Rainbows and Unicorn Farts…

Tom James @ 19-06-2008

…are about as likely to solve the two little problems of peak oil and global warming as hydrogen fuel cell technology.

hydrogenSorry to flog a dead horse here but it’s always worth repeating something, especially if you’ve found someone who can express the idea more articulately than you can.

Joseph Romm of the Center (sic) for American Progress (centrist American think tank) writes eloquently on the reasons why hydrogen fuel-cell powered automobiles are a dead-end and that there are better alternatives:

More than 95 percent of U.S. hydrogen is made from natural gas, so running a car on hydrogen doesn’t reduce net carbon dioxide emissions compared with a hybrid like the Prius running on gasoline. Okay, you say, can’t hydrogen be made from carbon-free sources of power, like wind energy or nuclear? Sure, but so can electricity for electric cars. And this gets to the heart of why hydrogen cars would be the last car you would ever want to buy: they are wildly inefficient compared with electric cars.

I’ve never been entirely clear why investors, boffins, and the popular press like hydrogen fuel cells so much. And why the insist on using the buzzword the hydrogen economy, implying that this is capable of replacing our current oil-based transport setup. Is it just because the cars themselves don’t emit any carbon dioxide during operation? I don’t know, but I suspect some people, including automakers Honda are in for a nasty shock.

[story via Technology Review][image by mirrorgirl]

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13 Responses to “Rainbows and Unicorn Farts…”

  1. SMD says:

    Well, if hydrogen is out, get me something else that will be a viable replacement of the gas engine and won’t cost me my next 200 year’s wages…
    We need electric cars that can go highway speeds, can last for a good long while before needing recharging (so we can actually commute with electric cars) and have the power to haul things (so we can replace diesel trucks). And we don’t need them tomorrow, we need them now. Are any of the gas companies making significant contributions to this, or can we expect they don’t give a crap?

  2. Tyler says:

    You are missing a key point in the issue. You claim renewables are better used directly in electric cars rather than going through fuel cell technology, though you forget that the electricity must be stored somehow. Just as batteries store electric potential, so do separated hydrogen and oxygen. Batteries are made of some nasty stuff, they are expensive (albeit less than most fuel cell technology) and they have short lifetimes. Batteries are more efficient now because they’ve been in development for much longer.
    Hydrogen offers CLEAN energy storage from excess renewable energy (i.e. excess peak power output — most renewables produce more energy off-peak).
    The point is, it isn’t an open and shut case if you consider that hydrogen should be considered a storage medium for energy rather than a source of energy. Clearly, producing hydrogen from fossil fuels is a terrible idea, but combine hydrogen with renewables and you have, overall, a cleaner process that might just be more sustainable.

  3. Tyler says:

    (Just read SciAm’s article on the first hydrogen house; worth reading through: http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=hydrogen-house&sc=rss)

  4. moronic50 says:

    Simple reason for hydrogen being prefered: Money. Petro chemical companies such as BP fear the idea of the consumer just charging their car at home on the cheap. They will push like hell for Hydrogen which they can sell by the litre like petrol all the while pushing its supposed ‘green’ image. Theyve got to find someway to make money out of those petrol stations, sad but true.

  5. jtc says:

    Pean Oil theory is not real. Oil will just get more expensive to extract until it isin’t worth doing anymore. The price will rise until substitutes are viable and we make the transition… just like we have done every other time we made a transition from one energy source to the next.

  6. TJ says:

    Tyler @ 2: First point: “Clearly, producing hydrogen from fossil fuels is a terrible idea, but combine hydrogen with renewables and you have, overall, a cleaner process that might just be more sustainable.”

    It remains to be seen if renewable sources of energy (photovoltaic, solar thermal, wind, tidal, geothermal etc) can provide the sheer quantity of energy required to provide the electricity needed to power our transport infrastructure.

