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Hydrogen as fuel (Public Radio Commentary)

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(For radio stations: Bill's public radio work can be licensed via PRX).

In his State of the Union address, President Bush proposed spending over a billion dollars to build a hydrogen powered car. He explained it like this:

"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."

Indeed, he's correct to say that a hydrogen-powered car produces no pollution, but he needs to add the phrase "when operated." The key obstacle to these cars, and their achilles heel, is getting the hydrogen to the car.

It would seem easy because hydrogen is abundant - two-thirds of the ocean is made of the element - yet hydrogen isn't handy. It's always bound to something else, and this mean it must be manufactured, and there's where pollution enters. Ninety-six percent of the hydrogen produced comes from natural gas, oil and coal - exactly the fossil fuels we'd like to abandon!

Currently the source of hydrogen is natural gas. Each molecule of natural gas contains four hydrogen atoms bonded to a carbon atom. To release the hydrogen you blast apart the natural gas. To do this requires energy, which, of course, comes from burning either coal or a petroleum product.

This suggests we should look at alternative sources of energy for making hydrogen. Perhaps we could just harvest the sun's power by using solar energy to produce the hydrogen. Alas, this isn't practical yet. To produce an adequate amount of hydrogen we would need enough solar collectors to fill all of Connecticut with photovoltaic cells. Some have suggested instead, putting the collectors in space. That would require putting forty dishes, each the size of Manhattan into orbit. Of course, this would cost a tremendous amount of money.

An alternative is to use plants. They contain hydrogen bound as carbohydrates. Currently this is experimental, but even if successful plants are not a cure-all for our fossil fuel woes. Plants use fertilizer that is made mainly from fossil fuels. Analysis shows only a modest gain in pollution reduction.

So, where will the energy come from? The key is to get the power to make the hydrogen from somewhere other than fossil fuels, and that leaves us with an alternative that many don't find palatable or environmentally friendly. If we don't want to just repackage fossil fuels, we must get it from atomic energy. That will be the heart of the hydrogen economy.

Copyright 2003 William S. Hammack Enterprises