- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 10, 2002

Burning clean and basically inexhaustible, some believe it is the Holy Grail of energy. Others suggest it is a gaseous dream rising on the rhetoric of environmental windbags. So, is an economy powered by hydrogen fuel cells possible? If so, what will it look like? How much will it cost to achieve this? In the meantime, what should policy-makers be doing about it?
One of the few things that the primary players agree on is the fact that a hydrogen-based economy is inevitable, for reasons of efficiency, environmental benefit and inexhaustibility. Hydrogen fuel cells have the potential to be almost twice as efficient as internal combustion engines, and emit as exhaust only air and water vapor. Hydrogen can extracted from both water and natural gas, so there's practically no possibility of a shortage.
The larger question is when to expect hydrogen to take over. For reasons of cost and convenience, oil currently dominates the energy landscape and natural gas is in the immediate background. Proven global oil reserves are about 1 trillion barrels, according to Department of Energy estimates. While oil production could peak sometime in the next half-century, that is not really the issue, since few expect dried-up oil reservoirs to be the cause of a hydrogen conversion.
Instead, hydrogen fuel cells are expected to become an economic mainstay when the formidable technological and financial challenges are overcome in ways sufficient to give them a cost advantage over internal combustion engines. One of the biggest technological difficulties is the lack of a safe, effective way to store hydrogen fuel. Another is reliability laboratory fuel cells last about one-fifth as long as would be needed to make fuel cells cost-effective.
Indeed, cost is the biggest question. Electricity generated by fuel cells in custom-built cars currently costs thousands of dollars per kilowatt, so its price will have to fall by about a factor of ten before such cars are economically viable. Assuming that fuel storage problems can be solved, Edward Murphy, general manager for downstream operations for the American Petroleum Institute (API), estimated that there is about $1 trillion invested in liquid-fuel infrastructure which will have to be either modified or written off.
As General Motors' hydrogen fuel-cell development experts Lawrence D. Burns, J. Byron McCormick and Christopher E. Borroni-Bird pointed out in an article in the October issue of Scientific American, "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."
Another key question is where that hydrogen will come from. Hydrogen fuel cells work by breaking apart a molecule of two hydrogens into electrons and protons an expensive proposition then sending the electrons through an electric drive motor and recombining the particles with oxygen to produce water. While hydrogen is universally abundant, it's not cheap to get at, since it usually comes attached to other molecules. 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.
Many environmentalists hope that one day hydrogen will be extracted via renewable energy sources, such as photovoltaics or wind turbines, which would result in a practically zero-emissions economy. However, such a future is highly problematic. As Jessie Ausubel, director of the Program for the Human Environment at the Rockefeller University in New York noted, producing hydrogen from renewables is conceptually possible, but practically unlikely, because doing so requires too much energy.
Instead, Mr. Ausubel suggested that nuclear power may eventually provide the most cost-effective answer. He believes that, one day, power from nuclear plants will be used to provide electricity by day and hydrogen fuel by night. "It has always been the right…vision of the future, and in my opinion, its time has probably come," he said. But numerous experts believe such progress could be decades away at best.
There is far greater disagreement about what, if anything, policymakers should be doing to push the hydrogen economy forward. Mr. Ebell pointed out that some of the hype about hydrogen cars could be simply part of a bait-and-switch played by environmentalists, promising a bright future that never comes in return for making people live with less energy. He said, "My biggest fear is that people will think the economy can turn on a dime." Mr. Murphy of API pointed out that the government "has a long, sad history of picking the wrong fuels," and suggested that instead of directing product outcomes, the government should be allowing consumers to do so via the marketplace.
Over the last quarter-century, the government has already spent $1.2 billion on fuel cell research and development, while automakers are spending billions. At the moment, there appears to be neither economic necessity nor environmental justification for Marshall Plan-style investments into hydrogen fuel cells.
If there's a future in hydrogen, and everyone agrees that there is one, then the market should be allowed to determine when it will happen and what it will look like.

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