The Hydrogen Economy
December 6, 2004 4:45 AM   Subscribe

and this may still be a pretty big hurdle to overcome.
posted by three blind mice at 5:55 AM on December 6, 2004

One of the really fundamental problems that they only brush on is this: the globe is deeply addicted to energy it doesn't really have to pay for.

We get A LOT more energy out of a barrel of oil than we use to pump it out of the ground. I don't remember the exact figures, but I think it's about a 10/1 return. When you consider the sheer amounts of oil we're pumping, that's a truly ENORMOUS amount of energy that is priced much cheaper than it should be.

The single biggest problem with the 'hydrogen economy' is that, suddenly, we have to PAY FOR the energy we generate. Instead of 10/1 returns on energy, we'll get more like 0.75 or 0.8 to 1 AT ABSOLUTE BEST. Hydrogen isn't 'found' energy, we have to split it away from the other molecules it's attached to, and that takes MORE energy than we'll get back out of it when we 'burn' it.

So, fundamentally, the 'hydrogen economy' even if it magically happend tomorrow, would mean that energy would be 10 to 15 times as expensive. Instead of a $100 heating bill, you'd be looking at $1500. Instead of $30/week to drive your car, you're talking $450. Virtually all goods would increase in cost by an amount proportional to the energy required to make them, including food. (which requires a very substantial energy input).

In other words, if it happened overnight, the economy would instantly crash into severe depression, and, most likely, billions of people would die.

I don't think there's going to be any graceful way to deal with the problem, either... even transitioned slowly, over a period of many years, a 15-fold increase in energy costs would be extremely difficult to adapt to.

As far as I can see, the ONLY reasonable alternative is nuclear power. We have this global fear of the stuff, but it's 'free' energy on a scale possibly exceeding that of oil.

Interestingly, most plants and animals aren't as badly affected by radiation as we humans are. Look up the Bikini Atoll, the site of numerous nuclear weapons test.... it is now a lush, tropical paradise. (You can even safely visit, but you really don't want to eat the bananas.) Radiation is terrible for humans, but not so much for the environment, so groups like Greenpeace should be all in favor. If we have an accident, we're the ones who suffer for it.... Mother Nature seems to adapt all right. In fact, chances are pretty good that Bikini Atoll will stay healthier than it otherwise would have been, since humans can't stay there long anymore.

Whether we like it or not, humanity is now inseparably married to technology, and that technology requires a huge amount of energy to run. Nuclear power scares people, but I bet $1500/mo heating bills and $1800/mo transportation costs would rapidly convince most people that we can tolerate it all right, after all.

This only delays the problem, it doesn't truly get rid of it. Ultimately, we're going to have to do something like deploying huge solar panels in orbit. We will have to capture more of the energy that is being 'wasted' by the sun. By our present standards, that's almost limitless energy. By the time we've outgrown that source, humanity is likely to be so inconceivably different it's not even worth thinking about.

We don't have the technology to really make solar work properly yet... so when we go nuclear ( and it's not an if, we WILL go to predominantly nuclear power, it is absolutely inevitable), that more or less starts the countdown. If we can figure out how to make solar work on a large scale before we exhaust nuclear power, we win, and we get to keep reproducing and growing. If we can't, our global civilization crashes and burns.

Of course, we could come up with some other form of energy we haven't thought of yet, but I'm not going to hold my breath waiting for one. :-)
posted by Malor at 6:30 AM on December 6, 2004

tbm: That's right. Transporting H2 in highly-flammable containers was not a good idea. But transporting non-renewable fuels can be messy too.
posted by sour cream at 6:36 AM on December 6, 2004

Malor, if you read the article, they address this. for example:
The challenge is to find inexpensive and efficient routes to create hydrogen in sufficient quantities from non-fossil natural resources.
- and that's what impressed me most about this article, compared to most others which (misleadingly) focus on energy storage/transport.
posted by andrew cooke at 6:57 AM on December 6, 2004

Can someone explain to me the problem with just making ass-loads of solar panels and cracking the stuff through electrolysis? I can envision a couple of different possible solutions:

1. Build a fucking huge solar farm in the desert somewhere and just start producing and shipping from there.

2. Decentralize: Put a solar collector on every roof that can use one (and by use one I mean "will produce X amount of energy per year where X is some number that we all think is enough to justify solar panels) and have everyone crack hydrogen in their homes for their commuting needs (which make up a great deal of our gasoline usage).

