“Seeing The Light”
(cover story on hydrogen energy, reprinted with the permission of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel)
July 24, 1991
Politics and economics could block adoption of hydrogen
This is not another story about how you should buy special light bulbs or bike to work in South Florida’s 98 percent humidity to conserve energy.
This is not a story about suffering more for the wonderful world of post-industrial society and style, but about finding fuels that make us suffer less.
The world’s petroleum reserves will be depleted – gone — by the year 2050. (Thus the rush to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Preserve and the Florida Keys.) What then?
We have historically changed our main fuels every 40 to 60 years: first coal, then oil, now natural gas. But after 120 years of using fossil fuels, their price has caught up with us – and we’re paying for it in almost every way possible.
There exists, however, another fuel to power our planet, one that is non-polluting, recyclable, abundant and basically free. It is the simplest most common element in the universe: hydrogen. Its “waste” product is water. And its reserves are inexhaustible.
“Hydrogen is the best fuel,” says Dr. T. Nejat Veziroglu (ve-zeer-oh-lu), director of the Clean Energy Institute at the University of Miami, who is considered one of the world’s experts on hydrogen energy. “You can produce it using any and all primary sources: sun, wind, ocean thermal, geothermal, nuclear, even coal. Fifteen billion years ago the universe was all hydrogen, and today 90 percent of the mass in the universe is hydrogen. Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe. All the stars are hydrogen. Most of the planets are hydrogen. It is the most natural fuel in the universe.”
Water covers 75 percent of the Earth’s surface. When water molecules are split- using clean energy such as the sun in the process called electrolysis- H2O breaks into hydrogen (H2) and oxygen (O2), which appear as gases.
Hydrogen carries the energy from the sun, acting as a middleman to collect, store, pipe and transport energy for cars, homes, planes and factories. It is impossible to store solar energy by itself in large amounts for long or to transport it across continents without significant loss. So solar-hydrogen energy could provide us with clean, continuous source of energy day and night, in the North and in the South.
Hydrogen can take the place of any fossil fuel, and do the job more efficiently and cleanly. The burning of hydrogen with oxygen produces only water vapor, which is harmless (though some scientists say it could increase the mass of clouds in the atmosphere.)
Besides being environmentally friendly, this energy system is permanent- the sun and the rain are all that is needed.
And hydrogen fuel is part of the only true recyclable energy system on Earth – from water, H2 returns to water after use. The solar-hydrogen energy chain is a natural one that does not harm human beings or the environment; each link takes only what it returns to the earth at another link in the chain.
Potential problems with hydrogen fuel don’t involve pollution or another “Hindenburg” disaster. Politics and economics stand in the way of putting hydrogen theory and research into practice.
The cost of solar-produced hydrogen vs. oil prices under current world pricing and policies is prohibitive. In 1990 costs, solar-produced hydrogen costs from $3.80 to $12.20 a gallon equivalent of gasoline. By the year 2000, this cost would drop to $2.80 to $4.50.
“The problem boils down to one thing: economics,” says William J.D. Escher, program manager of NASA’s Propulsion, Power and Energy Division in Washington, D.C. “Unless gas or diesel, hydrogen fuel has o be created – the dollar per unit of energy is, simply put, four to six times more than the fossil fuels. Even if there were parity in price, you still have the problem of converting the infrastructure – filling stations, pipelines, etc. Every aspect of the hydrogen energy corner has been studied. What’s not been worked out is what [exact] kind of transition policies we will have.”
Transportation is the first area consumers would see hydrogen fuel in action, and with good reason: one third of all U.S. energy is devoted to transportation, up 20 percent from 1973 and climbing. Car emissions are said to cost about $40 billion in health care each year, studies by the American Lung Cancer Association show.
The world’s best minds are scrambling for the opportunity to present the world with a commercially viable H-car, experimenting with two types of engines (internal combustion and fuel cells) running on pure hydrogen fuel in one of three forms: compressed H2, liquid H2 and metal hydrides.
Compressed or gaseous hydrogen is like natural gas stored in pressure-resistant containers. Current containers are heavy, but lightweight containers using space-age materials such as carbon fiber around aluminum are being developed.
Liquid hydrogen is what NASA uses to power and cool the space shuttle. It is formed by freezing H2 gas to -423 F (-253 C) and can be further frozen to slush or even ice.
