July 5, 2017

Why don't we have hydrogen cars?

"But hydrogen is still stuck in the prototype stage, struggling with high costs, competition from electric vehicles, and worries, perhaps exaggerated, about the risks." (NYT)
As the United States retreats from its global leadership role on climate change, countries like Germany are aggressively moving ahead, testing all manner of clean energy initiatives....
Not that it's working out too well in Germany. It's not. But if you're going to take the attitude that Germany more advanced than the United States, I'd like a better explanation of what's holding us up than that we're retreating from global leadership role on climate change, because I associate enthusiasm for hydrogen fuel cell cars with George W. Bush and concern about energy independence, not climate change (or, as it was called back then, global warming).

Here's the story from 2003:
The United States can change its dependence on foreign oil and "make a tremendous difference" in the world and the environment, President Bush said Thursday as he announced details of a $1.2 billion initiative to make hydrogen fuel competitive for powering vehicles and generating electricity.

"We can change our dependence upon foreign sources of energy. We can help with the quality of the air. We can make a fundamental difference for the future of our children," the president said at the National Building Museum in Washington. "Hydrogen fuel cells represent one of the most encouraging, innovative technologies of our era."...
What happened?

105 comments:

St. George said...

Because the terminal in Lakehurst, NJ, has never been rebuilt.

Derek Kite said...

Because it was a scam from the beginning. There is lots of hydrogen around, but it is already burnt.

Jalanl said...

Hydrogen is not a primary fuel. It is usually generated from natural gas. It can also be generated by electrolysis of water - which required copious amounts of electricity. It also requires huge amounts of energy to compress. So the energy efficiency of hydrogen sucks!

takirks said...

Maybe because it doesn't actually, y'know, work?

The technical challenges of hydrogen just for distribution alone? Daunting doesn't even begin to describe it. Add in that the technology is basically a means for energy storage, given that there is currently no cheap and easy source of raw hydrogen?

This was never a "thing", in the first place, outside the fever dreams of some delusional environmentalists and technologists who wanted to make money off of humoring them. The enabling technology to make this idea work simply isn't here yet--And, likely never will be.

h said...

Recent science report on producing hydrogen from water.

http://www.jpost.com/Business-and-Innovation/Tech/Technion-develops-hydrogen-production-method-that-blows-others-out-of-the-water-485279

Roger Sweeny said...

What happened is physics. Fuel cells burn hydrogen to make water (dihydrous oxide). But there is pretty much no free hydrogen in nature. One way to get hydrogen is to break up water molecules by electrolysis. But the law of conservation of energy says you can't get more energy out of burning the hydrogen than you put in by breaking up the water. In fact, since no earthly process is 100% efficient, you will get less!

Another way to get the hydrogen is to use a "reformer" in the fuel cell complex, basically ripping hydrogen out of natural gas. But this is just a roundabout way of burning natural gas.

rhhardin said...

Hindenburg match book cover:

For God's sake close cover before striking.

frang 8c said...

heard ceo of Shell explain hydrogen would require much larger fuel tanks because of density so cars would lose trunk space, makes sense for tractor trailers though

sykes.1 said...

Piling on and following Sweeney's lead, there are serious technical problems with hydrogen.

First, it doesn't condense into a liquid under pressure unless one uses a cryogenic process that reduces its temperature to about -423 F. The energy costs of this are enormous. However, if one doesn't liquify hydrogen it is nearly impossible to store useful quantities.

There is also the issue of hydrogen embrittlement. The diffusion of stored gaseous hydrogen into the metal of the storage tank leads to embrittlement of the metal and catastrophic failure. What this means is that you cannot transport hydrogen in either pipelines or tank cars.

So fuel cells remain a specialized niche technology, and liquid hydrogen is by and large restricted to rocket fuels. It might be noted that the Saturn rockets burned kerosene using liquid oxygen.

As an aside, if you are a believer in the evils of carbon dioxide, fuel cells burning (reforming) natural gas produce exactly the same amount of carbon dioxide per methane molecule as do internal combustion engines.

PS. Your flying car isn't coming home anytime soon either.

Ambrose said...

Gasoline is cheap and plentiful, and gasoline powered cars work really well.

JPS said...

Hydrogen is a currency of energy, not a source, as others have noted. God / nature / chance didn't leave huge underground deposits of it waiting to be tapped and burned.

Solve the problem of where the energy is going to come from, and hydrogen looks more attractive. (This is advice like Steve Martin's How To Become a Millionaire: First, make a million dollars.) But even if you have all the solar (or nuclear, or hydropower, or - wake me when it works - fusion) energy on tap you could want, you still have this issue: Hydrogen boils at 20 K, so keeping it liquid requires some serious refrigeration and insulation.

Oh, and its density is about 1/10 that of gasoline. By weight, liquid hydrogen is a wonderful fuel. By volume not so much. Everyone remember that big orange external fuel tank, larger than the orbiter, on the space shuttle? Yeah....

