllers, inverters and mounting materials. So you can roughly double the global mobilisation effort required
      - Double again for the hydrogen processing plants

      Sounds feasible to me!

    2. Well, I was writing a blog post over my morning coffee rather than a book, so I didn't 'forget' anything. As for Iceland - that's only 0.04% of the global population—and they have access to pretty much unlimited geothermal energy—so I don't think we can scale their example up for everyone else.

  4. The great majority of hydrogen (~95%) is produced by steam reforming of natural gas, and most of that is used in production of ammonia and in oil refineries for hydrodesuphurization. In both cases, the process has minimal storage needs, as the ongoing chemical processes use it as it's produced. One more example where a "low carbon" fossil fuel (methane) is used to treat heavy feedstocks to help make gasoline so happy motoring can continue.

    While still a boondoggle, many hydrogen ICE schemes use compressed hydrogen, not liquified. The reduction in conversion losses is minor though.

    1. Thanks for that, Steve. I looked at the spec of a hydrogen fuel cell electric car just now and it touted itself as 'zero emissions' (you put water in, you get water out). Down at the bottom of the spec there was a FAQ and one question was

      "Where does the hydrogen come from? Should I be worried about availability?"

      To which the answer was "Hydrogen is theoretically available from water, but mostly it is produced as a by product of natural gas, so we do not ned to worry about it running out."

  5. I hugely enjoyed this particular post. I suspect that human nature being what it is, we are always hoping for a free lunch even though I've heard the second law of thermodynamics paraphrased as, there is no free lunch. There is always the hope that someone somewhere has found a way to circumvent the second law and built a working perpetual motion machine.
    Speaking of hydrogen, a few years back, someone was selling a gizmo that you could install in your car that took electricity from the car's generator and used the electricity to hydrolyze water and feed the resultant hydrogen into the air intake of the engine. Improvement in mileage was promised. I think the scheme worked in principle when you ignored the fact that the electricity you used to hydrolyze the water came from burning gasoline in the car's engine. I also helped if you were able to ignore conversion losses. I suspect that in order to buy one of these gizmos, you had to think that the electricity generated in your car was free and probably going to waste anyway so you might as well use it.
    I think that hybrid cars use some technologies to capture energy that would be dissipated as heat like converting braking energy into electricity that you feed back into your batteries, but again, whether you actually gain anything often depends on whether you are able to ignore full life cycle costs of particular technologies. In any case, in the long run, there is no free lunch and sooner or later you find out that the free lunch cost you more than if you had just paid for it outright.

    1. Hi Wolfgang. I reckon it's easy to promise people free lunches, and much harder to actually give it to them. Of course, the fact that energy is invisible and tricky to get your head round makes the job of the salesman a lot easier...

      And, yes, lots of things look attractive from an energy POV when you ignore the conversion losses, the full lifecycle energy cost, the gargantuan infrastructure needed to produce complex components, the shipping energy etc.

      I'm glad I have a couple of bicycles in my basement, along with a bike trailer to pull along. I'd happily ride it everywhere if it wasn't for the fact that most car drivers round here seem to think they are on a racing track and that people of bicycles have been put there simply to annoy them.

      But that will all change soon enough, I'm sure.

  6. Hi Jason,

    Yup, I read about this technology many years ago and all of the same technical problems are yet to be resolved! ;-)! They can't be resolved as you can't even store the stuff very well as the atoms are so small. Being the first on the periodic table doesn't help that matter as they simply sneak through any material. Storing electricity in batteries also has similar problems as the batteries lose charge over time. I liken that to storing water in a slowly leaking sieve.

    As to the use of solar PV and the generation of hydrogen, well, if all I can produce here during the very depths of winter is an average of one peak sun hour per day, then there just isn't enough energy to propel a vehicle as we currently know them.

    Hey, by the way, I've heard that H follows G. It is an astounding thing! Hehe! Mate, I reckon I was working too hard that day. The mowing here is very hard work at this time of year...

    I wouldn't bet the farm on hydrogen. Improving top soil seems like a safer bet to me, but perhaps not as exciting.

    Sorry to read that you have lost friends over their beliefs. Was that hyperbole? Or are you serious? I tend to tread gently with my opinions in social circles as people become uncomfortable and it isn't my place to change their worldviews. That is not intended as a criticism, it is just that I too have wondered about this important matter and have never come to a clear understanding of that subject.



    1. Hi Chris - I figured you'd have something to say on this matter, given your extensive experience of living with solar PV. Yes - I think storage is a major issue. People generally expect fuel to keep its chemical potential energy, even when left for a long time.

      Friends? Ha - most of them deserted me years ago. Luckyily I have a dog now.

      But honestly, these were Facebook 'friends' I speak of. I find I constantly face a dilemma because certain truths hurt. And generally, when you hurt people, they end up disliking you. So, for example, a friend (both real and on FB) kept talking about about some form of energy she had 'discovered' on the internet will turn a glass of water into highly concentrated energy. It also involved crystals and praying and humming mantras (I'm not making this up). Dilemma: do I just ignore her, smile politely and say "Sounds great" or do I one day get fed up with her going on and on about it and politely tell her that, in my opinion, it's not gonna fly? Well, it was the latter. Ding - I'm a cynical doomer and I have one less friend.