Metal hydrides are natural metals or alloys in powder form that soak up and retain hydrogen like a sponge. They release H2 when heated, for instance by circulating engine coolant and soak it back up as they cool down. Astronauts use hydride heat pumps in their space suits to keep warm and cool.
In all cases, pollutants are nearly zero. Because the fuel contains no carbon, the exhaust consists mainly of water vapor. Hydrogen does not contain corrosive chemicals or carbon to build up in the combustion chamber. German experiments found that cars fueled by hydrogen needed very little servicing.
A prototype hydrogen fuel cell car was unveiled in June in Pennsylvania by Roger E. Billings, the inventor of the first home personal computer and double –sided floppy disk. Fuel cells are in essence hydrogen batteries, which convert hydrogen and oxygen back to electricity to power the engine.
Billings, head of the American Academy of Science, a private research organization, remedied cost and weight problems with his “LaserCelll.” When the car is not running the fuel cell produces enough hydrogen from 2 gallons of water to power a Ford Fiesta for 300 miles. It costs less than a penny a mile to run and is said to have a top speed of 80mph.
“The combinations of high efficiency, low pollution and silent operation could make fuel cells the leading power generation technology of the future,” professor Brian Steele of Imperial College in London says. British auto makers are vying for the chance to be the first to launch the LaserCell car for mass production by 1993.
This month Energy Partners, a West Palm Beach company, will unveil details of its H-car prototype dubbed “the Green Car.” The $3.3 million project, financed partially by the DOE, also uses fuel cell technology.
In Germany, BMW is running 735i and 745i 3.8-liter models on liquid hydrogen, and Mercedes-Benz’s hydrogen research vehicle is 230E, 2.3-liter modified gasoline engine that runs hydrogen stored in metal hydrides. Benz also has sedans, station wagons, vans, small buses and transporters in production, and officials say they hope to have hydrogen-powered buses running in Hamburg within six years.
“It’s possible to utilize existing supply networks for natural gas and electricity to generate hydrogen locally,” John Chuhran of Mercedes-Benz of North American says. “And gasoline engines can be modified for hydrogen fuel at the factory – not that we would be using the same engines, but that the retooling requirements would be minimal.”
The Japanese are also heavily into prototype production – Mazda hopes to sell a few hydrogen cars in California within 10 years, with cars that store hydrogen in metal alloy balls. The Japanese are keeping quiet about the rest of their technology.
There is a down side to the use of hydrogen as an alternative to gasoline:
Filling up could take as long as 10 minutes or one hour; because liquid hydrogen is -423 F, one drop would cause frostbite. For that reason, BMW developed a robot pump for human-hands-free servicing.
Because it has a lower energy content gallon for gallon than gas, hydrogen takes up tot 10 times more volume than gas to produce the same energy. This means bulky fuel tanks and limited range. And hydrides are extremely heavy. But H2 fuel takes less energy to ignite, meaning it “burns lean” from an engineering standpoint. Efficiencies are higher – 560 percent more efficient in city driving – so you do get more miles to the gallon, but your gas tank is larger.
Small amounts of nitrous oxides (NOX) are produced when liquid or gaseous hydrogen burns with air in combustion engine. (Not the case with fuel cells.)
NOX contributes to acid rain and smog. But it has less effect that gasoline emissions, and Mercedes- Benz has installed a system to reduce the production of NOX.
The high costs of hydrogen is mainly caused by the expense of solar electricity used to split water to obtain H2. BMW and a subsidiary of Daimler-Benz recently committed to spending $3.3 million in a joint venture to address this problem by developing cheaper solar panels.
“Hydrogen from renewable energy sources is not cost competitive today,” says Frano Barbir, a research analyst at the Clean Energy Research Institute. “It could be by the year 2000, but it will be by 2030.
“The costs competitiveness is much better if external costs [environmental damage, military expenses, for instance] are included in the price of gasoline.” Gasoline prices would then cost $2.30 a gallon today and $2.80 by the year 2000, his estimates show.
The carbon tax: Who pays?
Including external costs in the price of gasoline is an idea that is gaining momentum. The United Kingdom, Germany Worldwatch Institute, Clean Energy Research Institute and others are proposing a “carbon tax” to be levied on oil, natural gas and coal- fuels that produce carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide.
The tax would try to take into account the real price we pay for using fossil fuels: air pollution, human health damages, environmental damage (oil spills, loss of natural preserves, loss of wildlife and plant species), and other economic and ecological costs borne by the taxpayers and the environment. If the tax is enacted, the burden of these costs would be shifted back to the source. This would make solar-hydrogen energy the cheapest fuel; because it produces no carbon oxides, its “price” to the environment is nearly zero.