Roger Sweeny said...

One of the great truths of ecology is that you have to look at the whole process. If a factory is raining soot on the surrounding town, you can't build a taller smokestack and say there's no more soot. The soot is going somewhere. (It's an analog to Bastiat's "seen and unseen".)

People looked at fuel cells and said, "Wow, clean, non-polluting energy." But they didn't see where the hydrogen was coming from--which is generally neither clean nor non-polluting.

And often expensive. The only place I know of that actually makes it work is Iceland, with its copious geothermal energy. The place is basically one giant volcano.

rehajm said...

Hydrogen is not a primary fuel. It is usually generated from natural gas. It can also be generated by electrolysis of water - which required copious amounts of electricity. It also requires huge amounts of energy to compress. So the energy efficiency of hydrogen sucks!

This is the environmental problem. Climate change enthusiasts obsess about tailpipe emissions and fail to account for increased emissions from infrastructure development, manufacturing and delivery.

Accounting for these important aspects, electric cars aren't that green, either.

MikeR said...

People have long talked about using liquid hydrogen as a spacecraft fuel. But it's incredibly hard to contain; it leaks.
You don't find hydrogen, you make it out of water. It takes just as much energy to make it as you get out, so the point is as a storage device. Unfortunately, it's really hard to store and transport and stuff. You don't really gain much over gasoline, which stores and transports well and is an incredibly good way to store energy in a small space. A few gallons of gasoline can move a whole massive car for hundreds of miles; that's hard to match.

Lance said...

The only emission produced is water vapor.

That's true for burning hydrogen. But hydrogen gas does not occur in large quantity. Most hydrogen gas is produced from hydrocarbons, such as methane. In the most common processes, after the hydrogen has been removed the remaining CO2 and pollutants are released into the atmosphere. Very little of the world's hydrogen is produced from electrolysis, which is much more expensive.

David Begley said...

Federal tax credits and Elon Musk happened. Musk is the master of raising money from the Street based upon hype and aided by the federal tax code.

rhhardin said...

Tightly-wound springs what what cars had when we were kids. Also friction motors.

Compressed CO2. Jet-X pellets.

Michael K said...

Ask the Hindenberg,

rhhardin said...

Reform the bikini wax industry to use electrolysis and capture the hydrogen.

Bob Ellison said...

Goats. Goats are the answer. They're strong and mostly docile. Hitch them in front of your buggy and make them pull. Also, they produce methane, which you can use to burn a low-heat stove.

Big Mike said...

There's a very basic question that needs to be asked. When can we get more energy out than we put into generating, transporting, storing, metering, and burning, and all of the above SAFELY?

LakeLevel said...

It's not just Germany. Japan is already producing production hydrogen fuel cell cars. What happened in the US is environmentalists put a stop to it because the cheapest way to get hydrogen is from natural gas, and that is not "carbon neutral". With the newest water cracking technology, hydrogen + fuel cell has the potential to be the perfect electric car solution. First, no transportation problem since electricity and water are already delivered, well, everywhere. Secondly, you can recharge in just a few minutes instead of hours. Of course this will have to happen without the US helping develop the technology, mostly because of California lefty politics.

rhhardin said...

Potato clocks wired in series could be used to power cars.

Bob Ellison said...

LakeLevel, where does the electricity come from?

rhhardin said...

The dunking bird engine offers promise, if you hook a bunch to a crankshaft with connecting rods.

Clyde said...

What happened? Fracking.

rhhardin said...

Then there's tapping the Crookes radiometer. It may turn backwards but it turns. Run your car with photon momentum.

rhhardin said...

There's always steam. Burn whatever you find by the side of the road.

Energy plus highway cleanup.

Meade said...

"The dunking bird engine offers promise, if you hook a bunch to a crankshaft with connecting rods."

Fred Flintstone's car had something like that but it seems like he used the bird for a horn not a motor.

LakeLevel said...

Bob: "where does the electricity come from".
I didn't say electric cars were actually better at reducing carbon dioxide, just that hydrogen + fuel cell might be a more practical solution to electric cars than lithium-ion. It might also be better environmentally with the mess lithium production leaves. Elon Musk might would have one huge white elephant in the Nevada desert if this technology is ever developed to fruition.

clint said...

The "problem" is that the gas-burning internal combustion engine is a mature technology that works extremely well and cheaply.

We can make cars that use batteries or fuel cells or even a pellet-based nuclear power source. Heck, we could make wind-powered cars -- sailboats with wheels. But none of these work nearly as well as what we have now.

Of course, it's not clear why that's supposed to be a problem.

Quaestor said...

The only emission produced is water vapor.

Water vapor is a more significant greenhouse gas than CO2. Granted the vapor could be condensed within the exhaust system so that the tailpipe would drip liquid water, but that would only reduce efficiency even more. If "climate change" is what obsesses you, you don't want hydrogen cars. You want more nuclear-generated electricity and much more efficient battery technology. Everything thing else is a chimera.

Ash said...

