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Bleeding Edge

The Hydrogen Economy?

by Cyrus Ance
May 15,2003

 

The Hydrogen Economy?

At the moment the economies of the industrial world are primarily fueled by fossil fuels. This is especially true of automobiles which use gasoline. There is a good reason for this. The amount of energy stored in gasoline is enormous and this fact makes it very difficult to move away from gasoline as automobile fuel.

Consider an average small car with a 10 gallon (about 40 liters) fuel tank. When the tank is filled with gasoline it stores enough energy to power an average home for about two weeks. That should already give pause. There is a huge amount of power stored in a small volume and low weight, about 65 pounds (30 kg), of gasoline.

There is a great deal of energy in hydrogen, but it takes up a huge volume. The same amount of energy stored in gasoline would be 3000 times larger as gaseous hydrogen. To make it usable on a vehicle such as a small car it needs to be stored as something other than ordinary gas. Five options are under study:

Today the best hydrogen vehicles, using compressed very cold hydrogen gas, are more than a factor of two less efficient at energy storage than a standard gasoline fueled vehicle. Given that the production of hydrogen today is derived from hydrocarbons such as gasoline it is not a surprise that gasoline fueled vehicles are not yet ready to give way to hydrogen fueled vehicles. Fuel cells, which turn the energy in hydrogen into mechanical energy to move the car and only emit water vapor, are more efficient than internal combustion engines and help narrow the gap and the major effort now is going on to improve fuel cells and commercialize their production.

There are schemes to divorce hydrogen production from hydrocarbons. Water is an abundant source of hydrogen, but getting the hydrogen out of it costs more energy than can be extracted by using the hydrogen as fuel. Thus the idea is to use reusable energy such as solar power to extract hydrogen from water. That would be a large transition in energy usage and require an enormous investment in infrastructure. Ideas are also being pursued to produce hydrogen from biomass, but there seems to be a great many hurdles to overcome to achieve commercial scale applications.

There is a great deal of information on hydrogen available. Any search engine query on "hydrogen storage", "hydrogen fuel", "hydrogen fuel cells", etc. I used the fuelcellstore.com which has good overviews and a very nice paper summarizing hydrogen storage in automobiles from two Volvo engineers. Beware of claims of very high hydrogen storage capacity for carbon nanotubes. The initial results showing very high capacities, above 20%, are probably in error. This article summarizes current understanding.

Roleplaying Ideas

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