In President Bush's State of the Union Address, he announced a new government
program to create a hydrogen-based alternative fuel infrastructure.
The arguments he made for this proposal were: (1) to free us of foreign (i.e.,
Saudi) oil dependence and (2) to address global warming. Bush
has taken some very bad press over his refusal to concede to the Kyoto protocols,
stating his refusal stems from the unequal burden they place on the United
the many incredible discoveries and accomplishments technology has afforded
us, it is highly unlikely that some new and truly revolutionary process can
be forced into being to conveniently meet this requirement. That
is just not the way science works. Only rarely are new principles
discovered that lead to technological revolution, and never in directions
that can be predicted or designed for. That is to say: you can
design for discovery generally, but not specifically. Now we
are proposing to develop a definite result for which we have no theory.
is not the first time hydrogen has been proposed as a viable alternative.
But for many years scientists and engineers have consistently pointed
out its infeasibility. The basic problem with the hydrogen solution
is a persisting belief that something can be gotten from nothing. Unlike
oil, hydrogen does not sit in the ground waiting to be drawn out, as do oil
and natural gas. It takes more energy to produce hydrogen than
can be extracted when it is used as a fuel. This energy requirement
is a function of the ways in which hydrogen bonds can be broken to extract
it from more complex molecules. The same bond energy that burning
hydrogen releases must be supplied to extract the free hydrogen.
methods are less demanding, but even they are not energy cheap.
And catalytic methods produce CO2 as waste. This hardly reduces
our energy dependence. Assuming the main energy source for producing the
hydrogen must still be the bad old, pollution-producing, global warming oil
and gas, then what is the point of producing hydrogen? Many years
ago, the same proposal was made using cheap, plentiful nuclear energy to
produce hydrogen from seawater. We have since learned that nuclear power
also has a price in the form of waste and radiation, about which we are rather
paranoid. Even if cheap hydrogen could be produced, how does
this reduce global warming if the same amount of energy (i.e., heat) is released
when it is burned to run our cars and other machinery?
there are serious issues of storage and safety that we are far from solving.
Some proponents downplay hydrogen as no more dangerous than gasoline or natural
gas, but this is simply not true. Hydrogen is a highly volatile
substance requiring handling and storage by highly trained people.
A spark too small to see in the dark is sufficient to ignite this stuff.
A friend of mine once ignited a small amount of it that got up his pant leg
when he brushed his shoe against his ankle; and he was an experienced engineer!
Gasoline can be ignited in only a narrow range of air mixtures (1.4% - 7.6%
fuel), while hydrogen is ignitable in mixtures from 4% to 75%.
Hollywood depictions of exploding cars, it is harder to ignite properly contained
gasoline than hydrogen. The inside of the tank is saturated with gas
vapor (almost no oxygen). This makes it nearly impossible to
ignite a gas tank from within unless it is breached and a lot of air pumped
into it. Gasoline tanks only require a simple screw-on cap and have
a small vent that keeps tank pressure close to atmospheric. The outside
of a leaking tank or fuel line is a different story; that is the real cause
of most car fires. Hydrogen tanks, on the other-hand, must be tightly
sealed, not only to keep fuel in but also to keep air out. Gasoline
vapors are heavier than air, while hydrogen is far lighter, making it easier
to control the spread of a gasoline fire than a hydrogen fire (recall the
Hindenburg). For these reasons, hydrogen facilities use rigorous
measures to tightly control and protect them.
compare the level of knowledge of the average car operator to that required
by even the lowliest gas processing operator, it should be apparent that
having millions of untrained citizens handling significant quantities of
hydrogen is a clear formula for disaster. The idea of having
hydrogen dispensing stations distributed on a par with present day gas stations
should be alarming to anyone who thinks this all the way through.