      If it wasn't so tragic it would be funny.

      I generally don't speak of such things to people any more - even if their beliefs might end up killing them.



    2. Hi Jason,

      I heard long ago that dogs are the best people! :-)! On a serious note, I reckon people should live with PV solar before opening their mouths. Alas it is an unlikely wish. I do respect the fact that you understand the realities of PV and are happy to talk about them. You'd be surprised how rare that is. I've changed tack on that topic nowadays by asking people whether trees or plants grow in their area over winter? And that seems to get the message through better as it is less likely to be talked around.

      I've heard of Facebook... There doesn't seem to be much upside to that scenario, unless of course you are tracking their path to the dark side! Hehehe!

      I tend to believe that there are a lot of opportunities even now. We live in a society awash with materials and energy, even if it is in decline. I'm reading about an account of a person living through the great depression and we are doing it pretty easy by comparison. One thing that stood out to me is that the people who had access to a garden and fresh produce fared much better during those times than those who did not.



    3. Yes - dogs do make good friends. We don't disagree on any matter, apart from, perhaps, when I should be taking him out on a walk. And his idea of a cornucopian paradise is a bag of salted pigs' ears and a dead rabbit.

      Solar PV ... I lived with it for two years in Spain. We had a really good system—six 110w panels, pure sin wave inverter ... and loads of sunshine. I really loved being able to run our appliances for "free", and even had a small fridge running off it. However, on cloudy days we would get very little energy at all.

      I've just done a small REALLY ROUGH calculation as I'm sitting here sipping my coffee. Please bear with me on this. I found out that to produce 1 litre of hydrogen using electrolysis one needs approx. 13,000kj (kilojoules). Using a calculator, that works out at approx. 3.6kwh (kilowatt hours).

      So, you'd need 36 standard 100w panels operating at 100% (ignoring pesky conversion losses) for one hour to make 1 litre of hydrogen.

      I'm having trouble finding out the capacity of fuel tanks in hydrogen powered cars, so will assume they are something like 60 litres.

      Lets make a major assumption that - on average - you get 6 hours of 'full capacity' sun hitting your panels, averaged out over the year. That would mean with 36 panels you would be able to make 6 litres of hydrogen a day. To fill up the tank entirely you'd either need to wait six days (ignoring the fact that hydrogen evaporates in storage) or - if you wanted to fill up every day - get 36 x 6 panels i.e. 216.

      So, yes - in theory you could use solar PV to make hydrogen for your car if you lived somewhere that gets a lot of sunlight - but you'd have to invest heavily in a solar system, and it would be the size of a tennis court. All of this is doable, if you have the money and the land, but to think that it could be scaled up significantly is where the doubt creeps in.

      Anyway - which book are you reading? I'm always fascinated by accounts of people during those times.

      As for Facebook (!) - to me it's mostly a news resource. I am also a member of various groups on it (peak oil, woodland management, foraging, money saving tips and many more) and it has been an invaluable resource in that respect. I've found buyers for my products, been able to get some real bargains from others, and have honed my understanding of many complex topics simply by joining in the lively discussions that take place on some of the closed group pages. So, I don't expect it to last forever, but while it still exists I'm using as much as I can.



    4. p.s. I might add that Facebook is rapidly losing its usefulness as a tool - many of the groups of which I am a member seem to have been hijacked by social justice warriors and are expelling or hate shaming anyone who doesn't agree with them.

      An extreme example that happened just yesterday: I was a member of a group called something like Sacred Celtic Earth and one of the frequent posters (perhaps even the founder) posted a meme calling for the assassination of Donald Trump. I replied to it, and asked whether the group was about peace or about murdering people they didn't like. I got some kind of wishy washy answer accusing me of "Walking the path of violence by being complicit with those who would destroy the Earth." I was then equated with Hitler and told I wasn't welcome there any more. Disturbingly, many other members clicked 'Like' on this aggressive put down.

      Oh well. So it goes. Time soon to go back to books and talking to real people.

    5. Don't feel like you don't have any friends Hepp. Us Doomers are all friends. :) You can always go have a cup of tea with Monsta if you need some IRL contact.


  7. Ha wellsaid. It's amazing how so few intelligent people get this simple stuff. It's also disturbing how many leaders of public opinion seem to think that electric cars will put an end to the need for fossil fuels and therefore solve global warming, nuts.
    However there is a remote valley in the North Island where a community led initiative sees homes each generating power by the renewable method of their choice and sharing their resources which means there is some buffering in their system. One contributor has a wind turbine high on a hill, as you've pointed out when you convert energy from one form to another there are losses so boosting voltage in order to shift it over long distance causes not insignificant losses and copper wire is expensive. Their solution is to collect rainwater at the turbine, use the 12v turbine output to make hydrogen, send it down an alkathene pipe at low pressure and without storing reconvert it to electricity at the nearest home to be used or fed into the network depending on local demand. By all accounts this has been quite effective.

    1. Sounds like a good local solution. I'm sure there will be many more ingenious ways of making a bit of juice as we slide down the depletion curve of the future.


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