THE HYDROGEN ECONOMY
By Ryan Lizza, Week In Review,
The New York Times, Feb. 2, 2003
In his State of the Union address last week, President Bush seemed to embrace the holy grail of the environmental movement: a push to the so-called hydrogen economy.
"A simple chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen generates energy, which can be used to power a car producing only water, not exhaust fumes," Mr. Bush said. "With a new national commitment, our scientists and engineers will overcome obstacles to taking these cars from laboratory to showroom, so that the first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen, and pollution-free."
Replacing fossil fuels and the internal combustion engine with clean-burning hydrogen has been a longtime dream of the people Mr. Bush reportedly calls "green, green lima beans."
But Mr. Bush's new initiative for fuel-cell research is not as Birkenstock-friendly as it might seem. In fact, the proposal, which will cost $1.2 billion over five years, could do much to benefit the fossil-fuel and nuclear power industries.
That's because while hydrogen fuel cells produce nothing more than water vapor, the production of hydrogen itself can be environmentally harmful. Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, but it doesn't exist naturally on earth in its pure form. "Just as the oil is locked up in the Middle East, hydrogen is all locked up in compounds," said Robert Rose, executive director of the Breakthrough Technologies Institute in Washington and a leading advocate of hydrogen fuel cells.
Energy is required to produce hydrogen — and that energy, depending on its source, can create greenhouse gases. According to the Energy Department, 96 percent of hydrogen produced in the world today comes from natural gas, oil and coal — the same fossil fuels that environmentalists would like to abandon.
These industries are not only poised to become the main producers of hydrogen, but they are also likely to control the networks that distribute it.
"Because it postpones the need to make costly investments in an entirely new infrastructure, it's likely that the conversion to a hydrogen economy will rely heavily on working with the existing system of pipelines, storage facilities and fuel stations used to produce and deliver oil and gas," said Janice Mazurek, an environmental policy analyst at the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic group.
Many environmentalists, however, want to create hydrogen using wind, solar and other renewable energy sources, a utopian scenario in which both the fuel for cars and the process by which that fuel is produced are environmentally harmless.
"The big debate is, Do we piggyback on the existing petrochemical industry or do we invest in renewables?" Ms. Mazurek said.
For now, the Bush administration seems more intent on investing in the petrochemical industry. "Initially, we anticipate that the source of the hydrogen fuel in this country would be natural gas," a senior administration official said last week in a briefing to reporters.
The official noted that technology will eventually make it possible to move toward renewable fuel sources, like agricultural waste. But, he said, the president's plan will also expand research in hydrogen production to coal and nuclear power.
Exactly how much money will be spent on coal and nuclear power will be known on Monday, when the administration is to release its budget. Last year, Mr. Bush requested $97.5 million for hydrogen and fuel-cell programs. Of that, $12 million was for research into hydrogen production, and that was spent entirely on natural-gas, petroleum and renewable energy.
In Mr. Bush's new proposal, the total budget for hydrogen and fuel-cell programs will jump to $240 million a year, and the administration will request millions of dollars to finance research into hydrogen production from coal and nuclear power plants, said an Energy Department official.
Some are worried that the administration's budget will be too tilted toward fossil fuels and nuclear power. "I fear the Bush budget may have a reduction in renewables," Mr. Rose said.
In any case, hydrogen-powered cars won't roll off the assembly line for another 10 or 20 years, leaving unsolved the immediate problem of declining fuel efficiency in America's current gas guzzlers, environmentalists say.
"Perhaps in the Jenna Bush administration we'll see fuel-cell cars on the road, but we're not there yet," said Jon S. Coifman, a spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "This is a way to appear to be doing something without doing anything about the cars on the road today."
The Chicago Sun-Times, Feb. 2, 2003
President Bush threw down a bold challenge Tuesday: By the time a child born today is old enough to drive, automakers should be selling pollution-free cars powered by hydrogen, the ultimate clean fuel.
It would be one of the greatest technical achievements since the nation met President John F. Kennedy's 1961 goal to land a man on the moon "before this decade is out."
Extracting hydrogen from fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide--but mile for mile, not as much as today's cars release. The only completely clean method is to extract hydrogen from water using electricity generated by solar, wind or other renewable resources
Like the moon shot, mass-producing a practical and affordable hydrogen car is doable over the next 15 or 20 years. But enormously difficult.
The benefits, too, would be enormous. The only thing that would come out of the tailpipe would be harmless water vapor. Hydrogen cars could reduce the nation's reliance on Middle Eastern oil and cut down on carbon dioxide emissions that cause global warming.