3. Some combination of 1. and 2.

I know there must be some fundamental flaw with my plan (and I want to know about technological flaws - not economic ones, as those can hypothetically be solved through policy changes) but I am not sure what it is. Can someone let me know?
posted by Yellowbeard at 7:20 AM on December 6, 2004

sour cream, don't you mean inflammable?
posted by three blind mice at 7:22 AM on December 6, 2004

I know there must be some fundamental flaw with my plan (and I want to know about technological flaws - not economic ones, as those can hypothetically be solved through policy changes) but I am not sure what it is. Can someone let me know?

it's called nightime.
posted by three blind mice at 7:25 AM on December 6, 2004

i mean nighttime!
posted by three blind mice at 7:27 AM on December 6, 2004

I want to know about technological flaws

well the article discusses this too:
The efficiency of this integrated photochemical process can be much higher, in principle, than the two sequential processes; it has now reached 8-12% in the laboratory4 and has prospects for much greater gains as researchers learn to better control the nanoscale excitation and photochemistry. The technical challenge is finding robust semiconductor materials that satisfy the competing requirements of nature.
where the "integrated photochemical process" is described a little earlier (basically a way of doing light -> electricty and electricity + water -> hydrogen in one step).

[on preview - was that a weak joke, or do you not get the whole point of this, which is that you can store the energy in a compact way?]
posted by andrew cooke at 7:33 AM on December 6, 2004

it was SAD attempt at humor andrew cooke.

at this time of year, at 60 degrees north lattitude, nighttime is more or less all we have.

and considering the cloudy summer we had, any activity based on dependable sunshine seems like a perilous venture.
posted by three blind mice at 8:01 AM on December 6, 2004

Look, I know about darkness and clouds. I get that part. However, as should be obvious, unless we put up orbital solar, those are just problems we shall have to contend with.

My plan for dealing with dark and clouds is to use hydrogen as a battery. Besides which, if you haven't noticed, humans are diurnal, so for much of the night, at least, I would guess that we tend to use less energy (I could be wrong about this). Besides which, if we go with option 1. - big ass solar farm in the desert southwest, clouds become less of a problem. While I will grant that night still comes around an average of 50% of the time, that still leaves a great deal of time where we are harvesting what is essentially waste energy.

I am not saying we should not explore nuclear. I am not saying solar is a cure-all. But why /not/ collect as much solar energy as possible? What is the major technological drawback?
posted by Yellowbeard at 8:18 AM on December 6, 2004

While there is a lot of publicity given to hydrogen fuel cells, hydrogen production and storage problems are glossed over in the media, mostly becasue the only waste product produced is water. Yes they do run at efficiencies in excess of 90%, yes the only waste is water! Great headlines, but where does the energy to prodce the hydrogen come from?

The far more realistic alternative is methanol fuel cells, which utilise a similar chemical reaction to produce electrical energy. The advantage of methanol is that it can be produced from vegetable matter (by fermentation), and is a lot easier to store than hydrogen.

The technology involved in producing methanol fuel cells is less well developed than that of hydrogen, mostly because there are problems with catalyst poisoning, but progress is being made all the time.
posted by bap98189 at 8:24 AM on December 6, 2004

But where do you get the vegetable matter?
posted by Yellowbeard at 8:33 AM on December 6, 2004

I've been told that there are two fundamental problems with solar. I have not verified that either of these things are true, so you may want to do your own checking.

1. It takes more energy to create a solar cell than it will ever generate in its lifetime;
2. Solar cells aren't energy-dense enough to run the industry required to make more solar cells.

