Hydrogen’s Dirty Little Secret

I think hydrogen fuel cells have entered the public consciousness to the extent that they are now being generally treated as a viable “alternative fuel” mechanism.

I would hazard a guess, however, that the average person thinks:

  • Hydrogen is everywhere, so it’s a “free,” readily available fuel.
  • Hydrogen fuel cells “burn” hydrogen in a fashion similar to the way that gasoline engines burn gasoline.

Neither is strictly correct.

In the book Fuelling the Future, Dr. Geoffrey Ballard, ” the father of the fuel cell industry,” cleary outlines the following points:

  • Hydrogen to be used in fuel cells must be manufactured.
  • Fuel cells, which create electricity through a chemical reaction, aren’t an efficient method for creating electricity, but they are an efficient method for storing electricity. They are, basically, batteries.
  • From his perspective, the most viable way to create the hydrogen needed to power fuel cells is nuclear power.

This came as a shock to me: I’d been operating under the mistaken, uneducated assumption (mostly fueled by General Motors ads) that hydrogen fell into the same class a solar and wind power; quite clearly it doesn’t.

I’m not revealing anything profound here, but it seems to me that Ballard’s model implies a rebirth of the nuclear power industry, an industry I think many of us thought was effectively dead after Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.

If that’s honestly what’s required, then it’s time to start the public debate about that part of the the fuel cell equation.


nathan's picture
nathan on December 14, 2003 - 20:50 Permalink

I remember doing the electrolysis experiment in junior high school where electricity is used to separate water into oxygen and hydrogen. The experiment is memorable since at the end you uncover the test tube near a lit match and hear a pop as the hydrogen combusts.

So, yes it does take electricty to produce hydrogen, but that electricity can come from any number of sources (hydroelectric, nuclear, coal, wind, solar). Having an efficient ways to store electricity is as important as how is produced. Both wind and solar sources are uncontrolable can not be relied upon exclusively without efficient storage.

Efficient energy storage technology is pretty limited… one of the best ways to store electricity is still water behind a hydroelectric dam.

Alan's picture
Alan on December 14, 2003 - 21:03 Permalink

A reaction on the electric grid to errors creating too much load is to burn off the extra by pumping water up back behind the dam. The other wasteful but necessary solution is to spin, to run dynamos. Hydrogen in its raw state is an intermediate storage system if electricity from wind or solar was used to create it with ultimate use later. The benefit of doing that is to move the stored energy without extending the grid to use as either a cell or a combustible. Iceland is looking at this based on its hydroenergy and geothermal energy to split the hydrogen out.

nathan's picture
nathan on December 14, 2003 - 21:06 Permalink

Also I’m not sure a “rebirth of nuclear” is quite accurate when nuclear is currently second to only hydroelectric in Canada’s power generation. (power generation by province)

RSimpson's picture
RSimpson on December 14, 2003 - 22:41 Permalink

the possibility of an environmentally benign power source exists on Star Trek and no where else. It is time to stop fretting about what can be implemented in 50 years and discuss meaningful ways of dealing with man’s environmental impact today. Compared to each other, no contemporary method of generating significant amounts of power, say the amount required to power 50,000,000 micro computers and their accessories, stands out as an example of the kind of clean power we want. So we should be looking for more prosaic technovations to clean up we we got right now.

Ann's picture
Ann on December 15, 2003 - 13:01 Permalink

Maybe you need nuclear power to create enough “hydrogen electricity” to power a province…but wind can be used very efficiently on a smaller scale…like for a town or a neighbourhood. There is some interesting work going on about the potential for wind powered hydrogen in the third world where they have to access to large scale electricty creation. And it could have applications here in NOrth America if we learn to think locally.

But Ritchie is right, too (which he’ll be surprised to hear me say)…we also need to think about the degree to which we consume. Funny how nucler power is an option but turning off a few appliances isn’t.

Alan's picture
Alan on December 15, 2003 - 16:03 Permalink

Good point, Ann. Isn’t there also a point at which the province is only so many “locals” and that a system of wind could expand along side the current (pun?) system?

Oliver B's picture
Oliver B on December 15, 2003 - 16:58 Permalink

What hydrogen does is centralize what is one of the dirtiest steps in the sequence of fuel production through fuel use. With gasoline to reduce emissions right now every user has to has one of these poorly optimized devices called cars. They have to be light, they have to be cheap, they have to be powerful, they have to be comfortable, and while you’re at it, make them emit less pollution. With hydrogen, no car you make is going to emit anything but water, and the production of hydrogen is shifted to just a few big immobile factories, which are owned by the government or by deep-pocket corporations. If forced to do so by regulations, these plants can afford to optimize for cleanliness and can expect to succeed much better than with the constraints the personal automobile imposes. In other words, they can install the heaviest and the best smokestack that money can buy.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on December 15, 2003 - 17:11 Permalink

Just to be clear: I understand about the decentralization, and I understand about the “we can use wind and sun too.” What disturbed me was the Ballard is very clearly in favour of the use of nuclear energy to make hydrogen. We stopped making new nuclear power plants thirty years ago. If we’re going to start making them again, I want there to be a free and open public debate about this: as it stands, the debate is “dirty oil vs. clean hydrogen.”