The Ergosphere
Monday, August 07, 2006

Europe passes death sentence on hype-drogen

Regular readers will know that I've got little tolerance for nonsense.  For instance, I think it is absurd to take a bunch of natural gas, turn it into ammonia and then nitrate, add a bunch of petroleum as diesel fuel and chemicals, use it all to grow maize, ferment and then add more natural gas (or coal) to yield perhaps 30% more as ethanol.

It appears that others have reached the limits of their tolerance as well.  Hydrogen is one of my sore points, and the European Fuel Cell Forum has finally given up on it (hat tips to Entropy Production and TheWatt):

It is highly uncertain that synthetic hydrogen can ever be established as a universal energy carries. Electricity from renewable sources will be the source energy in a sustainably organized future. The direct distribution of electricity to the consumer is three to four times more efficient than its conversion to hydrogen by electrolysis of water, packaging and transport of synthetic energy carrier to the consumer and its conversion back to electricity with efficient fuel cells. By laws of physics, hydrogen economy can never compete with an "electron economy".

But the laws of physics cannot be changed with further research, investments or political decisions. A sustainable future energy harvested from renewable sources (nuclear energy is not sustainable!) must be distributed and used with the highest efficiency. A wasteful hydrogen economy does not meet the criteria of sustainability. As a result, a viable free-market hydrogen infrastructure will never be established and fuel cells for hydrogen may not be needed. For all applications electricity from hydrogen fuel cells have to compete with the source electricity used to make hydrogen.

The European Fuel Cell Forum is committed to the establishment of a safe energy future. Therefore, it will continue to promote fuel cells for sustainable fuels, but discontinue supporting the development of fuel cells for hypothetical fuel supplies. Time has come for decisions. Keeping all options open is not an adequate response to mounting energy problems.

Therefore, the schedule of the European SOFC Forum will be continued in 2008 with an extended conference every second year. Beginning 2007 (July 2 to 6) sustainable energy topics will be emphasized in odd years. Despite earlier announcements the European PEFC Forum series will not be continued.

(I tried, but I was unable to find a direct link to the above text at the EFCF site.  However, given the tone of the papers hosted by the EFCF, I strongly doubt that it's fabricated.)

Ulf Bossel's highly negative analysis precedes my analysis and position statement by years.  I was not aware of the EFCF until just recently, but I am gratified to see that we both reached the same conclusion for the same reasons.

For those interested in technical issues and policy implications, the EFCF reports look like a treasure trove of analysis (I have only scanned a couple and cannot vouch for all the papers).  This should be good wonk-ish reading for quite a while.

It's been my suspicion that US (and foreign?) oil interests have been using hydrogen cars as a means of diverting news coverage and research funds from MCFC's, SOFC's, zinc-air fuel cells and various types of batteries.  The end of PEM FC coverage beneath the ECFC umbrella indicates that this tactic may have come to the end of its usefulness.  The political and economic cost of remaining dependent upon oil (and OPEC) is becoming undeniable as well.  Does this mean that we might finally get research actually aimed at making product and changing the status quo?  Only time will tell.

One way you can help:  write your congresscritter.  Demand the end of hydrogen-car programs and the re-allocation of the money to fuels we really have or can make efficiently with biomass.


The article you reference includes this comment: "A sustainable future energy harvested from renewable sources " that talks about (apparently) electricity produced from renewable sources.

I'm not an engineer, I'm a biochemist/molecular biologist with some computer skills, so I don't have your skills and knowledge with which to evaluate the possible renewable technologies out there. I highly respect your opinions and thus I was wondering if there's one or a set of renewable technologies out there that you favor?

Sorry about my backwardness this morning as it applies to your handle. I obviously need to drink more coffee.
I don't pretend to speak for EP, but if my reading comprehension isn't all screwed up, I think he favors wind, solar, IGCC plants that can be converted to run on biomass charcoal, etc.

There's a lot of interesting reading in the archives...
Dr. Steel,

A nickname's no biggie, for one thing
I guess it's your day to be erring
  And if caffeine deficiency
  Impairs your efficiency
I don't mind if it isn't insulting.

ryos has it pretty close, but I'm looking beyond IGCC at this point and favoring direct-carbon fuel cells as the likely successor.  Running an economy on biomass requires either a very low standard of living by western standards, or very high efficiency.  The direct-carbon fuel cell hits 80% efficiency and looks to be an excellent prospect to replace large parts of fossil-fuel consumption (which parts come first depend on what's more important to us, freedom from oil dependency or forestalling climate change).  Wind is a biggie (roughly 2 terawatts available between US landmass and continental shelves), and I don't look askance at nuclear.  Solar PV is still too expensive for wholesale use, unfortunately.

I guess you could say that if it's domestic and doesn't threaten to melt Greenland, I'm at least lukewarm in favor.
Totally agree about hydrogen. There is an alternative however- ammonia. Cheap to make from nitrogen and hydrogen easily liquified and transported, what is less widely known an excellent clean fuel in internal combustion and jet engines (the only carbon free alternative for flying). Moreover there are reasons why solar power may become cost effective to produce it - more on this at

Yes ammonia is poisonous at high concentrations, but it rapidly dissipates in air but it has been safely used and transported in agriculture for years.
Hey E-P,

Here's some other reading you'll enjoy if you like Bossel's analysis (assuming you haven't already read this): Carrying the Energy Future: Comparing Hydrogen and Electricity.