These things may, and probably will, change over time. But, if my source is correct, they are not efficient enough to be a fossil fuel replacement at the moment.
posted by Malor at 8:42 AM on December 6, 2004

Let me debunk the "cost more energy than they produce",
with a government report, which states that photovoltaics
produce from nine to seventeen times the energy input.
Read it at:
posted by the Real Dan at 9:13 AM on December 6, 2004

And here's another one from the University of Wisconsin,
which also states greater than unity gain, but with some
different conclusions as to what the most important factors
posted by the Real Dan at 9:22 AM on December 6, 2004

2. Solar cells aren't energy-dense enough to run the industry required to make more solar cells.

This is based on what evidence? Because in the late 1970's the solar cell maker Solarex used discards to make panels for their own plant and was able to generate enough power for the plant/building.

Oil has an EROEI of up to 50:1 and solar panels are 5:1 - 10:1 So long as electric power is artifically cheap, it will appear that PV Solar is a non-starter.

Americans are dependant on cheap energy - 284 gallons of oil per cow to raise it to 1100 lbs to end up with about 400 lbs of meat. The 400 lbs of meat can then become 1600 1/4 double stack's w/cheese. If Americans did not have oil to create then move about the cheap food, the wages could not be held artifically low. The words of Reveillon in 1788 echo in my head.

But, if my source is correct, they are not efficient enough to be a fossil fuel replacement at the moment.

Errr, sunlight->PV can't take the place of hydrocarbons for most industrial processes.

And oil is, oh, artifically cheap. Because the consumer NOW is not paying for the solar energy that was harvested and processed from millions of years ago.
If time is money, where is the adjustment in price for hydrocarbon based energy?

It matter little as the effect of a correct re-pricing of oil can be found here "Your source" and you can ponder the data there.
posted by rough ashlar at 9:25 AM on December 6, 2004

bap - why is methane gas easier to store than hydrogen gas?

Mice - The Hindenberg didn't burn because of its contents; it burned because its paint was an accident in waiting. The formula for the paint has been compared to rocket fuel, and current thinking is that a static discharge between the mooring mast and the Hindenberg touched off the paint. Such a discharge would not have ignited the contained hydrogen.

Also, flammable and inflammable have exactly the same meaning.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 9:25 AM on December 6, 2004

The link didn't take. It's at:
posted by Kirth Gerson at 9:26 AM on December 6, 2004

Not methane Kirth, methanol. It's an alcohol, which is a liquid, and a lot easier to store than hydrogen, which is an explosive gas. Methanol is currently used in a lot of cars, but not in fuel cells, it is burnt in internal combustion engines. Unlike petrol (gasoline), however, it is not produced from oil.
posted by bap98189 at 9:34 AM on December 6, 2004

But where do you get the vegetable matter?

Grow some sugar cane!
posted by bap98189 at 9:35 AM on December 6, 2004

methanol. It's an alcohol, which is a liquid...Unlike petrol (gasoline), however, it is not produced from oil.

You can get it from wood OR oil. Or part of what ya don't want in a distilling ethanol. Or air.

The Air process:
Riding the temp/pressure curve -> get CO2
Take the water from the air (because "we" are using 'thin air') and split it into O2 and H2.
Take the H2 and CO2, subject to pressure and catalyst
POOF! Methanol.

I didn't claim the 'from air' option was energy cheap, but it can be done.
posted by rough ashlar at 9:43 AM on December 6, 2004

And go here and read why Hydrogen is a bad overall plan.
posted by rough ashlar at 9:44 AM on December 6, 2004

bap98189, methanol might not come directly from oil, but it takes a lot of (currently fossil-fuel) energy to process. Some say more energy to process than you can recover in an internal combustion engine.
posted by scruss at 9:55 AM on December 6, 2004

For me, the issue is money. Always has, always will be. I believe that when our current fuel sources get more expensive than the alternatives, only then will alternate sources be thoroughly researched and utilized. Americans, especially, are all about instant gratification. Oil prices are kept artificially low because they can be. When solar panels are mass produced, the cost will go down, and everyone will have them; either to run their factories or power the water spliters that provide hydrogen for their hydrogen cells... I just hope it's not determined that nuclear energy is the cheapest way to go.
posted by Specklet at 9:56 AM on December 6, 2004

OK, then, methanol. So you're going to use croplands to generate fuel. This doesn't strike me as an unmitigated Good Idea.
Methanol is currently used in a lot of cars. . .
Besides drag racers, you mean? I didn't know that.

