Hydrogen – Watts Up With That?


August 12, 2021/ Francis Menton

Hydrogen! It’s the obvious and perfect answer to global warming caused by human CO2 emissions. Instead of burning hydrocarbons (fossil fuels) we can leave out the carbon part, burn just the hydrogen, and emit nothing but pure water vapor. H2 + O = H2O! Thus, no more CO2 emissions . Why didn’t anyone think of this before now?

Actually, the geniuses are way ahead of you on this one. President George W. Bush was touting the coming “hydrogen economy” as far back as 2003. (“In his 2003 State of the Union Address, President Bush launched his Hydrogen Fuel Initiative. The goal of this initiative is to work in partnership with the private sector to accelerate the research and development required for a hydrogen economy.”). Barack Obama was not one to get left behind on an issue like this. In the run-up to the Paris Climate Conference in 2015 Obama’s Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz announced, “[F]uel cell technologies [i.e., hydrogen-fueled motors] are paving the way to competitiveness in the global clean energy market and to new jobs and business creation across the country.” Then there’s the biggest hydrogen enthusiast of all, PM Boris Johnson of the UK, who promises that his country is at the dawn of the “hydrogen economy.” (“Towards the end of 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson released details of a 10-point plan for a so-called ‘green industrial revolution.’. . . This year will also see the government publish a Hydrogen Strategy that will “outline plans” to develop a hydrogen economy in the U.K.”)

And let us not forget California. If you look at my post from two days ago about California’s plans for “zero carbon” electricity, you will find a chart showing that by 2045 they plan to have some 40 GW of what they call “Zero Carbon Firm” resources. What does that mean? In the print below the chart, they reveal it: “hydrogen fuel cells.” (Their current amount of hydrogen fuel cells contributing to the grid is 0.)

So basically, hydrogen is the perfect answer to our problems, right? Wrong. Only an idiot could think that hydrogen offers any material useful contribution to the world’s energy supply.

For much of the information that follows, I’ll be relying on a June 6, 2020 Report written for the Global Warming Policy Foundation by John Constable. However, and not to downplay Mr. Constable’s excellent Report in any way, but I made many of the same points in one of the very first posts on this blog in November 2012, titled “The Hydrogen Economy.” That post was based mostly on my layman’s understanding of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Really, that’s all you need to know to realize that hydrogen as a major source of energy for the economy doesn’t make any sense at all.

So what is the fundamental flaw in the idea of a hydrogen-based energy economy? Constable puts it this way: “Being highly reactive, elemental hydrogen, H2, is found in only small quantities in nature on the earth’s surface but is present in a very wide range of compounds.” In other words, the hydrogen is not free for the taking, but rather is already combined with something else; and to separate the hydrogen so that you have free hydrogen to use, you need to add energy. Once you have added the energy and you have the free hydrogen, you can burn it. But that’s where the Second Law of Thermodynamics comes in. Due to inevitable inefficiencies in the processes, when you burn the hydrogen, you get back less energy than you expended to free it up. No matter how you approach the problem, the process of freeing up hydrogen and then burning it costs more energy than it generates.

Do you think somebody in our political leadership or bureaucracies might understand this? Don’t count on it.

Constable then goes into much more detail, and the deeper he gets into it the more ridiculous the hydrogen project looks. Since essentially all of the hydrogen starts out combined with something, where might you look to find a source of large quantities of hydrogen? Constable: “[T]he sources are few in number, being limited to either water, fossil hydrocarbons or biomass.”

The bond of hydrogen and oxygen in water is a high-energy thing that therefore takes a lot of energy to undo. So let’s consider getting the hydrogen from natural gas. Indeed, that is the main source today of substantial quantities of pure hydrogen for industrial purposes. Constable describes a well-established process called “steam methane reformation” (SMR) by which steam is passed through natural gas (methane, or CH4). The bond is broken and the hydrogen breaks free. Voila! Oh, but what happens to the carbon? Why obviously, it is released also, and thereupon combines with oxygen from the air forming CO2.

Wait a minute! The whole idea behind undertaking this expensive process was to avoid the release of the CO2. So clearly, we need another step. In the British proposal to create the “hydrogen economy,” they have had to include the addition of processes for “carbon capture and storage” to capture the CO2 before it gets away and prevent it getting into the atmosphere. Except that they haven’t figured out how to capture it all. They are hoping for capture rates of maybe 85 – 90%. So it turns out that this process, for all its additional costs, is not emissions-free at all.

And then there’s the next obvious question: Why not just burn the natural gas? Instead of having to input energy in the “steam reformation” process, this way you will release a large amount of useable and useful energy when the carbon gets burned. And as to CO2, you get the exact same amount. If you have a fetish that the CO2 must be captured, you can try to capture it from this process instead of from the “steam reformation” process. Again, you will not get 100%, but it’s really no different.

Except for the optics. In the first scenario, you claim you are burning “clean, pure hydrogen.” In the second scenario, you are burning natural gas, just as we have been doing for decades. Can people really be fooled by this?

Read the full story here.


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