Hydrogen E-Con-omy


In the wake of the Global Warming , and the (perennial) impending Eco-tastrophe Hysteria, people are longing for a quick, safe, and cheap solution to these problems. It is alleged that global warming is due to a net carbon increase in the atmosphere and that the major contributor to the carbon is the internal combustion engine specifically when used in personal automobiles. As always the political class and their embedded and tenured supplicants are quick to proffer these answers to an ill-posed question. One of the more popular of late has been electric/hybrid vehicles along with the Hydrogen Economy. As usual, this is just another mendacious facade, masking the real agenda: socialism.

Hydrogen is advocated as a fuel becuase is it is clean. Hydrogen is burned with oxygen that produces pure water as the combustion by-product. The Space Shuttle main engines burn hydrogen with oxygen because it is the highest energy density available for a liquid fueled rocket motor. The big orange tank on the space shuttle has two compartments internally: one for liquid oxygen, and the other for liquid hydrogen. The 1986 Challenger explosion showed vivldy what happens when that combination gets together with a spark. Using hydrogen as a fuel is not a good idea.

The Emperor’s New Hydrogen Economy” by Canadian Darryl McMahon in 2006 casts a critical eye on the assertions of Hydrogen economy gadflys.

From the Preface:

  • “I am not saying that the hydrogen economy cannot work at a mechanical level
  • I am not saying that current practical obstacles cannot be overcome
  • I am not saying that we should stop all research and development into improving existing technologies for the production, storage, transport and use of hydrogen.
  • I am not saying that hydrogen cannot be a viable fuel in some specific circumstances (e.g., space exploration).

What I am saying is that given the current state of technology and the extremely limited penetration of sustainable energy sources throughout the industrialized world, the hydrogen economy is a really bad idea.”

I agree completely with this statement, it is a really bad idea, but for fundamentally different reasons.

Hydrogen does not exist naturally on earth. All hydrogen, because of its low density, thus high buoyancy, long ago escaped from the earth’s gravitational field as would helium were it not captured mechanically from “wells." So hydrogen has to be produced, with the most popular method being electrolysis, that is, splitting water with electricity, producing hydrogen and oxygen. Current worldwide production of hydrogen (according to author McMahon) is 5 million tons annually. For a hydrogen economy it would have increase by 100 fold

The book points out correctly that hydrogen is a carrier of energy, and that the energy itself must be produced elsewhere. Every thermodynamic change in energy state incurs a loss since no process is thermodynamically 100% efficient. He correctly points out that the hydrogen in your car or fuel cell may have undergone multiple conversions and losses during the production and delivery to the consumer. Some of these he estimates are as low as 30% efficient overall. Water is electrolysed to cleave the water molecule to form the gases and then store the hydrogen as a fuel for later use. Simple thermodynamics (the physics equivalent of Austrian economics, ie there is no free lunch) tells us that we will always use more energy making the hydrogen than we get out by burning. If not it would be a perpetual motion machine. The only exception to this is if fast breeder reactors are used to make electricity and then refueled with the breeder reactor fuel.

The politically desirable goal of clean-burning energy is covered up by the remote coal to steam to electricity to hydrogen process that happens somewhere else (electric cars always just move the pollution, not eliminate it). Multiple versions of this can occur depending on what the energy starting point is (fuel oil, biomass, nuclear, wind, etc.). All true, but then fossil fuels are just energy carriers as well. They carry from the sun to the earth and are stored. They come from the sun and whether you ascribe to the biogenic theory of petroleum origination from decomposition of the food chain itself over long periods of time, or from the bowels of the earth from gravitational collapse during planet forming (abiogenic). The sun provides the energy source. Petroleum has such a high energy density because it is just distilled and then transported. The amount transformed (always subject to losses) is small.

As I have said elsewhere, energy density is what matters; the following graph illustrates this nicely:

Figure 3. The energy densities of hydrogen fuels stored in various phases and materials are plotted, with the mass of the container and apparatus needed for filling and dispensing the fuel factored in. Gasoline significantly outperforms lithium-ion batteries and hydrogen in gaseous, liquid, or compound forms. The proposed DOE goal refers to the energy density that the US Department of Energy envisions as needed for viable hydrogen-powered transportation in 2015.

All the technologies in the lower left-hand side have an energy density that is too low to perform work efficiently for modern industrialized society. Some may actually consume more energy than they produce. Only fossil fuels and nuclear have sufficient energy density. Nuclear is off the chart so to speak!

The nuclear reactor has proven to be one of mankind’s safest devices. There have been no fatalities in the United States due to radiation exposure. Our future is clearly nuclear power once the fossil fuels price themselves out of mass consumption. Critics point to the disasterous Chernobyl reactor as evidence of the inherent safety risks. This is not a viable argument as multiple critics have pointed out the efficiency failures of socialism that led to gross levels of pollution in every country where it has been adopted as a means of social organization.

