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Has America and the Department of Energy (DoE) Abandoned the Lonely Proton?

February 13, 2011

With all the rhetoric in the United States of renewable energy fuels to generate electricity, one must question why America abandoned the lonely proton, the heart of the hydrogen atom, as a viable renewable energy technology for our economy.  While there as significant challenges to establish a hydrogen pathway in the U.S. it is imperative to mention the high-level of the rational for “Why Hydrogen.” Simply stated hydrogen is abundant, clean, efficient, and can be derived from diverse domestic resources, including biomass, hydro, wind, solar, geothermal, nuclear, oil, coal and natural gas.  Hydrogen is unmistakably a highly efficiency and reliability carrier of energy with zero or near zero emissions for transportation and distributed energy.

To illustrate what is going on in U.S.’s energy program, the best way to attempt this mammoth task is to review the DoE’s FY 2011 Budget Request:

(Source: http://www.mbe.doe.gov/budget/11budget/Content/Apprsum.pdf)

Before the theme is further developed, a few supporting summary notes on the DoE’s proposed budget is worth citing:
• Less than 50% of the DoE’s budget is targeted to Energy Programs,
• Of all the Energy Programs, only about 14% will go to Renewable Energy Technologies,
• Of the Total DoE’s budget, only 6% will go to Renewable Energy Technologies,
• Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technologies comprise only 1.2% of all Renewable Energy Program, and
• Of the Total DoE’s budget, only 0.5% will go to Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technologies.

So why is hydrogen as an energy carrier important? Surely much more knowledgeable and wiser individuals think otherwise. For this reason, hydrogen research has been relegated to the hidden laboratories of a few. Maybe those smarter than me are right in saying that hydrogen has no place as a renewable fuel of choice in today’s world. When searching for convenient answers to appease an ever-growing irritated electorate, our legislator’s would rather promote a poorly conceived technology rather than a viable market driven solution to our energy needs. Such may be the case with the Electric Vehicle (EV). Not to criticize any one technology, but the non-hybrid EV brings to the table unacceptable range, high cost, and charging uncertainties. Ask yourself if you would put your child or love one in an EV of today. Products that don’t take into the consideration “customer’s needs and requirements,” are most likely doomed to failure. Sure there are high hopes of changing consumer behavior to adjust to these limitations, but without a viable rapid transit system, a tight lending market and potentially safety concerns, this technology driven rather than market drive solution may wind up to be the Edsel of the 2010’s.
 

Well the point is that the so called knowledgeable and wiser decision makers of any one time seems to be the “renewable energy“ hero of the day only to quickly fade into oblivion. Could those heroes, have suddenly taken a dumb pill?

Let’s take a look back in time. Some 25 years ago, Hawaii became an early leader in the push to develop hydrogen as a fuel when, in 1980, U.S. Senator Spark Matsunaga introduced the first hydrogen legislation in Congress. In 1983, with a $50,000 appropriation from the Hawaii Legislature, HNEI established the Hawaii Hydrogen Program. In September 1985, HNEI was awarded a contract from the Solar Energy Research Institute (now the National Renewable Energy Laboratory) to establish the Hawaii Hydrogen from Renewable Resources Program. This resulted in the Matsunaga Hydrogen Research, Development and Demonstration Act of 1990 directed the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) to establish a Hydrogen Technical Advisory Panel (HTAP).

The HTAP’s mandate was to facilitate the development of hydrogen as an energy carrier and to make recommendations on the implementation and the associated economic, technological and environmental impacts of hydrogen-based energy systems. Complementing this Act, the DoE established short-, mid- and long-term national objectives to replace conventional energy with hydrogen, an inexhaustible source of clean energy. The transition goals were:
• 0.5 quads per year by 2000
• 4 quads by 2010 
• 10 quads by 2030.
[Note: A quad is a unit of energy equal to 1015 (a short-scale quadrillion) BTU, or 1.055 × 1018 joules.]

Similarly, at that time, California enacted legislation requiring that 2% of new, light-duty vehicles offered for sale within the state be non-polluting, zero-emission vehicles (ZEV) by 1998 and 10% by 2003.  Battery- powered electric vehicles were frequently identified as the technology option that would meet this requirement. I could go on ad nauseam with other examples from the past.