The husband and I were just talking about this yesterday thanks to this Jalopnik article about Toyota's work on fuel cell semis. Pretty cool - http://jalopnik.com/here-s-a-huge-reason-why-we-need-electric-trucks-1796495764

mandrewa said...

Without doing any research, I see two problems with using molecular hydrogen as a fuel. First, if we are concerned about CO2 emissions then making hydrogen will make more CO2 than burning gasoline. It doesn't have to be that way. We can imagine extracting hydrogen from water but that takes a lot of energy. Practically speaking it's more economical to extract hydrogen from hydrocarbons and that generates an excessive amount of CO2.

If we had cheap, abundant energy, it might make sense to generate hydrogen from the electrolysis of water but as long as we have cheap, abundant hydrocarbons instead there's always going to be the temptation to use them as the source, and actually that means they will be used, at least in part, somewhere.

Second, there is the whole problem of the storage and transportation of molecular hydrogen. It is very hard to contain. It escapes through the tiniest of cracks or seams. Not only do we not have the infrastructure to store and transport molecular hydrogen, but I suspect it would be much more expensive to build and maintain that infrastructure than what we currently have to store and move around gasoline and methane.

DKWalser said...

When I was in Jr. High, I remember my mom's alumni magazine having an article on a company that had a prototype care running on hydrogen. The head of the company, Billings Energy, had attended the same school and several of the school's students were currently employed as interns. That would have been sometime in the early 1970s, but the article made it seem like hydrogen powered cars were just a few years -- at most -- away.

tcrosse said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
tcrosse said...

So many technical problems the scientists and engineers can't solve. Lets put some lawyers, politicians, and movie actors to work on it.

Lyle Smith said...

Germany is using more coal and it's emissions are going up. Their Energiewinde has failed. Closing down nuclear plants meant burning more coal and wood (trees have to be cut down). The Germans are selling make believe.

Unknown said...

Physics, science and lack of knowledge happened. We will have hydrogen cars ( or mr. Fusion) when the science catches up. It will happen, but hopefully without the mass subsidies we are providing to put up disgusting animal killing windmills everywhere.

Original Mike said...

Why don't we have hydrogen cars?

The New York Times once had to print a correction to a story they published on solar energy. I wish I still had the link, but it said (paraphrasing): "Contrary to the article [date and title here], the sun rises in the east and sets in the west."

Don't get your science from journalism school graduates.

Bay Area Guy said...

The Left doesn't like oil, doesn't like cars, and doesn't like the oil industry.

The Left has this bizarre fantasy that we should stop all oil production and just ride bikes or take public transit.

At times they have claimed that reducing our dependence on foreign oil would weaken Saudi Arabia, Iran and other OPEC nations we dont like. It does make a degree of sense. Why let the Saudis make $$$ selling us oil to then fund Islamic terror groups?

But as usual, they go too far, and they drop their mask. It's not that they dislike foreign oil, they just simply dislike all oil.

So, they must be either mocked or ignored.

Michael K said...

So many technical problems the scientists and engineers can't solve. Lets put some lawyers, politicians, and movie actors to work on it.

Thread winner.

jwl said...

I, too, been wondering what happened.

I went on a junket with my auto journalist father twenty years ago, GM took a bunch of people to Southern France to showcase their fuel cell technology on modified Montana minivans that had joystick instead of steering wheel. Engineers said fuel cell engine would be size/shape of surf board and it would be portable. The future was supposed to be $50,000 - $75,000 engine, $2,000 to $25,000 frames and snap in your engine into whichever car you felt like driving that day.

As far as I can tell, at end of Bush term and beginning of Obama term when the financial crisis was just starting and government wanted to start spending a lot of money, bureaucrats chose poorly and decided to fund development of electric vehicles instead of fuel cells. Presumably, electric vehicle lobbyists were better funded, connected.

lgv said...

Despite all the technical issues raised, the bottom line is that it could be used to power cars and has been demonstrated to do so. It is just a bad economic choice and is only being considered because of emissions or in GWB's foray, energy independence. The reason it will be put to sleep has nothing to do with anything other than it is a worse choice than electric vehicles, which is a worse choice than gasoline vehicles. As for energy independence, we are just about there and if we really needed it, we could just build nuclear and coal plants.

"Lets put some lawyers, politicians, and movie actors to work on it."

This is how we keep spending money on it.

Mac McConnell said...

We're burning hydrogen in it's cheapest form now, it's called gasoline. Hydrogen is found nowhere on earth in a free state, it's expensive isolate.

Fritz said...

As an energy currency, H suffers from lack of energy density. To carry it as a gas you have to compress it, and that's a ltllte dangerous in a vehicle and not very efficient. To cool it enough to liquefy it takes a lot of energy, and then it doesn't last well without continued cooling. Metal hydrides can store it solid, but they're heavy.

And yes, it tends to blow up given the opportunity.

Known Unknown said...

