Society’s continuing concern about gas prices and supply has stimulated interest in alternative energy sources. One of the energy sources receiving attention is the use of hydrogen as a possible replacement for fossil fuels in powering our automobiles (Pielke). Interestingly, hydrogen is the most common element in the environment but it ordinarily exists as part of other compounds such as water or fossil fuels and it is from these compounds that commercial hydrogen is produced.
The production of hydrogen from either fossil fuels or electrolysis involves a loss of energy and a corresponding high level of greenhouse gas emissions; however, the actual burning of the hydrogen gas produced is an extremely clean process. Although the process of producing hydrogen, at the present, is both inefficient and polluting the fact that it burns cleanly has spurned the automobile industry to examine it as a potential energy source. Nearly, every automobile manufacturer is involved in some stage of development toward marketing a hydrogen energized vehicle.
The future of hydrogen as an energy source is dependent upon developing an inexpensive, renewal method for producing it. Current efforts in this regard have focused on the use of wind and solar power as the most viable options. In order to produce hydrogen in the amounts necessary for widespread use as an energy alternative, these alternative production methods must be perfected. Such development will assist in limiting the world’s present problem with carbon dioxide emissions and the resulting global warming but the development of hydrogen as an energy source remains fraught with problems.
II. Hydrogen as the fuel of the future
The advantages of hydrogen as an alternative fuel are its renewability and abundance. Comprising more than 75% of the available elements in nature hydrogen’s potential as a useable energy source should be evident and, if an efficient method of producing it can be found, dependence on the producers of traditional fuel products can be reduced. At the present time, such fuel products are expected to decrease significantly and this predicted decrease in production and the inherent political instability in the area most responsible for such production increase the attractiveness of hydrogen as an alternative ((Editor)).
Hydrogen in its natural state is both colorless and odorless. It is a stable element that combines easily with oxygen to form water. These features are attractive but unlike fossil fuels that are obtainable by mining or extracting from other sources hydrogen must be produced. This production can be made from a variety of sources such as oil, coal, water, and plant life but the primary source presently is natural gas. The process of removing hydrogen from natural gas sources is highly efficient and the cost of doing so is low but the use of another non-renewable source such as natural gas does not improve the overall state of society (Liss). As a result, the hydrogen production industry is actively developing alternative methods that can make the extraction of hydrogen from other sources more efficient and cost effective. Research into the use of plant sources, wood sources, straw, and organic waste is in its early stages but is proving promising.
Ease of storage and transportation are also benefits offered by the use of hydrogen. In both of these areas the technology already exists that enable the gas to be used effectively. Hydrogen can be stored in larger quantities in liquid form but because it can be stored in liquid form only at very low temperatures such storage demands special containers. In its gaseous form, hydrogen can be stored in containers similar to those being presently used by automobiles and trucks being powered by natural gas.
If the technology can be developed to make hydrogen production efficient and cost effective, the fact that hydrogen is also the cleanest fuel presently available makes it extremely attractive as a fuel source (Tromp). Engines fueled by hydrogen have negligible emissions. As the environment is being severely polluted by the hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, and other pollutants due to the use of fossil fuels it is incumbent that society find an alternative fuel source and hydrogen and its neutral environmental effect is highly attractive.
The use of hydrogen offers society a viable source that few other energy sources can provide. Hydrogen is relatively safe, potentially limitless, and extremely clean. Finding an efficient and cost effective method of producing hydrogen would eliminate society’s dependence on the oil producing countries that presently enjoy a stranglehold on the industrialized world. Further research and development is necessary in order to make hydrogen a viable option but what has been done so far indicates that the possibilities are there. Natural gas, unfortunately, is the only existing source for hydrogen production and natural gas suffers from the same problem as other fossil fuels — it is non-renewable (Gold). Hydrogen, however, is available from a number of renewable sources such as plants and water that make it attractive. What remains is developing the technology that allows the use of such products financially feasible. The bottom line is that, based on present technology, hydrogen is the best alternative as a replacement for gasoline and, hopefully, it is only a matter of time before hydrogen establishes itself as the primary fuel source. Automotive transportation will cease to be a pollution source and the decreasing supply of fossil fuels will no longer be a problem for society.
