Fuels of Tomorrow — Part 1, Hydrogen

Stephen DeAngelis

October 12, 2009

There seems to be a lot of confusion about the role of oil in development. Anyone involved with development will tell you that economic development relies more on electricity than oil. Few power plants are oil-fired. Natural gas and coal are much more common sources of fuel. Oil is mostly about transportation — land, sea, and air. Heavy importers of oil have significant transportation systems and most of them dream about being energy independent in order to staunch the outflow of money filling the coffers of oil-rich nations. Environmentalists dream of the day beyond the oil era when alternative fuels that are far less polluting are used in vehicles. Despite those facts, I’m not predicting an early demise for the oil era; especially in light of the fact that a number of large oil reserves have recently been discovered. That’s why hybrid gas/electric vehicles are likely to be in vogue for a number of years. Nevertheless, a growing concern for the environment will probably speed the introduction of alternative fuel sources for automobiles and trucks.

The three prime contenders at the moment for replacing oil-based fuels in cars and trucks are electricity, biofuels (mostly biodiesel), and hydrogen. For more on electric-powered cars, see my post entitled The Future of Electric Cars. The biggest challenges for electric cars are that they aren’t very well adapted for long distance travel; namely because it takes a significant amount of time to recharge them. To overcome current challenges new technologies and supporting infrastructures would need to be built. Since I discussed electric-powered cars in a previous post, I would like to concentrate on the other two power sources — hydrogen and biofuels — in this one.

Before continuing, however, a side issue is worth mentioning. Transportation systems that rely heavily on either hydrogen- and electric-powered vehicles will require a robust utility sector to support them. The reduction in carbon emissions generated by driving hydrogen- and electric-powered vehicles can be negated if the electricity needed to power the vehicles or separate the hydrogen from other elements is produced by polluting power plants. The plants best suited for generating the power needed for either a hydrogen- or electricity-based transportation sector are probably nuclear or geo-thermal. Although a Swedish engineer believes that solar energy may be the key to a hydrogen economy [“Startup Plans to Usher in Hydrogen Economy,” by Jack Ewing, BusinessWeek, 23 September 2009]. That seems like a good place to begin the discussion of hydrogen power.

“Every major automaker is investing in development of ways to make cars move without petroleum or at least less of it. But there are also lots of smaller companies looking for breakthroughs that would allow us to keep driving without altering the climate and without propping up the world’s petrocracies. One inventor working on the problem is Swedish engineer and entrepreneur Nils Kongmark, who with two physicist colleagues has designed a solar-powered device that extracts hydrogen and oxygen from superheated steam. The device would be small enough to fit on the roof of a gas station, producing hydrogen locally for cars powered by fuel cells. … The process developed by Kongmark’s Britain-based company, H2 Power Systems, sounds promising. Scientists have known how to separate the H2 from the O in water for a century. The problem is that existing methods use more energy to produce the hydrogen than the hydrogen gives back. There’s no net energy gain. Kongmark says that, with the help of materials not available until recently, he has solved this problem. H2 Power System’s ‘solar water cracker’ uses the sun to generate heat used to separate the hydrogen atoms in water from the oxygen atoms. But any source of heat can be used. Because the device can be made small and installed where it’s needed, it would avoid some of the transport and storage problems that have stood in the way of hydrogen becoming a widespread energy source. An additional benefit of H2 Power’s process is that it also produces pure oxygen. Fuel cells need oxygen as well as hydrogen to produce electricity, and work much more efficiently with pure oxygen rather than drawing from the atmosphere. Kongmark says the solar water cracker potentially could produce energy from hydrogen that would be significantly cheaper than current power sources, helping to usher in the hydrogen economy that was much vaunted a decade ago but never lived up to the hype.”

Hydrogen was all the rage starting about decade ago. The Bush administration touted its benefits; General Motors made a significant commitment to hydrogen-powered cars; and hydrogen seemed like the natural successor to oil. Then reality hit. First of all, there are safety issues. Analysts claim that “hydrogen fire is invisible; hydrogen cannot be completely contained by any material know to man; and the general public has no idea of the danger of hydrogen.” [“Hydrogen an Unrealistic Dream,” by Hans Linhardt, Gerson Lehrman Group, 13 September 2009]. The biggest challenges, Linhardt insists, are economic.

“The economics and CO2 considerations are all negative for H2:

  • H2 has to be produced from natural gas via SMR (steam methane steam reformers) and or gasification, the latter is presently not economical
  • CO2 from SMR has to be included in the GHG calculations, giving the H2 approach a lower rating than the CNG and LNG transportation option

“In summary, H2 fuel cell power generation is proven for space applications but not ready for any terrestrial consumer transportation option.”