"As the United States retreats from its global leadership role on climate change, countries like Germany are aggressively moving ahead, testing all manner of clean energy initiatives...."

Does the NYT deal in non-sequiturs frequently? I am not an avid reader.

Bay Area Guy said...

I have fond memories of DRIVING my first car - a used '69 Chevy Nova -- to get a burger with my pals.

35 years later, Al Gore wants me to sit in the back seat of a driverless Prius to get a burger. No dice, Al.

Michael K said...

"I have fond memories of DRIVING my first car - a used '69 Chevy Nova -- to get a burger with my pals."

My first driving experience was with my father's old Plymouth pickup that was about 1939 vintage,.

All my high school friends learned to drive on it, too. My father had a golf range on about 25 acres of grass. We would drive it all over long before we ventured on the street,

Gear shift lever was on the floor.

I'm thinking of buying an MG TD which would probably survive and EMP since nothing is electronic but the ignition coil.

tcrosse said...

I'm thinking of buying an MG TD which would probably survive and EMP since nothing is electronic but the ignition coil.

Those Lucas electrics have a reputation for reliability.

Rusty said...

It's an inefficient internal cubustion fuel. If it were any good we'd preach be using it. Every oil refinery produces . There is a company inDelaware that is making fuel cells that use methane instead of hydrogen.

Jim Howard said...

From a technical point of view hydrogen makes no sense. It's just a second rate battery, but with a lot more willingness to explode. You'd need a basketball to hold enough hydrogen to equal a AA battery.

The only sensible way to make hydrogen is to use a nuclear reactor to power its extraction from water. And of course nuclear energy correctly implemented (see 'France') is the safest and cleanest form of energy there is. So we can't have that! Unless you live in Iceland, which sas enough geothermal to make hydrogen marginally sensible for things like buses.

Take the energy you would use to extract hydrogen and use it to make batteries.

mockturtle said...

Jim Howard explains: It's just a second rate battery, but with a lot more willingness to explode.

This.

urbane legend said...

David Begley said...
Federal tax credits and Elon Musk happened.

Everything Elon Musk does smells funny. Not Chanel #5.

Original Mike said...

"I'm thinking of buying an MG TD which would probably survive and EMP since nothing is electronic but the ignition coil."

The car may survive but the gas pumps won't.

Michael K said...

"The car may survive but the gas pumps won't."

It has a 12.5 gallon tank and will go 300 miles on it. The engine is 57 hp.

By the time, I run out of gas, we will be back to the gravity pumps.

Bruce Hayden said...

"And yes, it tends to blow up given the opportunity."

Question here from the chemists, etc - are we talking exploding or just burning very quickly? My memory was that the Hindenburg just burned up fairly quickly. The limitation on combustion speed would seem to be the surrounding O2 level, at least to some extent. I never did understand the difference between combustion and explosion, but do remember my next brother (MS/ME) commenting on this in the difference between gasoline and diesel engines.

@Dr K - know several people who have collected older diesel Mercedes cars due to their EMP resistance.

Darrell said...

Look up "hydrogen embrittlement." T Legal liabilities are the real reason why there aren't more hydrogen-powered vehicles on the road. KABOOM!

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydrogen_embrittlement

Tim said...

Lucas electrics- from the Prince of Darkness

JPS said...

Bruce Hayden,

"Question here from the chemists, etc - are we talking exploding or just burning very quickly? My memory was that the Hindenburg just burned up fairly quickly."

Mixed with the right ratio of oxygen (actually quite a wide range around the theoretical), it can absolutely explode, as in supersonic shock wave. "Explosions" can include mechanical (overload a container with gas until it bursts hard), deflagration (very rapid burning, think old-school gunpowder), and detonation (supersonic shock wave).

You are right though that the Hindenburg burned up rapidly. Actually those horrible flames you see are the balloon material, which was aluminized and oxidizable, not the hydrogen.

MadisonMan said...

Water vapor is a more significant greenhouse gas than CO2

Yet only so much water vapor can enter the atmosphere before it condenses out. CO2 is nowhere near its saturation point in the atmosphere.

Nuclear power to make hydrogen out of water. That's what's needed.

PB said...

The problem exists that petroleum is a readily available commodity that contains a high-energy content and is easily and affordably utilized.

HoodlumDoodlum said...

"Why don't we have hydrogen cars?"

Power density, I'd think.

Bruce Hayden said...

One of the more interesting Mythbuster episodes was when they tried to blow up a car by shooting the gas tank, etc. mostly didn't work, because what you really need is an aerosol, in order to maximize the mixing of gasoline and oxygen (which is what carburetors and fuel injection are for in internal combustion engines). The basic problem is that gasoline, at room temperature is liquid, which has a very low level of mixing. The gasoline can burn quite nicely, but it is hard to get to explode.

The problem with H2, as others above have pointed out, is that it is gaseous at anything approaching the temperature and pressure in which humans can survive. Which means that it will naturally mix optimally with O2 in the atmosphere, in very short order, if given half a chance, just waiting for a spark to set of a chain reaction.

