12/15/2004

More Than Just Hot Air

Popular Science brings, well, the science with a downer of an article entitled "Warning: The Hydrogen Economy May Be More Distant Than It Appears".

In presidential campaign of 2004, Bush and Kerry managed to find one piece of common ground: Both spoke glowingly of a future powered by fuel cells. Hydrogen would free us from our dependence on fossil fuels and would dramatically curb emissions of air pollutants, including carbon dioxide, the gas chiefly blamed for global warming. The entire worldwide energy market would evolve into a "hydrogen economy" based on clean, abundant power. Auto manufacturers and environmentalists alike happily rode the bandwagon, pointing to hydrogen as the next big thing in U.S. energy policy. Yet the truth is that we aren’t much closer to a commercially viable hydrogen-powered car than we are to cold fusion or a cure for cancer. This hardly surprises engineers, fuel cell manufacturers and policymakers, who have known all along that the technology has been hyped, perhaps to its detriment, and that the public has been misled about what Howard Coffman, editor of fuelcell-info.com, describes as the "undeniable realities of the hydrogen economy."
The article presents what it calls "nine myths" about hydrogen energy, and throws cold water on each of them with explanations separating the hype from reality. Here's a teaser:
MYTH #1. HYDROGEN IS AN ABUNDANT FUEL
True, hydrogen is the most common element in the universe; it’s so plentiful that the sun consumes 600 million tons of it every second. But unlike oil, vast reservoirs of hydrogen don’t exist here on Earth. Instead, hydrogen atoms are bound up in molecules with other elements, and we must expend energy to extract the hydrogen so it can be used in fuel cells. We’ll never get more energy out of hydrogen than we put into it.

"Hydrogen is a currency, not a primary energy source," explains Geoffrey Ballard, the father of the modern-day fuel cell and co-founder of Ballard Power Systems, the world’s leading fuel-cell developer. "It’s a means of getting energy from where you created it to where you need it."
Hydrogen is the embryonic stem cell of the alternate-energy movement; a buzzword technology that maybe has the promise to deliver something - so long as we throw buckets of money at it without expecting concrete results. Meanwhile, less sexy technologies that are actually producing those results get lost in the mad scramble to appear progressive. Both candidates should have done a better job of putting forward thoughtful proposals on alternate engergy. Hydrogen, at least for now, appears to be a red herring.