Monday, August 15, 2005

Psssst... Wanna buy an H?

With gasoline over $3.00/gallon in some places, summer temperatures showing that global warming isn't merely a theory, and war continuing in the Middle East, it's hard to get away from talking about "alternative sources of energy."

Today we talk about everyone's current favorite: the fuel cell. If you believe half the press, the fuel cell is the solution to just about every problem.

It doesn't pollute. Even a high school chemistry class could tell you what happens when you oxidize hydrogen: you get *water.* How cool is that? No greenhouse gasses; no smog. Maybe Cuisinart will design an add-on to your car that brews coffee from your exhaust gasses, as you drive...

As a fuel source, it's basically inexhaustible. I mean, look at the oceans - they're LOADED with Hydrogen, right? Every water molecule carries two of them. And the technology to deploy them is *this* close. There are hydrogen fuel-cell cars on TV right now, so we know that they exist. And in Iceland, they're actually deploying them.

If you believe the press, Hydrogen is the penicillin of fuels. A miracle cure for whatever energy-issues ail us. Unfortunately, our friend H2 might be closer to snake oil than real medicine.

The root problem with hydrogen as a fuel is that, basically, free hydrogen doesn't exist. That same chemistry class that can tell you how to blend hydrogen with oxygen to make water will also tell you that H is the first element on the periodic chart. It's there for a lot of reasons, and one of them is something called "electronegativity." That's basically a measurement of how tenacious one atom holds onto another atom, and in the case of hydrogen that's very tenacious indeed.

Hydrogen doesn't like to be alone. It desperately looks for other atoms to cling to and "hydrogenate." Yes, you can find hydrogen all over the place, but never alone outside of a laboratory.

Here's the rub: unless hydrogen is alone, it's worthless in a fuel cell. This isn't Willy Wonka; you can't pour whatever fizzy drink you want into a fuel cell and hope for the best. A hydrogen fuel cell needs... well... hydrogen. Pure hydrogen.

The good news is that the technology to make pure hydrogen is simple. That High School class might be a bit challenged to do it, but just a bit - and a college class absolutely could. No sweat. Just add lots of energy to water (a process known as hydrolysis) and the hydrogen will come off as a gas, ready to be collected, bottled, and poured into your new "Hummer H2O's" fuel cell.

If you re-read that last sentence, however, you might stumble across the thorn in this thorny issue. No, not the Hummer... To make hydrogen that is suitable for use in a fuel-cell, you need to add energy. In fact, you have to add more energy to get hydrogen than you will ever retrieve from the fuel cell. Quite a bit more, actually. And that energy - electricity, to be specific - has to come from an existing electrical generation technology.

When you think about it, hydrogen fuel cells are really nothing more than chemical batteries. Instead of storing electrical power via one chemical path (electrochemical), we store it with another (electrochemical conversion - almost the same thing). But it's still, essentially, a battery powered car. Like all battery powered cars, you need to have a lot of electricity around to charge your fuel cells.

And where will we get that energy?

Nuclear works, but is hardly in vogue. Coal is fine, but the greenhouse gas situation actually gets worse than it is now. Natural gas, ditto. Plus we have the small fact that US Energy production is already operating at capacity, and that includes all practical hydroelectric sources. Imagine how much more electrical generation capacity we'll need to generate enough hydrogen to feed our "Suburban Hydro," or "Excursion FC..."

How much coal are we willing to burn, and can we put the plants in your backyard? How many nuclear plants are we willing to fund and live with?

See the problem? It's a tough one, and one that the MSM just doesn't seem to know how to address.

There's an interesting wrinkle in this, and that's geothermal. People have known about geothermal energy for at least 100 years. It's clean, basically free (other than plant depreciation and maintenance), and plentiful in some places that sport lots of geysers and active volcanoes.

Like Iceland. The whole island is already fueled by the hot ground they live on. That's why you see Fuel Cell cars and filling stations springing up all over the place there.

The MSM sometimes dwells on how difficult it will be to build hydrogen filling stations, etc. Baloney. Those are engineering problems with rather straightforward solutions. Not easy, mind you, but certainly do-able. The real issue is having enough free, clean energy to generate the quantities of Hydrogen necessary to replace gasoline. Iceland has that kind of energy, at least to fuel their own economy. Do they have enough to fuel ours? I have no idea. I'm not sure if anyone has ever considered how large the hydrogen-generation plants would have to be, or if there's enough geothermal energy available, globally, to make this more than a novelty.

Will Iceland be the next Saudi Arabia? Hawaii the next Iraq? Might be an interesting time to purchase some land near Old Faithful...



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