The other problem, of course, is that it is the smallest atom, and, in its gaseous form, the smallest molecule. Which is why it is so hard to contain, leaking between the much larger molecules used for most containment devices. And, of course, keeping it out of its gaseous form is quite expensive.

Which is maybe a long way of saying that if you shoot a gas tank of a car, or maybe even get in a crash that cracks the gas tank, it probably will just leak and maybe catch fire. But if you do so to a tank of H2, you are very likely to have the nice fireball that Hollywood provides so frequently through the use of pyrotechnics.

Bruce Hayden said...

@JPS - thanks. Didn't mind chemistry, per se, just labs. Bio was worse. Which is why I only took 1 year of chem in college. I gravitated to areas w/o as much lab work required, such as math, physics, CS, and ultimately some EE and ME. I was pretty good at dry labbing my gen chem labs, but expected that wouldn't work that well in organic chem, which came next. Don't really know why I hated labs so much, except that I have never really liked working with my hands that much. I was surprised that my kid is ending up taking the experimental side, instead of the computational or theoretical sides, in grad school. Must have more of their mother in them than me.

SoLastMillennium said...

We don't have Hydrogen cars because there is no source of pure Hydrogen. If there was we would be burning it just like natural gas.

Converting existing petroleum or natural gas to Hydrogen and Carbon is the same as burning it, so why bother?

Michael said...

"As the United States retreats from its global leadership role on climate change..."

Among the many things the NYT does not seem to understand is that there is a difference between retreating from leadership and leading in a different direction.

tcrosse said...

Among the many things the NYT does not seem to understand is that there is a difference between retreating from leadership and leading in a different direction.

The NYT is OK with Leading From Behind.

Edmund said...

@Bruce Hayden: Question here from the chemists, etc - are we talking exploding or just burning very quickly?

It burned fast. Another famous hydrogen accident was the Challenger disaster. Challenger didn't explode, the hydrogen from the external tank produced the big fireball, but it wasn't an explosion, just a rapid burn.

As others have pointed out, the big showstoppers in Hydrogen use include:
- the energy density is terrible compared to gasoline, so you have to have huge tanks and short driving range.
- hydrogen enbrittlement of storage and handling equipment is a real problem. I remember one of my professors doing research on it in the early 70s. It's still a problem.
- low or negative energy efficiency of producing it from natural gas or water. Many alternative energy sources look great until you study the whole life cycle. Solar panels were, until recently, energy negative, taking more energy to manufacture than they would produce during their lifetime. They also produce a lot of nasty toxic wastes.
- it takes big pressurized tanks to hold the gas in a vehicle. Failure modes for tanks like that are pretty nasty. I worked at a company that made acetylene for welders. They had a fire at the acetylene plant one day. Tanks were overheating and flying 50-100 feet in the air, others rocketing across a busy road.
- fire safety. Unlike a gasoline fire, which is easily visible, a Hydrogen fire is almost impossible to see in daylight.

Lifecycle costs are why Google engineers concluded a few years ago that solar and wind aren't enough to produce all the electricity needed in the US.

J Melcher said...

Ann writes: "climate change (or, as it was called back then, global warming).
Here's the story from 2003: [giant snip]

What happened?"

I address only the change in terminology from 2003 to now. There are two problems with the term "global warming". First, it is not global. Second, it's not "warming".

For instance, some places -- the Arctic -- see less ice while comparable places -- the Antarctic -- see more. Some regions -- the SouthEastern US -- are cooling and growing more forest, some are warming and "growing" more desert. The globe as a whole has places that may be dryer or wetter or more at risk of drought or less or more prone to flooding or less, or with acid in the ocean or higher tides at the ports or less snow on the mountain peaks or any host of consequences either well-predicted or wholly imaginary. But "Change" covers all, and not only temperature.

"Warming" as a measure of global AVERAGE temperature has also become politically inconvenient in that the trend line of index average synthetically derived anomaly numbers representing the global rate of radiation transfer from visible light to infrared has rather leveled off, the past decade. "Warming" isn't quite as dramatic a term for the measure as it was in 1998, or 2003. So, again, any slope to the line is "change" and can be scientifically defined and defended.

The third and inconsequential issue that that nobody actually experiences an "average" event. Paul Krugman walks into a bar. The average income (probably) rises. So?

Original Mike said...

JPS said...""Question here from the chemists, etc - are we talking exploding or just burning very quickly? My memory was that the Hindenburg just burned up fairly quickly."

I ran across
this
amusing tidbit recently while researching Li-ion batteries:

"The temperature can quickly reach 500C (932F), at which point the cell catches fire or it explodes. This thermal runaway that occurs is known as “venting with flame.” “Rapid disassembly” is the preferred term by the battery industry."(my emphasis)

Original Mike said...

Blogger Bruce Hayden said..."One of the more interesting Mythbuster episodes was when they tried to blow up a car by shooting the gas tank, etc. mostly didn't work..."

