Hydrogen Economy Issues

This page contains links to the articles on the realities of the future of hydrogen energy use.

A succinct paper explaining was published by Baldur Eliasson and Ulf Bossel in 2003 – “The Future of the Hydrogen Economy: Bright or Bleak?” From that paper, energy lost in power transmission, operation of oil refineries and transport is usually less than 10% of the energy traded. The losses in hydrogen manufacture and transport are much higher and inherent to this element.

Hydrogen has to compressed or liquefied for storage and transport.

The rules of physics (not least thermodynamics) means that, whatever the power source, more energy will be expended than will ever be returned from the process of turning electricity into hydrogen gas, storing and distributing it. Which means it will not result in a net energy benefit.

If it’s three times the cost of natural gas and it’s not technically possible to produce it at large scale from renewables, in what way does it make any sense?

The research found that transitioning from natural gas to hydrogen for heating could help the UK to reach 2050 targets, but that setting up and running hydrogen-based heating may cost as much as three times that of natural gas.

Engineers from UNSW Sydney have crunched the numbers on green hydrogen production costs to reveal that Australia is in prime position to take advantage of the green hydrogen revolution, with its great solar resource and potential for export.  However, the comments show:

  • One of the biggest problems of hydrogen is how to contain it. The molecules are so small they leak out of almost anything. This study seems to stop at production and does not analysis of the cost of containment and distribution and safe transport of liquid hydrogen.  One of the main advantages of petroleum based fuels is the trivial requirements for containment.
  • Another problem is that it doesn’t tell us how much hydrogen is created per square kilometer of solar collectors per day. How does this compare with demand? There’s a reason industrial hydrogen production doesn’t use electrolysis.
  • Another missing analysis is thermal efficiency vs energy density. For this reason Elon Musk uses kerosene in his reusable Space-X rockets. Hydrogen fuel requires too much insulation, special mechanical components and fuel tanks that are massive. But we can use “free solar” to produce it….
  • And hydrogen also does not work, at a fundamental engineering level, because… …. hydrogen gas is difficult, dangerous, expensive, and requires much higher energy to ship hydrogen gas by pipeline than to ship methane CH4.
  • “Liquid hydrogen requires cryogenic storage technology such as special thermally insulated containers and requires special handling common to all cryogenic fuels.
  • This is similar to, but more severe than liquid oxygen. Even with thermally insulated containers it is difficult to keep such a low temperature, and the hydrogen will gradually leak away (typically at a rate of 1% per day[7]). It also shares many of the same safety issues as other forms of hydrogen, as well as being cold enough to liquefy, or even solidify atmospheric oxygen, which can be an explosion hazard.”
  • The United States Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration has some interesting comments on Hydrogen: “Hydrogen used in the fuel cells is a very flammable gas and can cause fires and explosions if it is not handled properly. Hydrogen is a colorless, odorless, and tasteless gas. Natural gas and propane are also odorless, but a sulfur-containing (Mercaptan) odorant is added to these gases so that a leak can be detected. At present, it is hard to tell if there is a hydrogen leak because it has no odor to it. Hydrogen is a very light gas. There are no known odorants that can be added to hydrogen that are light enough to diffuse at the same rate as hydrogen. In other words, by the time a worker smells an odorant, the hydrogen concentrations might have already exceeded its lower flammability limit.
    Hydrogen fires are invisible and if a worker believes that there is a hydrogen leak, it should always be presumed that a flame is present. When workers are required to fight hydrogen-related fires, employers must provide workers with necessary protective gear to protect them from such invisible flames and potential explosion hazards. There are several OSHA standards that may apply to employers who produce or use hydrogen.”
  • The cost of transportation and storage of cryogenic hydrogen was certainly not considered. Nor was the long-term embrittlement of the metals and leakage materials problem with its storage and delivery systems, leading special metals and seals considerations in any mobile vehicle design. Simply electrolyzing water from solar PV power to produce hydrogen is just a small part of the problem with liquid hydrogen energy as a fuel source.
    Storage in a gaseous phase would entail impossibly large pressurized tanks and then diffusion-leakage is a serious issue. The time-tested best way to store hydrogen is to attach it to a carrier atom like carbon (we’ll call it a “hydrocarbon”). We could even store it then in very underground natural geologic formations in very large quantities. It is a stable dense liquid at standard temp and pressures and wouldn’t mix with water much at all.
    Or we could bind it to a metal substrate like nickel or lithium in a battery (Ni-MH, Li-ion).
    Or 4 H’s could be combined with molecular nitrogen to make a very nice high energy molecule, but it might be somewhat toxic to handle and you wouldn’t want to breathe it or get it in your eyes. We could give it a snappy name like hydrazine.

It is clear industrial scale green hydrogen will be hugely expensive in comparison to natural gas, and indeed steam reforming.

Hydrogen has the distinction of competing with nuclear fusion as the energy technology that is “always in the future