Also, see:
which says, in part:
One possible strategy for achieving significant reductions in motor vehicle emissions is the replacement of conventional fuels with methanol. However, safety and toxicity concerns associated with the use of pure methanol (M100) have slowed its acceptance as a clean motor vehicle fuel. Potential problems include low volatility (resulting in poor performance during cold starting and engine warm-up); poor lubricity (the alcohol washes away upper-cylinder lubricants, resulting in metal-to-metal contact, and also forms corrosive agents that attack iron on the cylinders); flammability of vapors above the fuel in storage tanks and in vehicle fuel tanks; low flame luminosity (M100 produces no carbonaceous particles during combustion, resulting in an invisible flame that can hamper efforts of firefighters); and concerns over ingestion of the toxic liquid alcohol.

Methanol doesn't look like a huge improvement over petroleum.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 10:02 AM on December 6, 2004

Specklet, where have you been for the last 20 years? "When solar panels are mass produced ..."?

Solar panels are everywhere, quietly, reliably powering remote monitoring equipment, road sign lighting, and many other applications.

We do have reliable and cheap alternatives to fossil fuels. It's just that they require thought and possibly conservation.
posted by scruss at 10:30 AM on December 6, 2004

Oil prices are kept artificially low because they can be.

what makes you think that they won't keep killing to keep them low? why else does the US/UK give a rat's ass about the middle east?

When queried as to where the next oil flash point might be after Iraq, Klare replied: "I've been looking at Africa. It's heating up over there."

Oil giant Shell has admitted it inadvertently fed conflict, poverty and corruption through its oil activities in Nigeria. But a Shell spokesman said the group did not agree with independent experts that the unrest may force it to leave.
posted by mrgrimm at 11:30 AM on December 6, 2004

One might also wish to consider possible improvements in how energy is transported.

Still kinda pie in the sky maybe, but no less so than some of the other technologies listed here. It seems to me that learning to manipulate materials at the molecular level is key to a host of technologies that could have an impact on the economy.

Tommy Friedman's Sunday column sings a similar song.
posted by manicroom at 11:35 AM on December 6, 2004

Scruss, I know that solar panels are currently utilized. I meant to refer to the possibility of solar energy as our primary energy source. There are many alternatives, but oil is "easy". Right now, anyway.

Someday, the oil is going to run out. Until then, Mr.Grimm, I agree with you: the prices will be kept artificially low.
posted by Specklet at 1:00 PM on December 6, 2004

Last estimate I read about using vegetable-based alcohols as fuel stock said that we'd have to plant the entire central US with corn - from Illinois to Colorado, Texas to Wisconsin - to make enough with which to fuel our cars at present consumption levels. There's a lot of people living in that area, and we'd have to plow under all their houses.

Oh and not to mention that's where we grow a big chunk of our food.

Plus, modern agriculture is almost 100% dependent on petroleum - fertilizer is made from natural gas and petroleum chemistry, and the huge combines and processing equipment used on farms are generally diesel-powered. However, we could go back to using only human and animal labor to care for, harvest and process, which would solve unemployment pretty quickly...

Remember also that ALL technological development that we'd have to do to change the energy base of the world economy away from oil MUST be based on oil power - until the "alternate" source generates enough energy to move the research onto it. This will require time for transition - and energy will need to be diverted from non-critical things like making billions of new, more stylish cell phones every 6 months, or millions of shiny new cars per year (each of which which takes an appalling amount of energy to build, something like 100,000 barrels of oil-equivalent per car, far more than you'll actually burn in the engine over a car's lifetime).

Nuclear power is probably our best stop-gap - but it still requires using petroleum power for at least part of the process. Uranium must be mined and processed; it's not efficient to use electrical power for all of that. Again, future-critical development will need energy that's now being spent on "non-essentials."

And while I'm all for putting high-efficiency solar panels up in orbit and beaming down power (and have been since the '70s, golly), that in itself would require a monumental diversion of energy to panel manufacture (similar process as making computer chips) - and of course there's the problem of lifting all that mass to orbit - the Space Elevator could make that a lot easier.

