The Hydrogen Economy

The following post was written on October 24, 2012:

The area of energy and the environment provides a constant stream of idiotic pronouncements that will be a recurring topic for this blog.

For a starter, consider the so-called “hydrogen economy.”  For the past 25 years we have been in the grip of the "global warming" scare, whereby environmental activists advocate that the burning of hydro-carbon-based fuels will lead to a rapid warming of the earth that will quickly imperil civilization.  But what are the alternatives to hydro-carbon based fuels (coal, oil, natural gas)?  Burning a hydro-carbon involves oxidizing both carbon and hydrogen, thus releasing not only water (H2O) into the air, but also carbon dioxide (CO2), which is claimed to be the main culprit in warming.  Why don’t we stop burning hydrocarbons and just burn hydrogen for energy?  According to advocates, that will completely solve the global warming problem!  When you burn a hydrocarbon like natural gas (CH4) or gasoline (mainly C8H18) you get both CO2 and H2O.  When you burn just hydrogen, you get just water.  Voila, the CO2 problem is gone!

Who can see the flaw in this?

Here’s an article from a British source (Telegraph) that gives a relatively balanced account.

The “balance” includes quotes from hucksters promoting government-funded hydrogen energy schemes.  This is an area where balance is totally the wrong approach and only ridicule is appropriate.

Here’s what’s wrong with hydrogen energy:  there is no free hydrogen gas available on earth.  There’s plenty of hydrogen, but not in the form of a free gas that can just be taken from the air.  (By contrast, nitrogen or oxygen can just be taken from the air.) 

So where can you get hydrogen?  Two places:  natural gas (CH4) and water (H2O).  You can separate the hydrogen from the carbon in natural gas by running steam through it in a process called reformation.  The carbon combines with oxygen and dissipates off as CO2, leaving the free hydrogen.  Easy!  This is in fact how most free hydrogen is obtained, to be used for purposes such as fertilizer (main ingredient - NH3).

Wait a minute!  The whole idea was to avoid getting CO2 into the atmosphere.  So now, in order to avoid burning natural gas for energy, you have used up some energy separating off the hydrogen, dissipated the CO2 into the air without getting any energy in return, and now you have hydrogen to burn, which is very tricky to transport and store, even trickier to use, and generates less energy on burning than does the burning of the original natural gas.  Congratulations!  No decrease in atmospheric CO2, a lot less energy output, and a bunch of hydrogen canisters everywhere that can blow up at the slightest spark.

Well, how about getting the hydrogen from water?  Easy!  Just use electrolysis.  Run electricity through the water, and it just disassociates into hydrogen and oxygen.  Nothing to it.  Oh, wait.  The amount of energy that you use up separating the hydrogen from the oxygen is less than the amount that you get back when you burn the hydrogen back to make water again.  It has to be that way.  Otherwise you would have a perpetual motion machine.  In other words, there is no possible way that hydrogen generated from water by electrolysis can be a better way to get energy than just using the electricity (generated from another source, usually burning hydrocarbons) that was the input to the electrolysis.  It’s the second law of thermodynamics.

If somebody has a third way of getting large amounts of hydrogen, I’d love to know about it.  Send a spacecraft up to mine the sun?

Well, if use of hydrogen fuel is such an obvious non-starter, surely no one of any intelligence would fall for it.  For example, how about our president?  Sorry, he has fallen for it.

To his credit, he and his Energy Secretary started out being against hydrogen as fuel, but came to the hydrogen party only this year as it became more and more obvious that the electric car thing was dying.   I’d like to be able to say something good about them for their earlier stance, but I just can’t, given that it is so obvious that hydrogen is a non-starter as a major energy source (at least until they figure out nuclear fusion); and also given the president's many other energy idiocies, about which I will have much more to say later.

GW Bush?  Even worse.  He touted the “hydrogen economy” to anyone who would listen.  Here’s the GW Bush White House energy agenda, including the “Hydrogen Fuel Initiative” with $1.72 billion of federal funding.

Romney?  The verdict is still out.  Can he resist this ridiculous groupthink?