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Freedom Fuel
by Robert Stapler
25 June 2003

President Bush wrongly assumed that the "science" guys he inherited from the previous administration know what they are talking about. Can you imagine having a steady stream of ignorant drivers going in and out of a typical hydrogen plant each day, rubbing their static-laden behinds on velour seats, each one far more than enough to cause a hydrogen explosion.



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 States.   

Despite 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.

This 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.  

Catalytic 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?   

Furthermore, 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%.

Despite 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.  

If you 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.

Every 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.  

The heat 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 itself.

The new 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 gasoline-powered transportation.

As with 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.

The short-term 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.   

As for 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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