They also shot a tank of hydrogen which blew up like, well, like the Hindenburg.

Yancey Ward said...

Given the unforgiving and immutable physical characteristics of hydrogen gas and its storage problems, if and when we have the requisite unlimited electrical power supplies to produce hydrogen without producing CO2, it is quite likely that we will have already developed the technology to produce octane and/or other liquid hydrocarbons from carbon dioxide itself.

Anga2010 said...

3 words: Hin Den Burg.

Unknown said...

1 word: reality

Achilles said...

HoodlumDoodlum said...
"Why don't we have hydrogen cars?"

Power density, I'd think.

Cost of generation. When compressed you actually get more energy out of hydrogen.

Hydrogen combustion has a chance. Hydrogen fuel cells are a pipe dream. The key right now is separating hydrogen and oxygen economically.

Martin said...

It takes a lot of energy to separate hydrogen from water--a "hydrogen economy" needs a huge amount of electricity generated from other sources to create the free H2 needed in things like vehicles.

Also, I worked on a hydrogen-fuel cell bus project in the 1990s and learned, among other things, that because hydrogen molecules are much smaller than methane (natural gas), you cannot just run H2 through pipes and connections designed for CH4--it'll leak. You need new, tighter gaskets and connections.

All of this can by solved, but the problems are real and with everyone so afraid of nuclear energy it is hard to see where we get the juice to make H2 in the quantities needed, and with fracking for CH4, whether the marginal advantages of H2 justify the costs throughout the entire system.

Michael K said...

"are we talking exploding or just burning very quickly? "

Explosions are just burning quickly.

Very quickly.

Except of course nuclear reactions.

That's very very very very quickly.

Achilles said...

Martin said...

All of this can by solved, but the problems are real and with everyone so afraid of nuclear energy it is hard to see where we get the juice to make H2 in the quantities needed, and with fracking for CH4, whether the marginal advantages of H2 justify the costs throughout the entire system.

Outside of nuclear Solar is the most abundant source and I think eventually near earth orbit is going to fill up with an absurd number of solar panels. At that point storage and transfer are the limit points.

Near medium term Nuclear is going to become the dominant energy source and at current population levels will be near limitless. It is the only energy source dense enough to power space travel as well.

tcrosse said...

It takes a lot of energy to separate hydrogen from water--a "hydrogen economy" needs a huge amount of electricity generated from other sources to create the free H2 needed in things like vehicles.

It also requires plenty of water, so it's all we need to complicate the Water allocation politics of the American West. There's the Pacific Ocean, but its waves break on three of the least likely states to allow huge nuclear desalinization or electrolysis plants.

Roy Lofquist said...

@Michael K,

My first was a 1937 Pontiac convertible.

https://www.google.com/search?q=1937+pontiac&rlz=1C1MSNA_enUS690US690&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi50an27PLUAhXPZiYKHYT-BTsQ7AkIPg&biw=1024&bih=490

Mechanical brakes, non-synchromesh transmission, manual choke, iffy steering. We used to sing a lot because no radio.

Lucas electrics: I had a beautiful XKE once. Loved that car. Only problem was that if you drove through a puddle it died.

Michael K said...

If the MG doesn't happen, maybe I will look for a 1939 Plymouth pickup truck like the one I learned to drive on.

The only problem is that this one was more than $24,000. New they sold for $595.

Brian Balster said...

why do the British drink their beer warm?
They have Lucas refrigerators

Kirk Parker said...

Stop me if you've already heard my counterfeit Lucas headlamp story...

Bob Ellison said...

Yes, explosions and burning are just different terms for the same reactions in most cases.

It's quite difficult to make an explosion happen with ambient air. Black gunpowder has a built-in oxygenator (potassium nitrate). Smokeless powder, used in pretty much all modern guns, comes with. Dynamite carries its own explosive, as do all serious munitions of the last, oh, 120 years or so.

Something the size of the Hindenburg would tend to burn relatively slowly, because it required the ambient oxygen to burn.

Oh, boy, now I'm gonna have the NSA calling me.

mandrewa said...

As I read these comments and think about it I'm starting to suspect that there will never be a point in time that molecular hydrogen makes sense as a fuel for transportation.

If we have energy cheap enough that it makes economic sense to reduce water and make molecular hydrogen from it, then we should also be to extract CO2 from the air and make liquid hydrocarbons from it, as Yancey Ward noted earlier.

Gasoline, or any liquid hydrocarbon, is so much easier to work with that this immediately makes it, once we start cranking through the numbers, the far more attractive technology. In particular, as many people have noted, molecular hydrogen reacts with metals. It happens slowly but that's a huge problem. Gasoline doesn't destroy your engine as you use it, ignoring wear and tear, and neither does methane.

Now burning liquid hydrocarbons emits CO2 but if you're making your fuel from CO2 coming the air, you are net CO2 neutral. Such a technology would not increase CO2 levels. In fact the development of such a technology would make it possible to directly control atmospheric CO2 levels and dial it up or down to whatever seems desirable.

