Science & Technology

Where are the Hydrogen Mines?

Inaccurate power projection in Milan


Milan—"Of course climate change is an environmental issue, but it is fundamentally one of economics and development," declared Elliot Diringer, director of International Strategies at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change at press conference on Tuesday where he unveiled the Pew Center's new Beyond Kyoto report. Pew Center president Eileen Claussen added that nothing less than a "technological revolution" is needed to stop global warming.

U.S. Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky, who is heading up the US delegation to the COP9 meeting here in Milan, appeared to agree with the Pew Center about the need for a technological revolution. She noted in her first COP9 press conference on Wednesday that meeting the challenge of climate change "requires the development and deployment of transformational technologies." Such transformational technologies would produce no net emissions of greenhouse gases, said Dobriansky.

The technological revolution being proposed by Pew and others worried about global warming goes by the name of the "hydrogen economy." Hydrogen is the "forever fuel" according to promoters. Why hydrogen? Because it burns cleanly, producing only energy and water. Hydrogen can be used in fuel cells to produce electricity.

Even President George W. Bush has jumped on the hydrogen economy bandwagon. Earlier this year, President Bush announced the "hydrogen fuel initiative" and FreedomCar initiative on which the federal government will spend $1.7 billion over five years. "If we develop hydrogen power to its full potential, we can reduce our demand for oil by over 11 million barrels per day by the year 2040," said the President when he announced the programs. To get some idea of the magnitude of what he is proposing, the United States burns about 20 million barrels of oil per day now.

At the COP9, Dobriansky cited the US's creation and commitment to the International Partnership for the Hydrogen Economy (IPHE). One of the chief goals of the IPHE is by 2020, "the production of hydrogen at a cost that makes it the fuel of choice for transportation needs, enabling consumers in participating countries to purchase a competitively priced hydrogen-powered vehicle and be able to refuel it near their homes and places of work, while also meeting other energy needs."

So are cars running on hydrogen fuel cells the way to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2020? "Even with aggressive research, the hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle will not be better than the diesel hybrid (a vehicle powered by a conventional engine supplemented by an electric motor) in terms of total energy use and greenhouse gas emissions by 2020," according to a study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Laboratory for Energy and the Environment last March. The MIT study did say that hydrogen fuel cell vehicles might be viable in the next 30 to 50 years.

Even if hydrogen can be produced without releasing greenhouse gases, it may not be as environmentally benign as advertised by activists. A study by Caltech scientists published this past June in Science found that hydrogen leaking out of cars, pipelines and production plants could damage the ozone layer, which shields the planet from cancer-causing ultraviolet sunlight.

But can we get from today's fossil fueled world to the environmental utopia of the hydrogen economy?

Consider how far away the world is from that goal. According to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), fossil fuels—coal, oil, and natural gas—supply 80 percent of the world's energy now. Nuclear supplies another 7 percent. Of the remainder, 11 percent of the world's energy is derived from "biomass" and 2 percent comes from other "renewables." Biomass is a nice word for burning wood, straw, and dung; and while such sources are "renewable," people in poor countries struggle and often fail to "renew" their depleted forests. Meanwhile, less than one half of one percent of the world's energy needs are met by solar, tidal and wind sources, according to UNEP.

Fossil fuels are mined or pumped from wells, but unfortunately, there are no hydrogen mines. This means that hydrogen must be somehow extracted from water or hydrocarbons like natural gas. Since extracting hydrogen from hydrocarbons still emits the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, this means that one still has to figure out what to do with the leftover carbon dioxide. Producing hydrogen by separating two hydrogen atoms from the oxygen atom in molecules of water avoids the production of carbon. But that only works if the electricity is produced using non-carbon fuels. That means that for environmental activists the only canonically acceptable way to produce hydrogen is by using renewable sources of energy like photovoltaic cells and windpower. As previously noted, those sources produce about one half of one percent of the world's power today, and that's primary production for direct use, not for producing another form of energy in which losses inevitably occur. Using electricity to make hydrogen produces no net gain in energy; in fact, energy is lost. Hydrogen is not so much a source of energy as it is an energy carrier. In this sense hydrogen is just a kind of electric storage battery.

But can solar power and wind power supply the energy needed to make hydrogen fuel? Not likely says, Jesse Ausubel, director of the Human Environment program at Rockefeller University. Ausubel does see one way to the carbon-free hydrogen economy—nuclear power.

"Nuclear energy's special potential is as an abundant source of electricity for electrolysis and high-temperature heat for water splitting while the cities sleep," writes Ausubel. "Nuclear plants could nightly make hydrogen on the scale needed to meet the demand of billions of consumers. Windmills and other solar technologies cannot power modern people by the billions. Reactors that produce hydrogen could be situated far from population concentrations and pipe their main product to consumers." In other words, nuclear power plants will become the "hydrogen mines" of the future.

But the way forward to the carbon-free nuclear/hydrogen future is hampered by the Kyoto Protocol, which excludes nuclear power as a "clean" source of energy despite the fact that it produces no greenhouse gases.

Ausubel predicts, "Hydrogen will gradually gain its worldwide following, beginning soon, in the dawning of the nuclear millennium." If environmentalists are serious about getting to the hydrogen economy sooner rather than later, they should drop their objections to nuclear power. If they do, then Ausubel's prediction may well come true.