Imagine having a steady stream of ignorant drivers going in and out of a
typical hydrogen plant each day; operating car radios, cell phones, calculators,
other battery operated gadgets, and rubbing their static-laden behinds on
velour seats, each one far more than enough to cause a hydrogen explosion.
time a fill hose is connected to the tank for liquid transfer, all electrical
power will not only have to be shutoff but completely removed from the car
and all potential static points discharged and grounded. Car
operators will have to get out of the car and wait in a separate area where
they can do no harm, while a trained (read: expensive) specialist
removes your tank and replaces it with a full one. The convenience
of driving into a gas station, sticking a hose in your car and quickly pumping
the stuff into your tank will be gone. Hydrogen plants are highly
regulated and frequently inspected for safety compliance. A typical
large city has two or three hydrogen distribution plants within a thirty-mile
radius. Multiply this by a thousand and we will have a regulation nightmare.
value per pound of hydrogen is three times that of gasoline, but the density
of liquid hydrogen is about half that of gasoline. Liquid hydrogen,
therefore, has a volumetric energy yield 1.5 times that of gasoline.
This at first appears to be a significant benefit, but safe handling of liquid
hydrogen requires dispensing it from long, heavy steel bottles that greatly
add to the weight of a vehicle and negating any energy gained from the fuel
technology which the President mentioned promises to provide a means of storing
and utilizing hydrogen gas fairly safely, but it will be far too bulky a
substitute for automobile gas tanks. The new technology will
consist of canisters full of crystalline carbon (hydride) that absorb and
release the hydrogen. This technology is only applicable to hydrogen
in a non-liquid state as diffuse as pressurized gas. Gaseous
hydrogen requires 100 times the volume of the liquid. It reduces
the weight of the container, but some of this is made up in the weight of
the salt. A hydride fuel tank will therefore be 75 to 100 times
the size of a gasoline tank providing the same range. Even with
this much safer system, filling will have to be performed by operators well
trained in handling of hydrogen at a properly designed and maintained, hazardous
facility; requiring the canisters be refilled and then moved to a facility
separate from it for installation in your car. Instead of pumping
your own fuel into the tank, a mechanic will remove your tank and replace
it with another, an operation requiring 20 to 40 minutes per car.
The current system provides a quick, cheap and simple means of recharging
your car for another 200 to 300 miles of uninterrupted motoring.
A comparable hydride system conformable to a four-passenger car may get you
to work, if you do not work more than 10 miles away. There is
no doubt that hydride technology will greatly increase hydrogen safety in
the applications it currently serves, and may extend hydrogen to some other
uses. However, it is not at all clear it can significantly supplant
solar energy, wind power, biomass and similar proposals, the benefits to
be had from this alternative fuel are far less than its proponents proclaim.
I don't believe President Bush fully comprehends the difficulties, despite
his considerable intellect. My guess is he sought possible solutions
from his staff and agencies, that the Department of Energy has exploited
to advance its own pet solution. DOE, an organization dominated
by politically correct pseudo-scientists and policy-wonks who have been trying
to promote the hydrogen solution for years, have now managed to make it an
executive-ordered policy. Bush has wrongly assumed the "science" guys he
inherited from the previous administration know what they are talking about.
These anti-oil, anti-nuclear advocates have long urged development of a hydrogen
based alternative fuel infrastructure as feasible, whereas "hard" scientists,
producers and engineers have consistently argued it is not.
solution to our oil dependency is sitting in our own Alaskan back yard.
Anti-oil environmentalists have succeeded in shutting down most avenues to
domestic oil production, however, while doing nothing to address the manner
in which oil is produced in the third-world countries we are thereby forced
to depend on. How much better is it for the global environment
that oil is indiscriminately taken out of Saudi soil rather than taken from
our own soil in a manner that protects the environment? Certainly, we must
continue to develop potentially viable fuel alternatives, but the best short-term
solution is to reopen the Alaskan oil fields and develop them in as environmentally
responsible a manner as current technology affords.
the Kyoto Protocols, they are punitive, anti-American measures that exploit
an insupportable hysteria brought about by bad-science and anti-technological
sentiment. President Bush was right not to concede to them, and
there is no reason now to second-guess that decision.
Robert Stapler, a resident of Columbia, Maryland, works for Northrop Grumman.
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