Bob Ellison said...

mandrewa, you said, "Now burning liquid hydrocarbons emits CO2 but if you're making your fuel from CO2 coming the air, you are net CO2 neutral."

I don't understand. If you're burning a fuel, like carbon, thus creating CO2, you are not net neutral. How do you get the CO2 to become burnable? The energy came from somewhere.

Bob Ellison said...

I don't want to seem stupid or imply that anyone here is. But the energy does have to come from somewhere. I think greenies think it might come from unicorns.

tcrosse said...

I think greenies think it might come from unicorns.

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath.It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

Static Ping said...

Mythbusters also tested the theory that the Hindenburg burned so quickly because the paint included iron oxide and aluminum. Those two chemicals mixed together in proper proportions produce either thermite, which burns real nice, or solid rocket fuel. The model tests showed that without the paint the model burned pretty much just like the actual video footage showed. Hydrogen will burn quickly enough without assistance, thank you very much. However, the model with the paint did burn a bit faster than the unpainted model so it seems plausible that the paint made things worse. Either way, once there was a spark the fireball was inevitable.

As to H2 fuel, as others have noted it takes a lot of electricity to get hydrogen from water so the hydrogen car is as clean as whatever produced the electricity. In many locales, that will effectively make it a coal powered car, just like with electrical cars in many locales. It's a neat thing but it is not an environmental solution unless your idea of a solution is to hide the pollution so you don't feel guilty about it.

Kirk Parker said...

Bob,

mandrewa is assuming that by the same time we can economically produce H2 gas from water (presumably using nuclear-generated electricity), we should also (presumably using the same energy source) be able to extract CO2 from the atmosphere to use as a feedstock with the H2.

(Where the extra O2 goes I have no idea...)

Kirk Parker said...

" it is not an environmental solution unless your idea of a solution is to hide the pollution so you don't feel guilty about it."

Well, we have a winner!

Warren Fahy said...

In 1975 when I was in elementary school I was president of the Young Inventors club, and one member's dad was a scientist at JPL working on hydrogen fueled cars. I asked him if he thought it was possible and he said, "Oh yeah!" 42 years and how many billions of dollars later...

Unknown said...

Hydrogen, being very very small, leaks out of pipelines that carry natural gas. Leaks from everything.
Very explosive--which is not just a minor technical issue. Gasoline by comparison is very non-explosive. You see people smoking a cigarette while filling their tank. Better not try that around hydrogen.

mandrewa said...

Bob, plants do this all the time. A plant takes six molecules of CO2 from the air and combines that with six molecules of water to make one molecule of glucose plus six molecules of molecular oxygen. Now to drive this reaction you need a lot of energy. A plant gets that from sunlight. This is the top level view of the net result and the actual process in the plant has many steps and many enzymes and many intermediates involved.

Later the plant takes the glucose and makes many things from it including long-chain hydrocarbons that when decomposed can become gasoline.

Now unfortunately we don't know how to do this. This is one of those complicated chemical reactions that only living things can do as of now. And even though perhaps 99 percent of all living organisms may ultimately depend on this chemical reaction to live, plants aren't actually very good at it. I think it's only 2 percent of so of the energy of the sunlight absorbed by the plants that is captured in this process.

That is pretty poor and certainly the reduction of water by hydrolysis is much more efficient reaction. But for a variety of reasons a transportation system depending on molecular hydrogen is not practical now or probably anytime soon.

And by the time we might imagine that such a hydrogen system might be feasible, for instance, once fusion reactors exist, it could be that we do know how to do this reaction, the reaction that plants do, and to do it more efficiently than plants do it now. The energy source doesn't have to be sunlight, it could be electricity. Hydrolysis is driven by electricity. And a part of the inefficiency of photosynthesis comes from the difficulty of capturing useful energy from sunlight by a method that a living organism has access to.

As far as the process being CO2 neutral, well every atom of carbon emitted as CO2 when the hydrocarbon is burned came straight from CO2 that was in the air say possibly a month before. Unless we store the hydrocarbons we are making by making plastics out of them or by pumping them underground, we are not changing the percentage of CO2 in the air.

mandrewa said...

Kirk, you asked what happens to the excess molecular oxygen made by this process. Well it's in balance also. As well as being net CO2 neutral, the scheme is also net oxygen neutral.

The molecular oxygen made when CO2 is extracted from the atmosphere and reduced to a hydrocarbon is consumed when the hydrocarbon is burned.

Now if the hydrocarbon is instead made into plastic or pumped underground the corresponding extra molecular oxygen is left in the atmosphere. But this doesn't matter. Molecular oxygen is about 21 percent by count of the molecules in the air; carbon dioxide is only 400 parts per million. You could consume all of the CO2 in the air, and thus kill all life on earth, but the tiny increase of oxygen thus created would have nothing to do with those deaths.

mandrewa said...