Papers, Initiatives and Headlines of the past:
• 1766; Hydrogen was first identified as a distinct element by British scientist Henry Cavendish after he separated hydrogen gas by reacting zinc metal with hydrochloric acid. In a demonstration to the Royal Society of London, Cavendish applied a spark to hydrogen gas yielding water.
• 1839; The fuel cell effect, combining hydrogen and oxygen gases to produce water and an electric current, was discovered by Swiss chemist Christian Friedrich Schoenbein.
• 1845; English scientist and Judge Sir William Grove demonstrated Schoenbein’s discovery on a practical scale by creating a “gas battery.” For his achievement he earned the title “Father of the Fuel Cell.”
• 1970; Electro chemist John O’M. Bockris coined the term “hydrogen economy.” He later published Energy: the Solar-Hydrogen Alternative, describing his envisioned hydrogen economy where cities in the United States could be supplied with solar energy.
• 1978; National Science Foundation transferred the Federal Hydrogen R&D Program to the U.S. DOE
• “A National Vision of America’s Transition to a Hydrogen Economy to 2030 and Beyond” by the DoE, Based on the results of the National Hydrogen Vision Meeting, Washington, DC November 15-16, 2001.
• “President’s (Bush) Hydrogen Fuel Initiative Complements FreedomCAR (Cooperative Automobile Research,” January 9, 2002.
• “Hydrogen Supply: Cost Estimate for Hydrogen Pathways – Scoping Analysis,” National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), November 22, 2002.
• The International Partnership for the Hydrogen Economy (IPHE), by the DoE announces “President Bush Launches the Hydrogen Fuel Initiative,” January 28, 2003.
• “Hydrogen Economy: Not So Difficult – Without Nuclear Power,” Amory B. Lovins, August 23, 2003.
• “DoE Hydrogen, Fuel Cells, and Infrastructure Technologies Program,” NREL, July 28-29, 2004.

Sure technologies change and evolve with time, only to be replaced with more efficient and effective solutions. If hydrogen was the wrong choice, then why did we establish these national initiatives and waste countless billions of dollars? It appears that our legislators deem it’s politically advantageous and easier to waste taxpayer’s money by continually vacillating to the whims of a new administration or a strong lobbyist than taking a concretive stance and doing something meaningful like making hydrogen an affordable and broad based energy solution. If the bomb, to the destruction of all mankind, was developed in a few years then why can’t we do the same for the benefit of mankind? Poor Mr. Sun who is the quintessential manifestation of what hydrogen can do and has given us “EVERYTHING” we have, is related to a poor second to its own products – solar, wind, hydro, biomass and geothermal.

I leave it up to you to ask yourself if the U.S. has a strategically sound energy policy or quickly adopts the “Technology of the Day” approach. I recall the saying “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.”

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. February 19, 2011 10:23 AM

    Barry;

    You should post this somewhere in a linked-in group to get comments. Based on our current technology, hydrogen does not make sense. Unlike some of our politician friends that would end the sentence there, I will give you my reasons:

    – Hydrogen generation is expensive. High capital and operating costs.
    – The biggest hydrogen source today is methane, almost why bother, run the vehicles directly with methane (here one could argue that it is easier to generate hydrogen and collect the pollution from the methane at a central location; however, given the costs and inefficiencies of the process and the use of a non-renewable resource makes this argument a stretch).
    – Ultimately one could generate hydrogen from renewable electricity (solar, wind, hydro, etc.). This argument is flawed, if you have renewable electricity use it, do not go through the inneficiencies of converting to hydrogen. Second, the time required to get there is long so converting to hydrogen now is putting the cart in froint of the horse.
    – Hydrogen vehicles are currently unavailable, what is the first market? Pickens has a good approach, focus on a single market, trucks (I disgree with the us of natural gas as a transport fuel, but his marketing approach is sound).
    – Hydrogen infrastructure is non-existent
    – Hydrogen storage is very difficult and has many inherent risks

    If we had no alternatives, one might consider the gargantuan effort required to shift some of our economy to hydrogen. However, with biofuels already here and renewable electricity making strides it is hardly worth the effort.

  2. February 19, 2011 12:04 PM

    It has been posted on LinkedIn. I well understand the issues surrounding developing a hydrogen economy. However, I recall in the late 60’s the first four function (+ – / * and maybe sq. root) hand calculator was about $200. Now much more sophisticated calculators are given away free. Hydrogen comes from water and yes, found in all hydrocarbons. Some day when fossil fuels which include methane run out or too expensive to bring to the surface, we will have to find synthetic method to produce hydrocarbons out of water to make products such as drugs and plastics, etc. Sooner or later it will come back to H20.

  3. February 22, 2011 6:26 AM

    Barry, you are right, there will much for come in the ways of Implementing the Hydrogen Society. If this will be without the U.S government, represented by the DOE, why not?
    All countries and nations have their times, which you can also see at The ancient Chinese,
    The Maja, the The Aztec people or at watching building like at Stonehenge, UK.
    It boils all down to the question of who will survive a certain transitron phase. In hydrogen, we are in it since 1974. Much more to come….

  4. February 22, 2011 12:08 PM

    Barry;

    While the cost of electronics has decreased dramatically, the cost of refining (in real dollars), has remained the same. I guess my point here is that electronics have little to do with fuels or the price of bread (maybe more to do with the price of bread than fuels).

    On the point of what to do when hydrocarbons decline, we are well on our way with biofuels today. Hydrogen does not look like a viable alternative, and people may have finally come to grips with that reality.

  5. January 29, 2013 6:14 AM

    I am really glad to read this blog posts which carries tons of valuable data, thanks
    for providing these kinds of statistics.

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