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The great hydrogen myth

By Alan Caruba
web posted February 10, 2003

Over the last twenty-five years, the government has spent $1.2 billion on fuel cell research and development. During his recent State of the Union speech, President Bush proposed spending another billion for further research. Automakers have already spent millions to no avail. The simple fact is that it still costs far more money to extract hydrogen, breaking its molecule away from others in order to use it to create energy. This is a bad idea.

Hydrogen is held out as a clean-burning, virtually inexhaustible source of energy, but as a Washington Times editorial pointed out in November, others "suggest it is a gaseous dream rising on the rhetoric of environmental windbags." If enough billions are spent, it seems reasonable to expect hydrogen to become an energy source, but like most environmental pipe dreams, this one has a silent agenda of eliminating petroleum as an energy source, nor can we reasonably expect a dramatic breakthrough. Did I mention this is a very bad idea?

Oil is the Green's number one enemy after population. The object is not to make the Earth safer, but to continue the pressure to reduce reliance on it, putting everyone at a disadvantage when it comes to utilizing this primary form of energy.

Given the fact that the Earth shows no signs of running out of oil in the near or even far future, the notion of spending billions to replace it seems odd at best, foolish at worst. The Earth's reserves of oil have been consistently underestimated for decades since it was first discovered. To the contrary, discoveries of new reserves occur every year and the technology to get at it has improved as well.

The mere fact that Greens have fought gaining access to the estimated 16 billion barrels of oil in Alaska's ANWR area tells you more about their real agenda than anything else you need to know. The Department of Energy estimates there are at least one trillion barrels currently available worldwide.

If the Saudis were not sitting atop huge reserves, they would still be camel drivers and goat herders. If Saddam Hussein did not control the second largest reserve of oil, we might not being going to war to wrest control from this madman?

While it is true that a hydrogen-based economy is deemed inevitable for reasons of efficiency, environmental benefit and inexhaustibility, I remain wary of this. It is true, too, that hydrogen fuel cells have the potential to be almost twice as efficient as internal combustion engines, emitting only air and water vapor, there are huge problems involved.

Three experts, Lawrence D. Burns, Byron McCormick and Christopher E. Borroni-Bird, noted in the October issue of Science that, "Viewed from where we are today, fuel cells and a hydrogen fueling infrastructure are a chicken-and-egg problem. We cannot have large numbers of fuel-cell vehicles without adequate fuel available to support them, but we will not be able to create the required infrastructure unless there are significant numbers of fuel-cell vehicles on the roadways."

Breaking a hydrogen molecule into electrons and protons, and then sending it through an electric drive motor, and recombining the particles with oxygen to produce water poses an enormous challenge. "While hydrogen is universally abundant, it's not cheap to get at", noted the Washington Times editorial. "At the moment, fuel cells are actually energy losers, since it costs more to free the hydrogen than is earned by running hydrogen through fuel cells." In brief, it costs more energy to turn hydrogen into energy than current technology would permit.

Writing recently on the topic, Llewellyn King, publisher of White House Weekly, noted that "In an act of political brilliance, President Bush, in his State of the Union Speech, stole the Holy Grail of environmentalism, the hydrogen-powered fuel-cell car. For two decades, environmentalists have held out the ‘hydrogen economy' as the pollution-free future for transportation. Unfortunately, it also has had about it the whiff of a free lunch." Five Presidents have put the federal government to work trying to achieve this goal. It remains a very bad idea.

The process involved is called hydrolysis, popularly called "cracking water." As King pointed out, "The former defeats the purpose because you still have to have oil, coal or natural gas to manufacture hydrogen." This is what the Greens like to gloss over. Why not, asks King, just run a vehicle on natural gas to begin with? Why burden a vehicle with a duel system of reforming the gas and then making electricity? This seems so obvious that one is also compelled to ask, why not just keep using gasoline? The entire, worldwide structure of extracting oil to transporting it to refining it would have to be changed. Why not just keep finding new sources of oil since there is no evidence we are in imminent danger of running out of it?

Hydrogen has a very low energy density. It would cost more to fuel your car with it than our current system. As King notes, "The energy density of hydrogen is about one-tenth that of natural gas." Hybrid engines, available only in "demonstration" vehicles, would reduce our dependency on imported gas and this well may be the President's interest in this power source. That does not, however, make it any less of a bad idea.

Hydrogen is the new darling of the Greens as was nuclear energy a few decades ago until they abandoned their support and now actively fight the creation of new nuclear energy plants.

Forget about some spectacular breakthrough on hydrogen as an energy source. Do not be fooled by the Green's claims because, like everything else they propose, their primary goal is to reduce the population of the Earth and anything that can serve their agenda will be pursued amidst a flood of lies.

Alan Caruba writes a weekly column, "Warning Signs", posted on the Internet site of The National Anxiety Center. In March, Merril Press will publish a collection of recent columns. © Alan Caruba, 2003

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