Well after having said we don't know how to make hydrocarbons from CO2 without using plants, I checked. And well, actually we do.

See "Proven one-step process to convert CO2 and water directly into liquid hydrocarbon fuel"

https://phys.org/news/2016-02-proven-one-step-co2-liquid-hydrocarbon.html

They don't give the efficiency of the energy conversion. And that is one of the crucial numbers. I'm sure it isn't where it needs to be yet, but it doesn't have to be as good as hydrolysis. If it gets anywhere near that then this is the better choice given all the problems that hydrogen fuel would pose.

hstad said...

Sorry giving 2003 facts is so old AA! The U.S. is (almost) energy independent for quite a few years now, except the Climate God Obama waged war against the energy industry of the USA. Thank God we finally have someone in the office of President who will make the USA energy independent, which it should have been 40 years ago.

http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2013/11/congratulations-america-youre-almost-energy-independent-now-what-098985

Michael McNeil said...

As a few people have noted above, hydrogen can be burned in otherwise-rather-conventional ICE (internal combustion) engine powered vehicles like we use today. Moreover, major manufacturers have built such hydrogen-ICE cars — and according to this report in Science such vehicles work rather well.

For instance, here are the ranges of hydrogen-ICE concept vehicles using various hydrogen fuel storage options:

“A hydrogen-powered Focus compact car can travel about 240 kilometers before refueling its hydrogen tanks, which are pressurized to 350 times atmospheric pressure. And with an electric hybrid system and tanks pressurized to 700 atmospheres, or 70 MPa, Ford's Model U concept car can range twice as far.” […]

Beyond that, “A hydrogen-powered Beemer also carries denser liquid hydrogen, boiling away at −253°C inside a heavily insulated tank, which greatly increases the distance a car can travel between refueling stops.”

Reference: Adrian Cho, “Fire and ICE: Revving Up for H2,” Science, Vol. 305, Issue No. 5686 (13 Aug 2004), pp. 964-965.

Kirk Parker said...

mandrewa,

"Molecular oxygen is about 21 percent by count of the molecules in the air; carbon dioxide is only 400 parts per million"

Oh yeah. Duh! (You can tell I don't work with this stuff every day... heh.)

Achilles said...

mandrewa said...

A plant takes six molecules of CO2 from the air and combines that with six molecules of water to make one molecule of glucose plus six molecules of molecular oxygen.

It is an interesting line of thought. Of course by the time we figure out a path to turning that into something economically feasible hopefully we have cold fusion.

Something like that might make an alcohol which could be used as a fuel as opposed to glucose. There would be a much shorter path.

Roger Sweeny said...

As a few people have noted above, hydrogen can be burned in otherwise-rather-conventional ICE (internal combustion) engine powered vehicles like we use today. Moreover, major manufacturers have built such hydrogen-ICE cars — and according to this report in Science such vehicles work rather well.

That report is 13 years old. As far as I know, nobody is now building hybrid hydrogen/gasoline cars. Such vehicles actually do not work rather well

Gospace said...

sykes.1 said...
Piling on and following Sweeney's lead, there are serious technical problems with hydrogen.


That pretty much sums it up.

Gospace said...

There are all kinds of different fuels that can be used for engines. A lot of them are compatible with the current fuel distribution system and can be handled safely by non-experts. Others, not so much. There exists ammonia powered engines. Ammonia can be made cheaply. First responders would need gas masks in event of a fuel tank rupture.

External combustion engines can be designed more easily to burn a variety of fuels. This is an example of one such design published in the October 1970 issue of Popular Science. Never actually made it to market.

Liquid fuels in common use are energy dense and generally safe to handle and transfer. Gaseous fuels are pretty much the exact opposite. Then there's regulatory hurdles that didn't exist when the Model T and the Stanley Steamer were being produced and sold. Electric cars are being produced on an assembly line only because the government has basically ordered auto manufacturers to do so. They make no economic sense at all. And we'll never get one that SAFELY charges in the amount of time you can pump 20 gallons of gas into your auto. There were home built hybrid designs pushed by Mother Earth News and other similar publications years before automakers started making them. Hybrids do make sense. And the push for electric cars has led to battery research and breakthroughs that otherwise would never have happened, and some of them look very promising. And hybrids don't require overloading and rebuilding the electrical distribution system to charge a few tens of millions of cars each day.

SC Mike said...

Read the Wikipedia entry "Hydrogen vehicle" for a good summary of hydrogen-powered vehicles and the physics and economics behind them. There are three hydrogen fuel cell cars publicly available in select markets; the Toyota Mirai, the Hyundai ix35 FCEV, and the Honda Clarity.

The main obstacles are infrastructure and economics: where does one fuel the beast and how much does the fuel with infrastructure cost. Some sort of energy generates the hydrogen which is then transported to some fueling station where it can be inserted into the vehicle which in turn converts it to electricity to power the vehicle. The transportation and each conversion loses energy, so in the end the cycle can be expensive and generate a lot of CO2.