Hydrogen Bombs

Why can't hydrogen blow up on its own?


"The U.S. energy system will change in many ways over the next fifty years," notes The Hydrogen Economy: Opportunities, Barriers and R&D Needs, a report issued last week by the prestigious National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academy of Sciences. Apparently, we need brilliant researchers to tell us what ought to be stunningly obvious. Still, there is real news in the report: The hydrogen economy is not about to replace conventional sources of energy anytime soon. "There will likely be a lengthy transition period during which fuel cell vehicles and hydrogen are not competitive with internal combustion engine vehicles, including conventional gasoline and diesel fuel vehicles, and hybrid gasoline electric vehicles," the report's executive summary announces. Thus, "impacts on oil imports and CO2 emissions [from hydrogen] are likely to be minor during the next 25 years."

The report reckons that Department of Energy (DOE) milestones for fuel cell vehicles are "unrealistically aggressive." But it does optimistically estimate that 25 percent of new vehicles sold in the U.S. might be hydrogen-powered by 2027, and further posits (that is, assumes) that full replacement of gasoline light-duty vehicles with hydrogen vehicles might take place by 2050. Before all this can happen, towering technical hurdles must be jumped, with no currently obvious solutions. After 40 years of federal and private R&D, fuel cell technology still has problems: "costs are still a factor of 10 to 20 times too expensive," and the cells are "short of required durability, and [their] energy efficiency is still too low for light-duty-vehicle applications."

I'm as big a techno-optimist as you're apt to find, but hydrogen doesn't seem to have much of an immediate future as a replacement for our current energy system. Besides, why use electricity to make hydrogen to make more electricity? Why not just use electricity for what you need and instead do a lot of research on improving battery technologies? That seems at least as promising. However, if one simply must use hydrogen, one attractive scheme is to use nuclear power plants at night, when electricity needs are lower, to make hydrogen by electrolyzing water.

The researchers convened by the NRC see only one way to jumpstart the hydrogen economy. Besides throwing more federal R&D dollars at hydrogen energy, they gently note, "Significant industry investments in advance of market forces will not be made unless government creates a business environment that reflects societal priorities with respect to greenhouse gas emissions and oil imports."

Ah, now I get it: unless the feds make fossil fuels a lot more expensive by taxing the hell out of them, the private sector is unlikely to put a lot of money into hydrogen energy.

Just why significant investments "in advance of market forces" should be made is not at all clear. Significant investments in petroleum discovery, refining, distribution, and marketing weren't made in advance of market forces. They were made in response to market forces. Despite this lack of governmental pre-planning, the whole elaborate modern fossil fuel energy system runs pretty much without a hitch (unless screwed up by government interferences like oil embargoes and price controls).

Let's skip over the many daunting technical barriers that still must be overcome before hydrogen can come close to fulfilling the promises made for it by environmentalist advocates, among others. Let's focus on just one aspect of the report—devising the infrastructure of the hydrogen economy.

"DOE leadership is critical," the NRC tells us, "because the current incentives for companies to make early investments in hydrogen infrastructure are relatively weak." If "early investments" are a good idea, one might think that ExxonMobil rather than DOE would be happy to lead the way. On the other hand, ExxonMobil and other energy companies are happy to let taxpayers pick up the tab for R&D that might benefit them someday.

So why do the feds need to become involved in energy markets? It must fairly astonish bureaucrats in the DOE and the Department of Transportation (DOT), but the motor vehicle fuel infrastructure we enjoy today developed when there were no federal agencies in charge of transportation or energy.

When the first automobiles were sold in 1895 there were, understandably, no gas stations. Yet, even without the intervention of bureaucrats, the nationwide distribution of gasoline was organized. By 1910, one in 200 people in the US had an automobile. Then by 1954, Americans enjoyed 48 million motor vehicles. (Keep in mind that there were only some 70 million motor vehicles in the world in 1950.) When the U.S. DOT opened for business on April 1, 1967, there were already 80 million cars and trucks on America's highways. And—even despite the DOT!—by 2002 Americans were driving 230 million motor vehicles.

In 1977, the U.S. Department of Energy got switched on. Again, despite its past best efforts, DOE didn't manage to wreck America's fuel markets and infrastructure. In 2002, America's 170,700 gasoline stations sold $205 billion worth of petroleum products. Now some 200,000 miles of pipelines carry petroleum products throughout the United States.

I'm not saying that here and there the feds were not accidentally helpful on the margins. But for the most part market forces created the fossil fuel infrastructure we enjoy today. Similarly, if and when hydrogen becomes a viable fuel, market forces will create most of that infrastructure as well. In fact, if the government is in charge of developing the hydrogen economy, it's a good bet that it will never really blow up.