The Legend of Hydrogen Economy
What your Congressman doesn’t know about chemisty
By Nick Baldasaro
When people get hold of a truly awful idea, it can be hard to shake them loose from it. This is especially true of elected officeholders who, with only a law degree and a window view of D.C., must legislate on everything from ethics to trade to Congressional pay raises, with the effects felt from sea to shining sea. Most horrifying for the public though should be the notion that Congress can legislate on matters of science. Quantum mechanics and penicillin weren’t around yet when some of these folks first got to Washington, making their potential grasp of technology questionable. Fortunately for politicians, ignorance is no excuse for curtailing spending, and so every year good money is squandered on zany science projects such. Don’t believe me? Three words: International Space Station.
There has been some talk recently about hydrogen power and the so-called ‘hydrogen economy’ as useful tools in the fight against pollution and foreign oil dependency. Much of this talk originates from the federal government itself which is a real tragedy- the idea that hydrogen power can help reduce energy dependence is not only an awful idea, it is, strictly speaking, an impossible one because hydrogen does not naturally exist as a fuel, and must be created. Unfortunately, Congress didn’t ask for the Review’s opinion, and so we must all suffer along on this 1.2 billion dollar per year ride. Let’s at least try to grasp the extent of the mugging we have collectively experienced.
Let us first observe a moment of shame, as we recognize that even some Republicans, long prided as our nation’s first line of defense against both good and bad science alike, have bought into this stupidity. President Bush in his 2003 State of the Union, said, “Tonight I’m proposing $1.2 billion in research funding so that America can lead the world in developing clean, hydrogen-powered automobiles.” Bush’s words reveal the origin of the hydrogen legend: that investing in technology that uses hydrogen fuel in novel ways will lessen pollution wherever it is employed. Proponents claim that hydrogen technology will decrease use of other fuels (fossil fuels, uranium, etc) and believe that hydrogen, which when combined with oxygen produces an innocent water molecule, is the fuel of the 21st century. Cleaner and more efficient energy consumption would of course justify interest and expenditures. The problem is that basic chemistry blows the whole idea out of the water.
Combining hydrogen and oxygen does produce clean energy. And most lay-Congressmen turn off their brains there and go back to naming State Insects and such. An enormous question looms: how does one get hydrogen? You just can’t find hydrogen lying around in Texas like you can with oil, because nature, crafty as she is, has frittered away all of our would-be free hydrogen by attaching it to other things such as wood, dirt, and democratic voters. All the useful hydrogen is already water, or organic material. If we can get energy out of turning free hydrogen and oxygen into water, then so can every other natural process. Our dream fuel is perfect in every sense but that it does not exist. The bottom line is that there is nothing renewable about hydrogen – to get it, you must put at least as much energy into extracting it from water as you could hope to get from it in a ‘clean, hydrogen-powered automobile.’
The deal we’re being sold is clearly preposterous, but it gets worse. Because one must take special pains to store and transport hydrogen, and because such storage and transport can never be 100% efficient, it’s actually more polluting to use hydrogen power. So not only did one combust the fossil fuels necessary to create the hydrogen from water, but in the process, inefficiencies were induced that would never have existed if you’d just combusted the damn coal or oil alone. Hydrogen fuel isn’t just a farce, it’s a disaster! Sure, the streets would smell like a cool refreshing glass of Brita water, but somewhere else (New Jersey) there’s now even more pollution than there would have been. This energy investment amounts to the age old trick of throwing all of the crap on your bedroom floor into the closet, where it will stink even worse in 3 days, all in order to show mom and dad that the room is now spotless.
Hydrogen is about as reusable as chewing gum. Local cleanliness or efficiency from hydrogen power is more than balanced out by extra waste and necessary to create the power. To be fair, it is possible that in some rare instances, if hydrogen already exists (such as natural gas) through some rare chemical process, then hydrogen technology could more efficiently extract useful energy from it. But this would simply amount to a more efficient way of using our limited fossil fuels, and not at all be representative of what Bush spoke of in his speech, nor of the ‘hydrogen economy.’ We’d also be no closer to sustainability (whatever that is- I hope the sustainability crowd has a plan for getting by the whole bummer that is the 2nd law of thermodynamics) than we currently are. As always, no free lunch. The whole thing would be funny if it weren’t so awful, and my only hope is that this whole thing blows over like alchemy, so we can get started on the real solution. I call it the ‘Uranium’ economy.