My personal approach to this would be to develop nuclear as the mainstay of the transition period, and increase production and efficiency of wind, tidal, and small local hydroelectric generation, while fully funding "Manhattan Project"-type work on the Space Elevator and orbital solar (not to mention potential asteroid mining and space manufacturing, but that's a whole other can o' worms). At the same time I'd want to start scaling down the use of petroleum fuels for non-critical industrial uses. Yes, that means not driving cars so much - working out ways to shrink the suburbs and exurbs and crank up mass transit and other drive-time savers like telecommuting and grocery delivery, stuff like that. Also re-foster local agriculture for urban areas, so food can be grown close and doesn't have to go so far. There are thousands of small steps that can be taken over time to smooth things out.

Mark this well, folks. Hydrogen is not going to save Our Current Way of Life, the Continuous Profligate Expenditure of All Energy Available to Us. With population increasing, at some point it will be necessary to put the available energy into the most important things first - food, water, shelter, and development of sustainable energy systems.

Personally I'm hoping the process will go relatively smoothly and we'll all be able to make transitions slowly and with minimum dislocation. Can't predict the future, however...
posted by zoogleplex at 1:16 PM on December 6, 2004

Interestingly enogh Rocky Mountain Institue has just come out with a book that touches on this and transportation. It is called Winning the Oil Endgame. You can read it online. Very worthwile read. In short if we start now by 2025 we can have weened ourselves from oil's evil grip. Very doable and very exiting I encourage everybody to read it and let your reps hear about it. I wanted to post it on the front page but still have newbie status.
posted by darkmatter at 1:43 PM on December 6, 2004

Ok so I can't spell for shit. I was in a rush to get this out. I did say I was excited about it didn't I?
posted by darkmatter at 1:47 PM on December 6, 2004

zoogleplex, we're very close to the maximum efficiency of wind turbines already. The new Enercon E48 claims an efficiency a few percent below the Betz Limit.

I suspect I'm one of the few mefites who cares about such things, but then, there aren't many other windfarm designers about.
posted by scruss at 1:53 PM on December 6, 2004

I semi-care about it scruss, but am more of a policy person at heart. My doctoral thesis was on the strategic development of the wind turbine manufacturing industry. Where does it say the E48 is approaching the Betz limit, I couldn't see it in your link.

I think the Hydrogen thing is currently a red herring to be honest, it won't work without truly colossal investment over a very extended period, and really there's not that much point going with it until the renewables sector is a significant factor in the world economy (and maybe not even then).

The final link in the FPP is pretty good however, system change is pretty much at the leading edge of ongoing research currently.
posted by biffa at 2:39 PM on December 6, 2004

It's not on the website, but there's a news release quoted here claiming a Cp of 0.56 against the theoretical limit of 0.59.
posted by scruss at 6:23 PM on December 6, 2004

Malor: saving watts by using power more efficiently is a lot cheaper than making new watts with nukes, as well as having significant environmental benefits.

Yellowbeard: the main technological problems with silicon PV cells is that they are presently very dirty to manufacture, and generate power only intermittently (a problem they share with wind generators).

Given the development of large scale energy storage technologies (such as hydrogen, or vanadium redox batteries) the latter could become an economic rather than a technical problem.

The sweetest solar technology I am aware of is the solar chimney. I like it so much I bought shares in Enviromission, and I'm really hoping they get one built. It's been a case of "next year for sure" for a couple years now.
posted by flabdablet at 6:51 PM on December 6, 2004

scruss: I appreciate it greatly, and let me shake your hand for actually contributing to the solution with your work. Anyway, if efficiency is near the maximum physical limit on wind power, that's great; with an EROEI of between 1.5 and 2.0, wind power gives us more than gets put into it, and is thus a viable sustainable resource.

And I'd be willing to be everyone reading this could cut their electric use by 50% by the end of next week - mostly by simply switching to compact fluorescents, and shutting stuff off when you're not using it.

Which would help quite a lot, since America (for instance) imports 50% of its energy. If we all cut use by 50%, suddenly we wouldn't need to import any more.
posted by zoogleplex at 11:54 AM on December 7, 2004

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