III. Hydrogen is not the answer
As evidenced, the use of hydrogen as an energy source is attractive and has many advantages but there are some related problems that make it impractical at least at the present time (Zubrin). First, hydrogen is not widely available as a free element. It must be produced from other products and none of the available products are energy efficient enough to justify their use.
The most widely used source for hydrogen is natural gas and the problems inherent in the use of natural gas for this purpose make any long-term use impractical. First, natural gas like fossil fuels is non-renewable. The supply of natural gas is finite and natural gas is far more valuable in the production of other products such as fertilizer. Fertilizer that is used to increase crop production that is necessary to feed large numbers of people. If natural gas were used instead as a source of hydrogen it would impact severely on the production of fertilizer.
The use of hydrogen as an alternative energy source for society’s motorized vehicles also faces the problem of incumbency. The market strength of the various companies involved in the production of automobile, trucks, and buses is considerable. These companies have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Introducing hydrogen as an alternative energy source requires them to undertake massive retooling and design. Such changes are expensive and subject the companies to new marketing and regulatory conditions and expectations. Expecting a rapid transformation by such companies is unreasonable. The reality is that movement toward a hydrogen-based fueling system will be a long one. The involvement of the government in forcing the evolution toward hydrogen-based fuel system will be necessary. Toward this end it would be helpful if the government would stimulate the research and development necessary to expedite matters in hydrogen energy industry. Presently, the cost of manufacturing and using hydrogen-based fuel cells is too high to justify their use on a wide scale basis. Technical improvements are necessary to decrease these costs in order for hydrogen fueled vehicles to become economically competitive with gasoline propelled vehicles. Similarly, there is no nationally established delivery system for hydrogen. Gas stations can be found on nearly every corner but the availability of hydrogen refueling locations is extremely limited. Until such time as refueling is readily available, the public is not likely to be receptive to the use of hydrogen generated vehicles.
Until such time as a source beyond natural gas can be found that is abundant in enough quantities to satisfy the substantial needs that will be necessary for hydrogen to be adopted as an alternative fuel, there is no environmental advantage to the use of hydrogen. The extraction process used in the production of hydrogen from natural gas is as environmentally damaging in terms of emissions and the usage of fossil fuels as is the use and production of gas-based products. There is no positive gain in the use of hydrogen using today’s technology. Only if renewable energy sources — solar, wind, and others — can be utilized to provide the hydrogen needed to fuel our society’s motorized vehicles can the idea of a truly clean hydrogen fuel be realized. Presently the technology for such process does not exist and, therefore, despite the promise offered by hydrogen that is all that it is: promise.
For many years now those advocating the transition toward the greater use of hydrogen as a replacement for gas as a source for fueling society’s motorized vehicles have been stating the technology is near that will allow this to happen. Unfortunately, the technology is still not available and there is no discernible timetable for predicting when it will be. As the situation exists today, driving gasoline and electric hybrid vehicles is still more economical and environmentally sensitive than driving fuel cell cars run on hydrogen. The future may prove otherwise but the reality is that hydrogen has not proven to be the great answer that some have suggested.
IV. Comparing popular press and professional viewpoints
As one might expected, the treatment provided the issue of hydrogen use has received different treatment in the popular press than it has in the professional journals. In the popular press, the emphasis has been on the how the use of hydrogen as an alternative fuel would benefit the whole of society. Little attention is provided the technical problems related to the use of hydrogen or the requisite changes that must be made in order to accommodate the changeover to hydrogen. Instead, the popular press tends to point out the environmental and consumer advantages. Meanwhile, the scientific journals, where the use of hydrogen as an alternative fuel was first introduced, approach the issue from a more technological viewpoint. The scientific journals have dedicated considerable space to the underlying problems that the production of hydrogen present in order for hydrogen to be seriously deemed a viable fuel source. Professional scientists recognize that abandoning fossil fuels as the primary energy source is a complicated process and that any transition to a new reliance on an alternative energy source will be both difficult and slow.
