Chapter III, Section D:  A Role for Hydrogen (even without transportation fuel cells)

Hydrogen is an energy carrier, providing a way to store energy as a clean fuel from an energy resource, ideally, but not necessarily, alternative energy. That is hydrogen’s role. A hydrogen fuel cell provides a means to re-emit the stored energy electrically, without the emission of NOx that comes from combustion. That is its role. The use of hydrogen is not restricted to the use of hydrogen fuel cells. Likewise, the use of hydrogen fuel cells is not restricted to transportation, with all of the associated problems for hydrogen, such as hydrogen storage and a lack of vehicle-refueling infrastructure. Unfortunately in the eyes of politicians and the marketplace, the associations of hydrogen, fuel cells, and transportation are perceived entwined, and are assumed as such. A recent DOE decision to suspend research on transportation fuel cells, specifically, has unfortunately dampened enthusiasm for other uses of hydrogen fuel cells in general, as well as for other ways of using hydrogen.

After considerable money was spent on fuel cell research, Energy Secretary Steven Chu recently nixed DOE 2010 funding of transportation fuel cell research. But he did not cut funding for the continued research and development of stationary fuel cells, “… when [science advisor Chu] announced DOE’s fiscal year 2010 budget, Chu said the department is not giving up on fuel cells altogether. In addition to continuing to support stationary fuel cells, DOE will back basic research to improve catalysts and other components of the systems.” [Science, News Focus: Hydrogen Cars: Fad or the Future?, Volume 324, June 5, 2009] Even without transportation, an energy carrier role for hydrogen exists, and thus a market for stationary fuel cells which are already used in distributed generation.

Distributed generation (DG) is the decentralization of power production toward local, small energy producers, ideally interconnected on a network, as in Al Gore's vision of an internet-like power grid.

The key to such a structure is to avoid a corresponding decentralization of power production’s pollution by using energy generation that is clean, at least locally. Locally clean energy generation includes continuously-sourced (“renewable”) energy, as well as energy from hydrogen fuels that are produced elsewhere, cleanly or not. DG already provides an immediate market for hydrogen that will only grow with time. As Rifken alludes in The Hydrogen Economy, DG stands to comprise at least half of any hydrogen economy.

Hydrogen’s role as an energy carrier is not restricted to its use in fuel cells. An exciting power project already in development underscores the fact that you don’t need to use fuel cells to use hydrogen fuel. In this plant in New Mexico, wind generated hydrogen will subsequently be burned to produce electrical power conventionally from a steam-driven turbine.

Combustion (burning) releases the hydrogen energy in the form of heat and light, as opposed to the electrical energy form that is output from a fuel cell. Hydrogen combustion could also be a technique used in distributed generation.

But combustion is not ideal. At a Penn State hydrogen conference in 2003, as scientists and engineers were queuing up to receive some of the 2003 State of the Union largesse, a GM spokesperson demonstrating GM’s hydrogen fuel cell / electric car prototype was asked by a research engineer why the new technologies of fuel cells and electric engines were necessary. “Why can’t the hydrogen just be burned in an ICE (internal combustion engine), technology we have with over 100 years of engineering improvements?” The answer is that the heat of combustion of any fuel creates NOx from atmospheric nitrogen. Oxides of nitrogen (NOx) are acid-forming, ozone-forming, greenhouse gases that contribute to acid precipitation, smog, and climate change.

Even if it is assumed that “environmentally friendly” sources of energy will ultimately be used for the production of hydrogen, and even if it is further assumed that the hydrogen will be used cleanly in a fuel cell, the touted hydrogen solution runs headlong into another pressing environmental issue: water.

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