But the amount of research money Bush has proposed spending, $1.2 billion over five years, is not nearly as grand as his vision.
"An Apollo project is needed to hasten the arrival of [hydrogen] vehicles, but the administration's proposed budget isn't enough to get to the launching pad," said Jason Mark of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Bush issued the challenge in his State of the Union address. Some environmentalists fear that calling for a hydrogen car tomorrow will relieve pressure on automakers to make gasoline cars greener today. It's a "fig leaf behind which the president is trying to hide his inadequate performance on the environment," said Daniel Becker of the Sierra Club.
The auto and energy industries have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on hydrogen cars. In December, Toyota and Honda each put two hydrogen cars on California roads. Toyota's model is a sport-utility vehicle; Honda's is a compact. They're being leased by the City of Los Angeles and two universities.
Other major automakers also have developed prototype hydrogen cars, but it's difficult to judge which company is leading the race, said Robert Rose of Fuel Cells 2000.
"In press releases, it's a dead heat," Rose said. "Everyone puts out great press releases."
Under the most optimistic projections, thousands of hydrogen fleet cars will be on U.S. roads by the end of the decade. Hydrogen cars would begin appearing in dealer showrooms some time after 2015, and over the following decades, the hydrogen fuel cell gradually would replace the internal combustion engine as king of the road.
The heart of a hydrogen car is its fuel cell, which works like a battery but doesn't need recharging. Oxygen passes over one electrode and hydrogen over the other, generating electricity, water and heat. The electricity powers a motor that drives the car. Because it would have no internal combustion engine or transmission, a hydrogen car might provide a smoother, roomier and quieter ride.
A car powered by pure hydrogen would emit no soot particles, smog-causing pollutants or global-warming carbon dioxide. It would release less water vapor than what's in the exhaust of today's cars.
Getting oxygen for the fuel cell is easy: it's drawn from the air, which is 20 percent oxygen. Supplying hydrogen is the hard part. Virtually all of the hydrogen on Earth is bound up in water, fossil fuels and other compounds. For example, a water molecule has two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom.
One way to obtain hydrogen is to run a fuel cell in reverse. Passing an electric current through water separates the hydrogen and oxygen. But it's much cheaper to extract hydrogen from a fossil fuel. The U.S. hydrogen industry produces 9 million tons of hydrogen a year, mostly from natural gas, for such uses as chemical production and petroleum refining. Hydrogen also powers the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's rockets.
It's possible to transport hydrogen to service stations in refrigerated trucks that keep hydrogen in a supercold liquid state. But it might be more practical for a service station to produce the fuel on site by extracting hydrogen from natural gas, gasoline, methanol or ethanol. Using natural gas, which is abundant in North America, would reduce our dependence on Middle Eastern oil.
Extracting hydrogen from fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide--but mile for mile, not as much as today's cars release. The only completely clean method is to extract hydrogen from water using electricity generated by solar, wind or other renewable resources. But for now at least, that's way too expensive.
The equipment needed to produce hydrogen at a service station could cost as much as $500,000. If there were enough hydrogen customers, it would be worth the investment, Mark said. But people won't buy hydrogen cars until service stations sell hydrogen. That's why experts predict the first vehicles will be fleet cars that can be fueled at company garages.
Storing hydrogen in vehicles will be one of the biggest challenges. Because hydrogen is so light, it takes a large volume of the gas to produce much energy. Therefore, the gas must be be compressed in car tanks to extreme pressures of at least 5,000 pounds per square inch. The tanks would be put through rigorous safety tests. Engineers would, for example, toss them in fires, drop them from buildings and even shoot them with guns.
Most of the current prototype cars run on pure hydrogen. But engineers also are exploring ways to use conventional fossil fuels to produce hydrogen on board. The car's fuel tank would be filled with gasoline, ethanol or methanol. A device would extract hydrogen from this fuel, for use in the fuel cell. This would eliminate the difficulty of storing hydrogen in the car.
But it would cause other problems. Extracting hydrogen from a fossil fuel would emit smog pollutants and carbon dioxide, although not as much as today's cars spew.
Various designs under study each have pros and cons. "There's no consensus on what is the right strategy," Rose said.
To realize Bush's vision, automakers and energy companies will have to make a car that's as safe and easy to drive as a gasoline car, with a comparable sticker price and fuel cost. Automakers and energy companies are a long way from achieving those goals, and researchers almost certainly will need more money than the president has proposed.
But by highlighting hydrogen in one of the most important speeches of his presidency, Bush offered the industry more than money.
"He helped to motivate and push forward the technology," said Joe Irvin of the California Fuel Cell Partnership. "It takes motivation from the top to take it to the market sooner rather than later."