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Pop Mech on Hydrogen

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Popular Mechanics has a pessimistic article about the most abundent element in the universe - Hydrogen. More specifically, the hydrogen economy.

Before delving too deeply into it, I want to start where they end - by noting that hydrogen technology will have its place in the future but is not the cure-all for our ills.

Ultimately, hydrogen may be just one part of a whole suite of energy alternatives. Any one of them will involve investing heavily in new infrastructure. Though the price tag will be steep, we can't afford oil's environmental, economic and political drawbacks any longer.

As most of us recognize, our problems must be solved by diversifying our energy sources and restructuring the organization of our lives. Investment and research into future technologies is only a piece of the solution.

This passage features the key ideas and ends with my favorite quote.

At first glance, hydrogen would seem an ideal substitute for these problematic fuels. Pound for pound, hydrogen contains almost three times as much energy as natural gas, and when consumed its only emission is pure, plain water. But unlike oil and gas, hydrogen is not a fuel. It is a way of storing or transporting energy. You have to make it before you can use it — generally by extracting hydrogen from fossil fuels, or by using electricity to split it from water.

And while oil and gas are easy to transport in pipelines and fuel tanks — they pack a lot of energy into a dense, stable form — hydrogen presents a host of technical and economic challenges. The lightest gas in the universe isn't easy to corral.

Popular Mechanics details 4 hydrogen hurdles: production, storage, distribution, and use. Nearly all hydrogen is currently produced using natural gas. The future may allow production of hydrogen from electrolysis using electricity from the grid - again, this seems like shifting the problem rather than solving it.

To my mind though, the biggest problem remains the issue of transportation (or distribution in the article's lingo).

Currently, most hydrogen is transported either in liquid form by tankers or as compressed gas in cylinders by trailers. Both methods are inefficient. Trucking compressed hydrogen 150 miles, for instance, burns diesel equivalent to 11 percent of the energy the hydrogen stores. It also requires a lot of round trips: A 44-ton vehicle that can carry enough gasoline to refuel 800 cars could only carry enough hydrogen to fuel 80 vehicles.

Talk of spending the $500 billion or so a hydrogen economy requires in infrastructure seems like a big price tag for a rather wasteful system.

The article suggests that hydrogen might make a lot more sense for fleet vehicles than it would for the general public. This seems a fairly safe bet.

Update: AutoblogGreen, the Energy Blog, and Sustainablog have recently challenged the GM-hydrogen strategy.