It goes through each of hydrogen's potential uses - transport fuel, energy carrier and energy storage medium - and compares it to alternatives. In each case, of course, it doesn't come out favorably. Other than Bussel's work - which tends to be a bit more technical and dry - this is the best example of an analysis of hydrogen's potential that really exposes it for what it is - more or less a waste of time.

Also, here's Bossel's paper for those interested: The Future of Hydrogen: Bright or Bleak? (both are linked off of my blog too in the documents and resources section).

And if you are looking for a technical comparison of hydrogen as a transport fuel (from natural gas and electrolysis) and a number of alternative fuels, my thesis (a well to wheels analysis on alternative transport fuels) can be found here.
Total Issues, I'm surprised at you.  Ammonia is made from hydrogen!  If the problem is the inefficiency of hydrogen production and consumption, it doesn't help at all.  Its one advantage is that it's easier to transport.

Someone with your nick should have a better appreciation of the big picture.
Re your comments on ammonia, I am looking at the bigger picture, Engineer Poet, which is why it is more complicated than you suggest:

1.Totally agree that generating electricity and then producing hydrogen by electrolysis is not on, in efficiency or cost terms. For thermochemical production of hydrogen using S-I or Ca-Br as a catalyst, however, from solar heat or off-peak nuclear, theoretical efficiencies are in the 40-50% range, which compares with electricity generation. These technologies have not yet been developed outside the lab. Why? –because steam cracking of natural gas to make hydrogen (the process used today) is 80% efficient, but that produces CO2, and would be pointless for a fuel anyway (just use the natural gas directly)
2. There will be a continued need for chemical storage of energy . Most renewables are intermittent and/or a long way from the consumer, given long distance power transmission losses (or not even feasible – Australian solar power sold to China?) Direct distribution and storage of hydrogen is a nightmare. There seems no potential alternative for planes to a chemical fuel, and the elites of the world would rather wreck the world’s climate than give up flying. Yes, oil is a better storage medium than ammonia, but if anyone can come up with a better alternative that does not have those dratted C atoms somewhere in the molecule, please let me know
3.Ammonia fuelled IC(particualrly diesel) /electric hybrids look pretty good – reduces the need for a big heavy pressurised fuel tank. Incidentally hybrid trucks and buses look better with regenerative electric braking, but need to get charge rates up on batteries first
4.Theoretical efficiency isn’t everything, otherwise the internal combustion engine and the steam turbine would be long gone. We have been promised fuel cells and high capacity traction batteries for decades – where are they?
"For thermochemical production of hydrogen using S-I or Ca-Br as a catalyst, however, from solar heat or off-peak nuclear, theoretical efficiencies are in the 40-50% range, which compares with electricity generation."

That's the theory.  Why don't we see it yet?

"Most renewables are intermittent and/or a long way from the consumer, given long distance power transmission losses (or not even feasible – Australian solar power sold to China?)"

It seems you have a contradiction there.  If your solar-to-hydrogen system is 40% efficient, you can power an economy with very little land area (and maybe just the roofs and such already covering the ground).  That means that you'd have relatively little need to move energy for long distances.  China has a nice, big desert which would be fertile ground for thermochemical hydrogen (if they could get enough fresh water to it for raw material).

"There seems no potential alternative for planes to a chemical fuel, and the elites of the world would rather wreck the world’s climate than give up flying."

And ammonia isn't it.  It yields about 8,000 BTU/lb compared to around 20,000 BTU/lb for petroleum.  If you have to add 150% more fuel to your aircraft, you're left with little or nothing for payload.  Your best prospect for aircraft is probably liquid methane, which can be made rather easily if you have hydrogen and just about any source of carbon (even CO2).  But this gets you back to needing carbon again.

Ammonia-fueled combustion engines probably aren't bad (you can certainly clean up the NOx easily!) but you've got ammonia's low energy/weight problem on top of the low efficiency of the engines themselves.  The fuel tankage is going to be bulky.  If you can convert sunlight to hydrogen at even 25% efficiency you probably don't care (a day's worth of full sun on a 100 m^2 roof would give you on the order of 3 gallons of gasoline-equivalent), but I'll believe it when I see it.

As for the high-capacity traction batteries, they're arriving right now.  The lithium-ion market is exploding, and even lead-acid may have a resurgence with Firefly Energy's improvements in structure.
In South Africa the production of Bio Diesel has become recently feasible for farmers.
Thanks for a sound analysis/critique of a highly politicized topic. Unfortunately, I think that sound analysis mostly lands on deaf ears. Until nuclear energy becomes fashionable again, petroenergy is still the best source of energy. Even with nuclear, we've still got a lot of work to do in battery technology to make them a feasible way to store electical energy and less harmful to the environment.

Here's a crazy idea for all of those concerned with energy for transportation: get a horse. Need a semi? Get a stagecoach. Need a oceanliner? Domesticate some whales and harness them to your oceanliner.

I had a rant about something similar a while back. Not to self-aggrandize, but here's my hyperbolic retort to some of the fallacious but politically correct "green" sources of energy that hype-inspired do-gooders were trying to sell:

I'm sure the horse and whale suggestions are jokes, but is your site intended to be all-humor (albeit dry) also?
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