Consider, for example, a fairly recent article that appeared in the periodical, Scientific American . Although Scientific American is not a widely distributed magazine such as Time or Newsweek, it is still intended to be available to general public and found on newsstands in airports, grocery stores, and book stores throughout the country. The magazine’s mission is to bridge the gap between the scientific community and the general public. In its July 3, 2008 issue, Scientific American addressed the issue of using hydrogen as a replacement for gasoline as a fuel source for our cars (Scientific American). In typical popular press style, the article centered on the practical advantages and disadvantages of hydrogen’s usage but skimmed over the technical details. The article offered virtually no statistical support one way or another and instead focused on popular consumer concerns such as cost, environmental impact, and availability.
Compare, meanwhile, an article that appeared in the International Journal of Hydrogen Energy in October of 2006 (Kinaci). This article which was intended for distribution and review by the scientific community addressed the consumer oriented issues only as part of its overall analysis of the viability of hydrogen as an alternative energy source. The bulk of the paper is focused on the statistical analysis of hydrogen usage and the production process. The information contained in scientific journals and magazines is presented in exacting detail. This detail is of little interest to members of the general public but is of vital importance to the scientific community. After all, it is from the scientific community that the technological improvements needed to make hydrogen a viable option as an energy source will eventually originate. It is through the use of professional journals, magazines, and newsletters that the scientific community shares it ideas and concepts. Hopefully, this process of sharing will lead to the development of technological improvements that will enable hydrogen to become a viable alternative energy source.
Both forms, popular press and professional journals, serve a valuable function. The popular press keeps the general public aware of future developments without getting involved in material that many either would not understand or care about while the professional journals provide a forum for those intimately involved in the process of developing hydrogen as an energy source to exchange their ideas. The differing sources are necessary and keep the idea of hydrogen as solution to our society’s ever increasing energy needs alive.
There is no denying that the world is facing a pending energy crisis. The world cannot long endure in its reliance on fossil fuels and development of alternative energy sources is essential. Unfortunately, development in this area has been slow and, for the most part, ineffectual. The promise that hydrogen has been offering since it was first introduced as a concept through science fiction stories in the 1930’s has not been realized. Millions of dollars and thousands of scientific research hours have been spent on developing hydrogen as a viable energy source and, yet, no competent technology has emerged that allows hydrogen to be produced on a commercial scale that is both cost effective, environmentally safe, and abundant.
The only way that hydrogen can be seen as an improvement over fossil fuels is if it can be produced in its pure form. Unfortunately, existing technology used in the production of hydrogen in its pure form requires more energy than the hydrogen so produced can provide. So, hydrogen at the present time is simply a carrier of energy and not a source of energy.
The future may result in developments that are not foreseeable but hydrogen is not a viable option at the present time. Fossil fuels remain the most efficient and cost effective method of fueling our motorized vehicles. The promise of hydrogen is an attractive one and its attractiveness justifies the continued search for an effective method of harnessing it but existing technology has not allowed the promise of hydrogen to be realized. For the present, fossil fuels are the only viable option but the future of mankind demands that efforts toward finding alternatives must continue.
(Editor), Shawna McQueen. Analysis of the Transition to Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles & the Potential Hydrogen Energy Infrastructure Requirements. Survey. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Energy, 2008.
Gold, R. “Natural Gas Costs Hurt U.S. Firms.” Wall Street Journal 17 February 2004: 2.
Kinaci, A. “Ab initio investigation of FeTi – H System.” International Journal of Hydrogen Energy (2006): 2466-2474.
Liss, William E. Role of Natural Gas in the Future Hydrogen Market. Research. Des Plaines, IL: Hydrogen Energy Systems Center, 2003.
Pielke, R.A. “Hydrogen cars and water vapour.” Science (2003): 1329.
Scientific American. “Looking at Hydrogen to Replace Gasoline in Our Cars.” Scientific American (2008).
Tromp, Tracey K. “Potential Environmental Impact of a Hydrogen Economy on the Stratosphere.” Science (2003): 1740-1742.
Zubrin, Robert. “The Hydrogen Hoax.” The New Atlantis (2007): 9-20.