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Hyping hydrogen: The energy scam

By Alan Caruba
web posted May 12, 2003

Not long ago I wrote a commentary, "The Great Hydrogen Myth", in which I offered my opinion that throwing another billion dollars at more research for the purpose of replacing oil, coal, or natural gas, was a huge waste. Recently, that commentary was posted on EnergyPulse.Net, an Internet site for those who work in industries that provide and use various forms of energy. It's a favorite among the many engineers and scientists whose lives are devoted to the issues and news about energy.

Here are some of the responses my commentary received. The names of the innocent have been protected because their jobs depend upon it!

"I have often thought that this ‘hydrogen economy' seems intuitively flawed; using energy to make hydrogen to then be used as an energy source. Intuitively, it feels like the Escher painting with the water flowing uphill."

Therein lies central issue that undermines the hype about hydrogen as an endless, virtually free, source of energy. First of all, it is not energy. It is what the engineers and scientists call "a carrier." You have to break the hydrogen molecule free from others to use it and that requires energy. Thus, you have to use a lot of energy in order to use hydrogen to make energy. In real life there is no free lunch.

A graduate chemical engineer with 35 years in the chemical and oil industry who knows a lot about catalytic reforming units that make and use hydrogen in the reformation processes, had this to say, "Not only does H2 (hydrogen) require a lot of energy to produce, collect, and store, it presents rather nasty safety problems."

Need it be said he thinks that Ethanol (made from corn!) is another bad idea the environmentalists have foisted on us? Why? "Ethanol costs far more to produce than the fuel value it provides and the Environmental Protection Agency in its wisdom forced industry to oxygenate fuels only to discover that covalent bonds of all oxygenates are very soluble and stable in ground waters when released." In other words, this environmental "solution" has led to the poisoning of ground water supplies throughout the nation. It also forces up the cost of gasoline.

He wasn't through. "While I'm at it. Greens have our environmental experts at EPA on another even wilder goose chase to capture mercury from coal fired utility plants across the USA. If you add up all the Hg (mercury) released from coal combustion and compare it to global sources, the current analytical and statistical techniques and technologies probably will not be able to detect any reduction in the global Hq pool in the environment."

Thank you, thank you, thank you! The Greens live to conjure up endless scare campaigns, always shouting that everyone, especially children, are being "poisoned" by things that pose no real threat. Or they find ways to force government mandates that either end up poisoning us, i.e., ethanol, are represent no real threat, i.e., mercury. The end result is higher costs for energy use of any kind.

Part of the hydrogen hype is its use in fuel cells. A retired General Electric engineer wrote to say, "I previously analyzed and designed fuel cells and it is apparent to me that they will always be too expensive for all but very special uses. They are twenty times the cost of a piston engine and are very likely to remain at least ten times more in spite of all the research done."

Like all realists, engineers and scientists believe we are, in fact, running a risk in our dependence on petroleum. Even with a trillion and maybe even two trillion barrels of oil available, at the present rate of use, the experts estimate we will go through it in about forty years. Others, however, believe there are vast amounts of undiscovered oil reserves.

Part of the problem of energy costs, energy dependency, and the cost of oil can be found in the fact that the US has experienced a drop in its refining capability over the past twenty years. We went from being able to refine 18.5 million barrels to 16.5 million barrels. There has been an even sharper drop in the number of refineries, from 315 to 155! Thus, the US is highly vulnerable if even a small number of refineries stopped producing, even temporarily. A major factor for the dramatic increase in oil prices is this lack of refining capacity.

This may explain why the oil industry and auto manufacturers are willing to spend billions to find a way to make hydrogen the transportation energy of the future. Hybrid vehicles that utilize a fuel cell could get more than 75 miles per gallon of gasoline and that's a good thing. Environmentalists support this and, if the technology can be developed to a point of being affordable, why not? It remains, however, a very big "if".

The real answer, of course, is to build more refineries and, in part, to tap the reserves of oil known to exist in the Alaskan National Wilderness Reserve. Environmentalists have fought both these options.

Here's the bottom line. Without energy, this nation shuts down. All others, too. The good news is that technologies are being developed whereby, for transportation and other uses, new engines will revolutionize the use of current energy sources. They will be far more efficient and they will be affordable.

Beware of the hype about hydrogen. Many engineers and scientists know its baloney and you should too.

Alan Caruba is the author of "Warning Signs" and writes a weekly column posted on the Internet site of The National Anxiety Center. © Alan Caruba, 2003

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  • The great hydrogen myth by Alan Caruba (February 10, 2003)
    What does Alan Caruba think of George W. Bush's push for hydrogen powered cars? The science doesn't support the spending of billions of dollars on what is a pipe dream
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