As a result, enthusiasm for hydrogen has ebbed somewhat [“The Future of Cars Was Hydrogen, Once,” by Jad Mouawad, New York Times, 25 September 2009]. Not everyone, however, has lost enthusiasm for hydrogen power. Take, for example, Jim Andrighetti, who worked in the automotive industry for 39 years and, before retiring, with Quantum Technologies, a California company working in hydrogen-powered transportation. [“Speaker tells Rotary about importance of hydrogen power,” by Felicia Kitzmiller, The Index-Journal, 24 September 2009].

“He is passionate about the creation of a hydrogen economy and is trying to spread the word about hydrogen technology and its ability to strengthen America. ‘Education is the only way we are going to educate people that the hydrogen industry is real,’ he said. ‘There are public companies, and I’m going to say hundreds of public companies, and private companies, along with the help of universities, … that are involved with hydrogen technology. What they have demonstrated over a period of time is that this industry and the technology currently exists. There are hundreds of cars, if not thousands of cars right now in the public that are running this way.’ … The United States consumes 31 percent of the world’s oil, but produces only 2 percent. The country uses about 20 million barrels of oil per day, 55 percent of which is imported at an estimated cost of $2 billion per day. … One area where hydrogen can have an immediate effect is in transportation. According to Andrighetti’s presentation, 69 percent of the oil in the United States is used for transportation, and of that 81 percent is used for highway transportation.”

Despite his enthusiasm, Andrighetti admits there are challenges:

“While there are hydrogen powered vehicles on the roads, there are some obstacles to making the fuel source mainstream. One is public fear. ‘When people think of hydrogen they think of the Hindenburg,’ Andrighetti said. ‘… Hydrogen is completely safe.’ Hydrogen fuel tanks have to undergo safety inspections that far exceed those required for gas storage, and because the gas is light and disperses quickly, a study by a researcher at the University of Miami shows a fire caused by a leak is actually less dangerous to the driver of a hydrogen fueled car. The other is a delivery system. Andrighetti said a move to a hydrogen economy would likely not save America any money, but it would keep the money in the country. Hydrogen causes embrittlement, making its storage and transportation a challenge because it can cause cracks that lead to leaks.”

Another enthusiast is Daimler Chief Executive Officer Dieter Zetsche [“Fill ‘er Up – With Hydrogen,” by Jack Ewing, BusinessWeek, 5 October 2009 print issue]. At the Frankfurt auto show, Zetsche declared “that hydrogen fuel cells, not batteries, are the ultimate way to move beyond oil.”

‘”The chances further down the road seem to me better on the fuel-cell side than on the battery-electric side,’ Zetsche told reporters at the show on Sept. 15. Hydrogen, he said, beats electric batteries at moving cars long distances without refueling. Hydrogen can also power big, roomy sedans much more readily than batteries. … Little-noticed advances have helped hydrogen regain credibility with carmakers. Daimler and other companies like Honda Motor have reduced the size of hydrogen fuel-cell systems to the point that they fit into a standard midsize car. Honda has 35 test versions of its FCX Clarity fuel-cell cars on Japanese and U.S. roads. Daimler’s prototype, a hydrogen-powered Mercedes B-Class compact, can travel 240 miles before taking three minutes to refuel.”

Ewing, however, reports that skeptics still abound.

“Plenty of people still doubt that fuel cells are practical. ‘Explain to me where the energy comes from to produce the hydrogen,’ says Rupert Stadler, CEO of Volkswagen’s Audi unit. The central problem is to produce hydrogen in a way that doesn’t cancel out the environmental gains. Most hydrogen available today is refined from natural gas. Deployed in a fuel-cell car, such hydrogen cuts CO2 emissions 30% more than a diesel engine—significant, but hardly revolutionary. That’s why U.S. automakers put more emphasis on battery-powered cars such as GM’s Volt: Its gasoline engine provides power on longer trips. But automakers continue to invest in hydrogen, since they fear batteries will be practical only for short-range city runabouts. Car execs also doubt that drivers, especially in the U.S., will give up their long-distance land yachts. ‘Although batteries are evolving, I don’t think they can catch up with fuel cells,’ says Honda CEO Takanobu Ito. So what technology do you pick? Both. To ignore either one, Zetsche warns, ‘would be extremely risky.'”

An editorial in the New York Times pretty well sums up the current hydrogen-power situation [“A Dream of Hydrogen,” 8 August 2009].