The point McMahon correctly makes is that the efficiency of multiple conversions is always poor and the true energy source is hidden, the net results are negative given current and foreseeable technology. That is the rub, negative foreseeable is always true right up until a revolution occurs and then a new technology becomes dominant.

The remainder of his book, and the major portion of it is just retreaded silly old nostrums about low carbon footprint, riding bicycles, wind, solar and geothermal power that have been offered up uncritically since the first Earth Day in 1970. This event of great mendacity brought the impending eco-disaster to public consciousness and has been exalted as conventional wisdom ever since.

The 90’s came and went, and we did not have to wear gas masks as that perpetual gas bag Paul Ehrlich predicted (still he did not return the profits from his book which got it largely wrong), nor did hundreds of millions starve to death as predicted. Ehrlich did pay off his bet with Julian Simon (Simon’s readings are essential for any serious Austrian Technologist). Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb is a classic book of the impending catastrophe that just never seems to occur even though it is always right around the corner. Save your money and borrow it from a library.

If the aforementioned is not reason enough to ignore the “Hydrogen Economy," then consider the fact that President George W. Bush in his 2003 State of the Union Address said this about hydrogen:

“In this century, the greatest environmental progress will come about not through endless lawsuits or command-and-control regulations, but through technology and innovation. Tonight I’m proposing $1.2 billion in research funding so that America can lead the world in developing clean, hydrogen-powered automobiles. (Applause.)

A single chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen generates energy, which can be used to power a car — producing only water, not exhaust fumes. 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”

The seven years of his presidency has been so disastrous on all fronts that anything he advocates should be opposed a priori. Yet his “experts” wanted money for research. He planned on a modest $1.2 billion dollars but this was later increased to $2.0 billion dollars.

The largest industry in the world (Petroleum) needs a pitiful two billion dollar grant, less than a day’s revenue, to create their next technological wunderkind? George W. Bush gives money to the oil industry as a reflex like most people yawn when tired. He can’t not do it. This pittance is just showing that he keeps the faith, but it does get the latest scam into the lexicon of conventional wisdom. Soon after his Presidency comes to an end, expect to see W and Al Gore arm-in-arm, just like his father was with Bill Clinton. It is after all, all about fleecing the public.

Spare yourself the cost of buying this book. The first seventeen chapters (112 pages) are a nice overview of the hydrogen economy and its potential limitations. You can get all of that here for free with a lot more physics and a lot less regurgitated and unproved assertions about the cause and effect of mankind (with fossil fuels as the bogeyman once again) on our ecosystems.

There is one illuminating chapter on the Hindenburg disaster and how it was attributed to the refusal of the Federal Government to sell helium to the Germans because of the 1925 Helium Act. The United States had all of the world’s helium reserves at that time. Helium cannot be manufactured; it comes from radioactive decay and the Universe-forming big bang.

The explosion was due to an electrostatic discharge when attempting to land that caught the cover on fire and subsequently ignited the hydrogen. The hydrogen burned up, as the passengers were below the hydrogen filled gas bags, yet only 2 victims burned to death; the remaining deaths were attributed to the fall to the ground and mechanical structure damage upon impact. Many survived.

One chapter that is tangentially related to the topic is not worth the price of an entire book. How many trees have to die for bad ideas to keep getting print? Perhaps that would be a good project for a graduate student of economics. Calculate the net carbon footprint of bad, and proven to be incorrect, works like Silent Spring, The Population Bomb and The Emperor’s New Hydrogen Economy.

Austrians are quick to point out that current “high” petroleum prices are a result of the destruction of the dollar against other currencies during the tenure of Greenspan/Bush II, not as a result of any petroleum shortage. Peak Oil, the Hubbert Peak is still (as they always seem to be) in the future. Nobody lives in the future; only the free market, human action, has a proven track record of making a better today.

The hydrogen economy is just another fad that will fade in time as it has no substance. I am not saying that hydrogen technology will fade, just that the fad of it being a solution to an ill-defined problem will.

Only the free market sorts out what does and does not work. The market iterates ten of billions of times every day, day in day out, year in year out, all over the world in finding solutions to mankind’s problems (many of which are government contrived). Mankind has been aggregating in voluntary social groups transforming the face of the earth for tens of thousands of years. This is where all of our viable technology comes from, individual creativity and hard work transforming scarcity into abundance, not from the political process of socialism (red or blue state variety).

The candidacy of Ron Paul this year is the most vibrant statement of this truth in a century. Mankind needs him as the next President of the United States, so we can continue the peaceful and cooperative agenda of Human Action.