    I’d advocate nuclear power as a large part of the carbon-neutral energy solution: Canadian CANDUs or French EPRs, combined with some renewables (solar in warm climates and for domestic heating, wind and tidal where applicable, hydroelectric where applicable).

    Second point: “You claim renewables are better used directly in electric cars rather than going through fuel cell technology.”

    I think that plug-in hybrids combined with synthetic petroleum (produced via renewable energy sources or nuclear power) offer the best solution currently. Compare Toyota and Honda. On the one hand you have the Prius (mine for £16922), and on the other you have the FCX Clarity (see the article, it doesn’t seem to be available in the UK).

    Check out this article (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/environment/article4133668.ece) for a look at carbon-neutral petroleum.

    The fact is petrol/gasoline is a fairly good energy storage medium – and if it can be made carbon-neutral (or even carbon-negative, as suggested in the Times article) then why bother spending $X billions upgrading the world’s transport infrastructure to use hydrogen?

    “Hydrogen offers CLEAN energy storage from excess renewable energy (i.e. excess peak power output — most renewables produce more energy off-peak).”

    Like I said, it’s “clean” because it doesn’t emit CO2 at the point of use. However if the method you’ve use to produce your petrol/gasoline was carbon-neutral then the CO2 emmission doesn’t matter.

    SMD @1: Yes: again I’d say hybrids and synthetic petroleum, with nuclear/renewables as our primary (carbon-neutral) energy source, would prodive the solution.

    moronic50 @ 4: Yes. There has to be a vested interest behind this obsession with hydrogen fuel cells. I agree that there is value to the technology – but suggesting it will create a “hydrogen economy” to replace the oil economy is nonsense. Hydrogen isn’t a primary energy source.

  7. Al Fin says:

    Methanol is the fuel of choice for fuel cells, not hydrogen. Methane is another good choice choice for fuel cells. Both have decent hydrogen to carbon ratios, and both can be produced efficiently by renewable means.

    The push for hydrogen was simply lack of imagination and failure to think the issue through clearly. Space mission fuel cells used hydrogen, so naturally academic airheads and politicians thought hydrogen would work for the masses.

  8. simon says:

    Let’s put the Oil company conspiracy theories to bed and start thinking. Electricity via solar is a renewable energy pathway that holds real promise. It is developing fast. Hydrogen as a substitute can only live as a storage device for solar.

  9. Paul Raven says:

    What I find darkly amusing is that the idea of becoming less reliant on personal vehicle use seems to be almost inconceivable. Whatever changes occur as far as types of fuel are concerned, I think a lot of people need to wake up to the fact that owning your own car is going to become increasingly financially impractical. All the more reason to start lobbying for effective efficient public transport infrastructure.

  10. JustinP says:

    I don’t know, Paul. Jamais Cascio argues that cars provide personal mobility, personal expression, and independence. In a social/cultural sense, they aren’t something that can be easily replaced, particularly when public transport remains stigmatised.

    Assuming you haven’t seen it already, this scenario is definitely worth looking at.

  11. Paul Raven says:

    I understand the argument, Justin, but I suspect Jamais is trying for a compromise there – and fair enough, compromise is good. But compromise takes time and charisma, both of which Western governments (and I) lack. Much quicker and easier to fix the things that cause public transport stigma – overpricing, lack of comfort, poor service – and let the escalating cost of energy do the hard work of changing people’s minds for you, IMHO.

    And anyway, I already have a low-fuel-cost vehicle that allows me personal mobility, expression and independence – and the only CO2 my bike produces (after manufacture, natch) is what I breathe out when I’m pedalling. 😉

  12. Curtis says:

    Interesting post. Just one question though: Why did you feel the need to add “(sic)” after “Center”? Who exactly did you think would think you misspelled it, and why do you care? Anyone who clicks on the link will know the center spells it that way.

  13. Paul Raven says:

    I think he was just trying to be helpful, Curtis – we Brits are easily confused, after all. 😉