“Six years ago, President Bush proposed a grand plan to spend $1.2 billion on a ‘Freedom Car’ that would run on (what else?) a ‘Freedom Fuel’ — hydrogen. Thus liberated from the yoke of foreign oil, Americans by the millions would someday be zipping around in contraptions powered by an inexhaustible gas. … Several hydrocars have been manufactured since then — nifty little things with a price tag of several hundred thousand dollars that can be fueled at one of the 63 hydrogen stations throughout the country. They emit fewer greenhouse gases than hybrids, but the difference is not great since energy is needed to produce hydrogen. And so far they have not displaced any foreign oil. President Obama’s energy secretary, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist Steven Chu, recently called for eliminating the $100 million in his budget devoted to research on hydrogen technology. He told Congress that hydrogen cars are unlikely to be deployed on a mass market scale within the next 20 years. And there are other technologies, like plug-in vehicles or even cars run on clean diesel, that will do more to reduce fossil fuel consumption and cut greenhouse gas emissions in that time. We agree with much of Mr. Chu’s assessment. But it seems wrong to cut out all research. The $100 million (as opposed to Mr. Bush’s $1.2 billion) is not a large amount to invest to keep this promise alive — especially since no one is using the program as an excuse for avoiding here-and-now regulations and innovation. Fortunately, the House and the Senate have voted to restore the hydrogen money. … The amounts devoted to all of these investments are relatively small. If they pay off, the returns will be big. A nation that must drastically reduce its consumption of fossil fuels must be willing to gamble.”

Before concluding this post about the future of hydrogen-power, there is one other advance that I would like to discuss that also serves as an excellent segue into tomorrow’s discussion of biofuels — hydrogen generated by algae [“Hydrogen-making Algae’s ‘Achilles’ Heel’ Discovered,” Science Daily, 30 September 2009].

“Scientists have discovered how oxygen stops green algae from producing hydrogen. The findings could help those working towards ‘solar H2-farms’ in which microorganisms produce hydrogen fuel from sunlight and water. An international team of scientists from Oxford University and universities in Germany report their results in two new papers, one in the journal JACS and one in PNAS. For years scientists have been interested in how we could, potentially, produce hydrogen from just sunlight and water to power vehicles and other devices. One option is to use photosynthetic microorganisms that are able to produce hydrogen as well as starch. Green algae are one of the microorganisms that many have suggested could be turned into living hydrogen factories. ‘The hydrogen-producing enzyme found in green algae, known as an iron-iron hydrogenase, has evolved a structure that makes it particularly susceptible to attacking oxygen molecules,’ said Professor Fraser Armstrong from Oxford University’s Department of Chemistry, an author of both papers. ‘Because oxygen is a major by-product of the hydrogen-making photosynthetic process in such organisms, the build-up of oxygen, which rapidly attacks the active site of the enzyme, quickly brings the hydrogen-making process to an irreversible halt. Our work has revealed the mechanism of this process.’”

Algae are turning out to be quite the useful little organisms. As I’ll discuss tomorrow, algae has taken center stage in finding a clean biofuel that doesn’t use food crops or remove arable land from agricultural production. If algae could produce hydrogen on a large enough scale to power a significant number of road vehicles, it would be a major breakthrough for the hydrogen economy. The article continues:

“The team used electrochemical kinetic methods to determine the order of events in which oxygen attacks the active site of an iron-iron hydrogenase found in the green algae Chlamydomonas reinhardtii. … Yet while the research reported in PNAS shows just how destructive oxygen is to the enzyme powering green algae’s hydrogen-making process, the team’s research reported in JACS shows that similar hydrogenases produced by other microorganisms may possess greater tolerance to oxygen, sufficient perhaps to survive in the presence of oxygen released during photosynthetic hydrogen production. Professor Armstrong said: ‘It shows that whilst we may have found a major obstacle along one route to the biological production of hydrogen, this knowledge could help us to identify new routes where nature could suggest an answer to the problem of oxygen’s destructive effect on hydrogen-producing enzymes.’ The team will shortly be publishing the results of similar research into nickel-iron hydrogenases, enzymes related to those that enable blue-green algae to produce hydrogen. The research was carried out by an international team including Professor Fraser Armstrong, Gabrielle Goldet, Caterina Brandmayr, and Kylie Vincent from Oxford’s Department of Chemistry with researchers from Ruhr Universität Bochum (Germany), and Freie Universität Berlin (Germany).”

This latest breakthrough underscores the wisdom that we shouldn’t cut off any area of research in the pursuit of fuels of tomorrow. Clearly, challenges remain before the world can switch to a hydrogen economy, but the work being done with algae and by companies like H2 Power Systems are moving us in the right direction. Storage remains a challenge, but nano technology (and even chicken feathers) may provide answers there (see my post Living in a “Nano” World). I suspect that no one fuel will define the future; rather a combination of hybrid systems, hydrogen fuel cells, biofuels, and electrical power will combine to give us a more environmentally friendly transportation system.