Some people say we must not interfere with “free market” forces, but Curtis Moore, an environmental analyst, and S. David Freeman, former energy adviser to presidents Nixon, Ford and Carter, point out that the global oil trade is not a free market.
“About 75 percent of the world’s oil is controlled by the OPEC cartel, many of whose members are, at best uneasy allies of the United States, and, at worst, outright enemies,” they wrote in an article for the Washington Post. “The hand on the pump is not Adam Smith’s: It is Saddam Hussein’s, Moammer Gadhafi’s or Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s.”
Safety- the invisible difference
Hydrogen automobile manufacturers say hydrogen is as safe as gasoline, yet they shy away from the direct use of hydrogen gas, which is more combustible, preferring to use liquid and metal hydride forms.
Hydrogen is crystal clear, with no smell or taste. When burned, it is invisible and odorless.
Colors and odorants would have to be added to hydrogen fuels so you could see it and smell it, and in the case of a fire, stand back. That’s all that may be required: Hydrogen burns upward, not sideways, so you could be right next to it and not be hurt. Surrounding objects do not heat up or ignite unless touched by the flame. Smoke inhalation from hydrogen would not make you sick.
This is the reason that the only fatalities in 1937 “Hindenburg” accident were those who leaped to their death. The German dirigible, which ran on hydrogen fuel, crashed into flames, but when it landed, the rest of the passengers walked safely away. Spills of hydrogen would evaporate almost instantly – even liquid hydrogen does not puddle because of its buoyancy and high rate of diffusion. Safety precautions for hydrogen cars include sensors that would immediately fling open the trunk, allowing the hydrogen to disperse harmlessly into the air.
With oil reserves soon reaching the bottom of the barrel, there is no doubt that we will have to switch our energy system. “Up to now, human society changed its energy system, its fuel, every 40 to 60 years,” Verziroglu says. “First we used wood as our energy source, then coal, then petroleum , now natural gas.”
Each changeover required alterations to engines, energy conversion devices, burners and boilers, much as the car manufacturers are doing to make gasoline engines ready for hydrogen. “Hydrogen, on the other hand, could be fuel forever,” Veziroglu says.
Escher, who has been working with DOE and NASA for almost two decades on hydrogen cars and energy, cites California as an example of policy-making that will encourage hydrogen use in the transitional phase away from petroleum. “By 1988, 2 percent of vehicles manufactured must have zero emissions. By 2003, 10 percent. Aside from battery electric cars, that would seem to be the perfect place for H-cars to jump in.”
DOE spending for hydrogen as a transportation fuel is projected to be $450,000 in fiscal year 1991. About $1.9 million is set for hydrogen research such as electrolysis and anaerobic bacteria, microalgae that produce hydrogen themselves. In fiscal year 1992 $2.6 million is allotted for further hydrogen research.
Some supplies of fossil fuels need to be preserved for non-fuel applications for which there may be no substitutes: the production of aspirin, ink, paint, synthetic fabrics, lubricants and thousands of other products where they are unique raw materials.
The next energy source being investigated by the U.S. government and oil industry is coal. The DOE and several oil companies have committed to spending $2.3 billion toward finding ways to use coal to make synthetic oil and gas (SynGas) as our next major fuel source. Coal is the most deadly and environmentally unfriendly of all fossil fuels, causing more than half of sulfur dioxide and NOX emissions. This program would move the United States toward even higher levels of carbon emissions at a time when the rest of the world is calling for massive reduction. SynGas is the most expensive of any synthetic fuel to manufacture, and it sprice to the environment could be unsustainable.
“Hydrogen is the cheapest synthetic fuel to manufacture,” Veziroglu says. “It is possible to make synthetic gasoline and synthetic natural gas. But to manufacture them, you must first manufacture hydrogen, the combine hydrogen with carbon, so hydrogen is produced first and the cost rises after that.” Why take the extra attempting to make coal “clean,” when we already have the cleanest fuel at are disposal?
Some policies would have the human race go on an energy diet. Why suffer more, when the ingredients are here to safely and cleanly fuel our energy-hungry species?
Energy conservation should not be discouraged, but neither should it be promoted as the solution to our energy problem.
And that’s what this story is about.
Reprinted with the permission of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel