It’s trivially easy to be snared by hydrogen for energy. Then it’s easy to start solving the problems of hydrogen for energy. Then it’s easy to wave away a problem set of hydrogen for energy as not your concern. And then solve more of the problems for energy. And wave away another group of problems as something someone else will solve. And then solve yet another problem with hydrogen for energy.
And then you are at the bottom of one of many slippery slopes in the domain of hydrogen as an energy carrier and have no idea how you got there or how to get out. Your heart is still in the right place, working toward a solution for climate change, but your mind and likely money, career, firm and quite probably stock price are stuck down a rabbit hole of your own devising which is currently hindering climate action.
Let’s start this journey in a 6th or 7th grade classroom. Proto-men and -women are gathered around lab benches in schools. They have water and electricity. And they make hydrogen. They prove that they do by burning it. This is an experiment that can be conducted with a cup of water and a 9V battery. It’s trivially easy. Making energy from water! What a rush!
And then you find out it’s clean burning! Water vapor and nothing else. You find out that it’s incredibly energy dense, with every kilogram having as much energy as a gallon or almost four liters of gasoline.
You hear about global warming and fossil fuels. You connect dots. You become convinced, as so many have before you, that hydrogen is a solution to the global warming problem of energy from fossil fuels. It seems so easy?
You find books like The Hydrogen Economy and articles and find gushing press releases about fuel cell cars. You become convinced that this is where you want to make your mark, where you want to contribute.
So you go on in your education and then career, working toward the clearly superior hydrogen economy. You create a hydrogen energy product or a firm or become a senior leader in a firm that is working in the space. And then the problems really start.
Mercedes-Benz Group is full of people intent on exploring every engineering option at great expense, from the board of directors to technicians. Metropolitan Vancouver, where I live, is full of people doing this kind of work for Ballard Power, HTEC, Teralta, and many other firms. Nikola is full of people working to explore every failure condition despite years of pain. This is their story.
Don’t let it be your story. If it is already your story, start working on your exit strategy if you haven’t already.
So, what is the first problem?
Hydrogen is indeed energy dense by mass, but not by volume. It’s an incredibly diffuse gas. That kilogram takes up 12 cubic meters or so at room temperature and pressure. By contrast, a gallon of gasoline takes up 0.004 cubic meters, about 3,000 times less room.
So the first problem you run into is that hydrogen is far too diffuse to be useful in its normal state. It’s much lighter than air as well, so if you let it escape, it will simply disappear upward at a great rate. That’s why it was used in zeppelins and blimps.
It’s a tiny little molecule as well, which means that it’s an escape artist. Airtight containers aren’t hydrogen-tight. It treats balloons and screw-on lids as minor inconveniences, speed bumps at best. Hydrogen molecules are even smaller compared to gasoline or diesel molecules.
And that room temperature and pressure thing is a problem too. Gasoline and diesel, in addition to being such big molecules that you can practically carry them in a sieve, are liquid at room temperature and pressure, and on very large ranges on either side as well. That means that they are incredibly convenient to handle and store. Dense, liquid, and big molecules that just sit there are really nice to work with.
And so, job one for you is to build everything with vastly tighter tolerances than is used for the fuels we use today. That’s okay, you’re working in a well-equipped lab and there are tanks of hydrogen sitting around and flasks designed for them. Not your problem. But certainly a problem outside of the lab, where every component involved in the movement and storage of hydrogen has to be designed, built, and maintained to those very precise tolerances.
So, you have a flask that’s hydrogen tight, but it contains virtually no hydrogen when full. Job two is to figure out how to make hydrogen a lot less diffuse.
And so you build or buy a hydrogen compressor. If you build one, you have to build something capable of very high pressures and very tight tolerances. If you buy one, you get sticker shock. This isn’t a $40 air compressor for car tires you can get on Amazon. No, a cheap hydrogen compressor that can achieve 300 atmospheres of pressure, the equivalent of being 3 kilometers under the surface of the ocean, will set you back close to $10,000, if you order 50 of them at a time from Alibaba.
That will allow you to put 20 kilograms of hydrogen in a cubic meter of space. That’s better! Until you realize that you can put about 290 gallons of gasoline in the same space. You could put 25 gas tanks worth of gasoline into a cubic meter.
That’s just not going to get you down the road, or allow you to keep a lot of hydrogen around.
At this point, a bunch of people just give up. But not you!
You say, no problem, let’s just increase the pressure! Back to Alibaba you go, where you can get a 700 atmosphere hydrogen compressor for $25,000. That’s the equivalent of being 7 kilometers underwater and you can put it in a garage — if you have a big garage and nothing else you want to put in it.
Then, of course, you have to rework every single component because tolerances and engineering that worked at 300 atmospheres don’t work at 700 atmospheres. Higher quality steel and gaskets. Even tighter machining. Even more expense.
At some point in there you find out the hard way that compressors fail regularly. You might be feeling this just in the $25,000 chunks of change leaving your capital account. Or you might be shown the statistics that in California and everywhere else, compressors at hydrogen refueling stations are the single biggest cause of failures and the stations are often out of service.
More people just throw up their hands, but not you.
You say there has to be a better way. And so you start looking at alternatives to this very expensive, very difficult-to-build, very expensive-to-maintain compression and storage gear.
You ask yourself, maybe we can just turn it into a liquid? Then we can treat it just like we treat gasoline or diesel. You know that gases turn into liquids when you chill them. You might have worked with liquid carbon dioxide, oxygen, or nitrogen before. You know that those gases become liquids at -57°, -183°, and -196° Celsius respectively. They are pretty common. How hard can it be to turn hydrogen into an easily handled liquid?
Then you look at it. -253° Celsius. Much colder than the other gases. Only 20° above absolute zero. Only 17° warmer than outer space between the stars. Oh, and there’s another catch. When you make liquid hydrogen, about 25% of it is stable, but 75% of it has its electrons aligned in an unstable way that eventually collapses to be stable. But it releases heat when it does that, which turns the hydrogen back into a gas. So you have to do more chilling to overcome that as well.
More people say enough, but not you!
Eventually, you have stable liquid hydrogen! Excellent. So what if it takes a full third of the energy in the hydrogen to chill it down to this absurd temperature. That’s a small price to pay for a liquid you can pump around the place.
You turn off the lights and head home, satisfied and looking forward to a celebratory dinner. But when you come back in the morning, there’s no liquid hydrogen.
Oh, right, stuff that’s 20° above absolute zero is a huge vacuum for heat, sucking it in as rapidly as possible and with every bit of heat, a bit more hydrogen turns back into a gas and escapes. Thankfully, nothing sparked or you wouldn’t have a lab left.
Back to the engineering workshop, where you design and build globular, heavily insulated, mirror finished tanks. That’s what’s required to merely limit the rate at which hydrogen turns back into a gas to a somewhat manageable rate. In fact, the bigger the tank, the better, as you find out rapidly.
Really rapidly. In fact, small mirror ball tanks left out in room temperature under LED lights still lose a lot of hydrogen. So, you build bigger tanks again. And then you build a set of components that capture the venting hydrogen and recompress it, bringing you to the point where you now have all the challenges of liquid hydrogen and compressed hydrogen at the same time.
More people leave the building, but not you. You’ve got what it takes!
You look around more broadly. The basics of temperature and pressure have been exhausted. But maybe an entirely new branch of science?
You go back to school and get a PhD in organic chemistry. You know hydrogen binds with organic molecules and that compounds of hydrogen can be liquids at room temperature. After all, water is a compound of oxygen and hydrogen and it’s a liquid at many of the ranges of temperatures humans live in.
Sure enough, you find that organic compounds like toluene, dibenzyltoluene, n-ethyl carbazole, and other polysyllabic terms you have come to think of as normal can have hydrogen added to them by putting them under what you’ve come to think of as very reasonable pressures of 30 to 50 atmospheres in the presence of exotic catalysts. And out come substances like the equally mellifluous methylcyclohexane, which is a stable liquid. You don’t really notice the people edging away from you at social events, but you are really seduced by organic chemistry, so why worry about other seductions?
Then you try to get the hydrogen back out. That requires heat. A lot of heat. So much heat in fact that you are back to throwing away a full third of the energy in the hydrogen to run the process. And the hydrogen is contaminated, so you have to purify it again. But you can make the process more efficient by storing the heat from making the stuff to use when you want the hydrogen back. More designing, more building, more components, more cost.
Oh, the idea is to use the liquid to ship the hydrogen somewhere else and the heat is left behind. Huh. So much for heat recovery.
More people leave the building at this point, but not you! You have grit, you have determination. And so you cast your eyes around the periodic table. You remember that hydrogen reacts with metals as well.
Back to school you go, to get a PhD in metallurgy. Not where you expected to end up when you started, but you hadn’t been expecting to deal with absurd pressures and temperatures either.
You discover metal hydrides, the metallic equivalent of the organic oxides from your deep, deep foray into organic chemistry. Terms like lithium hydride, lithium aluminum hydride, sodium borohydride, and ammine borane now flow from your lips. You can indeed combine metals like lithium and sodium with hydrogen, and just like with the organic compounds, things get hot. Uh oh, you think. I’ve been here before.
Yes, to get the hydrogen back out, you have to add in all of that heat. And you have to deal with the pressure problem too, because hydrogen is turning back into a gas in a container full of metal. Of course, the heat that came out when you put the hydrogen in is long gone if you actually want to move the metal hydride anywhere too.
And you are only seeing hydrogen representing 1% to 2% of the mass of the metal being taken up.
More people leave the building. Occasionally it’s hours before you see another person. But you stick to it, inventing more and more arcane compound hydrides, attempting to nudge the storage higher, and you manage it.
So now you can store reasonable amounts of hydrogen in masses of very expensive and heavy metals. Huh. The point was to create an inexpensive distribution and storage mechanism for a light gas, and now, after you work out the math, you have a very heavy and expensive one that isn’t any better in the real world than liquid hydrogen or heavily compressed hydrogen.
And it takes a long time to “fill the tank” too, hours in fact.
Oh well, you have a toolkit of different hydrogen storage methods, all bad, but maybe they’ll be okay for different applications. Now it’s time to start making lots of hydrogen to put in them! How hard could it be? You did it in 7th grade, after all.
The first thing you find out is that all the hydrogen you’ve been playing with in the lab as you tried and failed to figure out how to store enough of the stuff cheaply is really quite filthy. It’s all made from natural gas using steam reformation.
What’s that, you ask. Basically a bunch of water and natural gas are piped to wherever the hydrogen is needed. A bunch of the natural gas is using to boil the water to make steam. Then more of the natural gas is mixed with the steam. That breaks the bonds of the methane in the natural gas, which is a really startlingly simple carbon and four hydrogen atoms molecule, at least after your foray into organic chemistry. The hydrogen gets captured and the carbon uses all that lovely heat to bind with oxygen from the air to make carbon dioxide. Oops.
So much for clean burning, only water out the tailpipe. The natural gas, you find, has upstream methane leakage and methane is a really potent greenhouse gas, about 89 times worse over 20 years than carbon dioxide. And the steam reformation process between burning the natural gas and the chemical processes themselves pump out a bunch of carbon dioxide too. The combination means that every kilogram of hydrogen comes with 10 to 12 kilograms of carbon dioxide or equivalent.
That makes you a bit queasy, as you’ve just spent a decade fritzing around with the stuff and casually venting it to the atmosphere when you’re done. Oh, wait. You get a news update that hydrogen itself is a greenhouse gas, albeit indirectly. It prevents that potent methane from breaking down as fast so it’s about 11-12 times worse than carbon dioxide. You’re really glad you had to spend all that time working on incredibly tight tolerance — and incredibly expensive — tanks, hoses and couplings.
Manufacturing hydrogen today is a global warming problem on the scale of all of aviation. That’s really not what you expected when you started this journey. You thought it was all being made the same way you did in Grade 7. Pretty annoying to find out that approaching 0% of the hydrogen used today is actually made that way and that there’s a 100-120 million tons of hydrogen climate problem to clean up.
Okay, you have to make hydrogen in a cleaner way. Let’s just capture all of the carbon dioxide from the natural gas and water process. Oh, that’s two different sets of gases, because you have to stick one collection system on the burner for the natural gas and another collection system on the very hot water vapor and carbon dioxide mixed with other stuff coming out of the chemical process.
No problem, people have been capturing carbon dioxide for 150 years in industrial processes as feedstocks to subsequent steps. ExxonMobil has been tooting its own horn for all the millions of tons of carbon dioxide it pumps underground in Texas each year. This won’t require a PhD, you think, I’ll just have to buy some components off the shelf and slap them together.
So you do that. Huh. That takes a lot more energy to run all of that. In fact, the biggest problem is getting the carbon dioxide out of whatever you captured it in. You have to make a lot more steam to unclog the pores of the Corning sorbent or to break the carbonate bonds, which you know requires a lot of energy from your organic chemistry PhD.
And that energy has to come from somewhere, so you are burning even more natural gas and capturing even more carbon dioxide. That’s a bit of vicious circle.
But at least it’s capturing all of the greenhouse gases, you think. Hmmm, maybe you should measure that. Oh, you find, the carbon capture solution is only capturing about 85% of the carbon dioxide, at least when it’s working, as sometimes it gets switched off when no one is looking. No problem, you think, I’ll just bolt a third carbon capture solution on and push the remaining gases through that! Up to 98% or 99% now, which is good enough for getting on with.
Oh wait, more energy, burning more natural gas. But at least you have all the carbon dioxide. Wait, what are you going to do with it? Texas is a long way away and you realize that ExxonMobile’s claims are actually about pulling carbon dioxide out of the ground in one place and putting it back underground in another place to get more oil out, so that’s not a solution.
No problem, back to school to get a geology PhD. Okay, now you know where you can put that absolutely massive amount of carbon dioxide, which because it’s full of oxygen from the atmosphere, is much heavier than the natural gas that powers the process. And there’s a lot more of it volume wise as well. Huh. There are a lot fewer places to put it than you thought, so you will have to drill a lot more holes and do a lot more engineering. No problem! Someone will do that. You just have to get the carbon dioxide to the sites.
Time to build a pipeline. Lots of pipelines it turns out, because places where hydrogen is manufactured and used are usually nowhere near places where it’s remotely convenient and cheap to store carbon dioxide underground. How many kilometers of pipelines does the EU think are going to be required? 19,000! That’s pretty close to the length of all the big highways in Europe, you think. And a lot more than the high-speed rail on the continent. Seems a bit iffy.
But at least it’s just carbon dioxide. That stuff isn’t toxic, so if a pipeline bursts, no one will be at risk. Then your organic chemistry PhD kicks you in the head with the memory that carbon dioxide is heavier than the mixture of oxygen and nitrogen we breathe and that it sinks to the ground until it diffuses. And that the pipelines will have to be full of liquid carbon dioxide because that’s almost 600 times as dense as gaseous carbon dioxide so it’s cheaper to ship.
And just like liquid hydrogen, liquid carbon dioxide loves to turn back into a gas. You do an idle Google search and start reading about Satartia, Mississippi, where one of those pipelines used to aid in getting more oil out of the ground burst in 2020. Dozens unconscious or on the verge of it from asphyxiation, some thrashing on the ground. Hundreds evacuated. Internal combustion engines in cars didn’t work either. Yikes, the pipeline burst 1.6 kilometers from the center of the tiny town, population 41 and concentrations of carbon dioxide hours after the event were still in the tens of thousands of parts per million. Health concerns start at 5,000 parts per million and it turns out that people start getting stupid long before that level.
No way that’s going to work in the real world where the pipelines would have to go through heavily populated areas. The public health risk is too great. You wonder why anyone is considering this madness as you go back to the drawing board, after a quick and lonely lunch in the cafeteria.
Okay, Grade 7 time. Let’s make us some hydrogen from water and electricity, you think! Obviously a nine-volt battery won’t do. To get real quantities of hydrogen, we’re going to need multi-megawatt power feeds. And we’re going to need an electrolyzer. And some gear to remove water vapor from the hydrogen. And pumps for the water. And power management gear for the electricity.
And we need all those compressors and tanks we spent so much time building what seems like decades ago. Huh. This is starting to look expensive.
You pull out a napkin and a Bic pen. You start scribbling. About 55 MWh for a ton of hydrogen. That’s a lot and costs an awful lot at industrial electricity prices. And then you have to pay for all that expensive gear. You realize that the electrolyzer is only a quarter of the total capital cost when you add in the balance of plant. No problem, if you run the gear 24/7/365 you think.
Still, that’s really expensive hydrogen, well over $10 per kilogram at grid retail prices, just to make it, never mind do anything with it. You suppose you should check the carbon debt of the electricity too. Oops. At 200 grams of carbon dioxide per kWh, a pretty good level in most parts of the world, that’s 11 tons of carbon dioxide for every ton of hydrogen. The European average is around 250 grams, ignoring Poland’s coal plants, so it’s actually 14 tons. That’s worse than just using the natural gas and water method!
Okay, we can solve this, you think. What we’ll do is build big wind and solar farms and dedicate their output to making hydrogen. Oh, more capital cost. And the wind and solar farms still only overlap to create enough electricity maybe 60% of the time on a good day. Oh, my cheap alkaline electrolyzer doesn’t work except with 24/7/365 electricity? Oh well, you guess you’ll have to spring for the PEM electrolyzers at double the capital cost.
You do some more scribbling. That really didn’t change the equation a lot.
You wander through the empty halls of the building as you think about it, waving to the janitor and the handful of other researchers through the doors of their echoing labs.
Aha, you think. The world is going to overbuild renewables so there’s going to be free electricity a bunch of the time. You’ll just use that! So you go and look at it. Then you find that utilities still expect to get paid for delivering electricity anywhere, so that they can afford transmission, distribution and administration costs. Even if you can convince the utility to only charge you those costs and only make hydrogen when there’s an excess of wind and solar on the grid, you only get electricity 15% of the time, so your capital costs will make the hydrogen even more expensive. But at least it would be green!
I know, you think, we’ll take those wind and solar farms to places with amazing wind and solar resources in Africa and South America where there are huge swaths of empty land. We’ll use cheap labor and deal with the local baksheesh. We’ll build massive green hydrogen plants there and make hydrogen as cheaply as it’s possible to do it. We’ll need to build transmission and storage to firm the generation of course and this is all in places with often no roads, so we’ll have to build those too. Hmmm… looks like we’ll have to build desalination plants and power them as well, but the power for those is tiny compared to how much juice hydrogen sucks down.
You hear a door slam in the distance, but you work on.
Maybe, you think, there’s a different way to get the hydrogen out of methane? After all it’s just carbon and hydrogen. How hard could it be? And so you discover pyrolysis. This is it, you think. The Holy Grail! Heat up methane in an oven without any oxygen around and the bonds break. You end up with hydrogen and a bunch of pure black carbon.
Wait, that carbon is valuable too! People put it in rubber for tires and the like. You think, this is it, you have two revenue streams, one for hydrogen and one for carbon.
And then your chemistry PhD kicks you in the head again. How much hydrogen and how much carbon? Huh. 12 tons of carbon for every four tons of hydrogen. That’s a lot of carbon. In fact, this pyrolysis thing seems to be really good at making carbon and has hydrogen as a byproduct, not the other way around. You think, this seems awfully familiar. Oh, yeah, steam reformation makes a lot more carbon dioxide than hydrogen too and electrolysis from grid electricity makes an awful lot more carbon dioxide than hydrogen as well, even if you avoid Poland.
How big is the global market for carbon? Only 14.5 million metric tons? So if you made 3 million tons of hydrogen, 2% or 3% of the current global hydrogen demand, you’d completely swamp the global carbon black market? So really, pyrolysis for hydrogen just makes more waste. But at least it’s not carbon dioxide!
We could bury it for carbon credits, you think. Then you realize it was already buried in the methane and start to realize that there’s a problem in all of this. Why unbury it in order to bury it?
Maybe we could use some of the methane that seeps out of landfills and dairy barns, you think? Then you look at some numbers and realize that while there’s an awful lot of it, it’s incredibly diffuse, with any given source emitting very little methane, potent as it is.
And you realize that it’s probably better used directly for biomethanol, another big climate change problem.
Then, a glimmer of hope in a dark room of despair. You realize that night has fallen and no one has said goodbye to you as they left, however many people still remain in the building. You’ve last track, but you think George and Sharon and Aafia were still around last time you checked.
But the glimmer. A news alert has come in on your phone. Someone struck hydrogen! They’re calling it white hydrogen and it’s naturally occurring. No one bothered to check before because it was so convenient to just get natural gas and use it to blast water into hydrogen and carbon dioxide. But if we can just pump it out of the ground, you think, that’s the win!
Nature will have made it for free just like coal, oil and gas. By definition it will be cheap because all we are doing is catching it. And it will be low carbon because once again all we have to do is catch it.
So you start Googling for details. You find that there’s a tiny village in Mali where it’s coming out and used to generate electricity for their lights. Very little hydrogen. And there’s a massive find in a mine in Albania! Massive? 200 tons a year, but a lot less in the one part of the mine where it’s bubbling out of a spring. That’s … not much. The spot in France has potentially 46 million tons of the stuff and they aren’t sure how much of it they can extract, but that’s still only half of a single year’s global demand for stuff we already use hydrogen for. Certainly nothing left over for transportation and heating.
Your multiple PhDs make it clear to you that this is a faint hope resource with a lot of unanswered questions. Your geology PhD especially has you thinking about the comparison between recoverable reserves and the tiny amounts you are hearing about.
Oh well, back to making it in sparsely populated places on Earth so that it’s cheap and shipping it to where it’s needed. How expensive could that possibly be?
You’re getting smarter as you get older. You think, hey, maybe someone else has already thought of this. You remember that guy, Bogdan, at the pickup soccer game five years ago. He said he was working on moving hydrogen around. You head off to his lab, which you vaguely remember was up three floors in the northwest corner.
You find it, after getting lost, then going to the front desk where a security guard seemed surprised to see you. He lets you in as well, as Bogdan abandoned ship not long after that sunny afternoon. It’s dusty, but the lights work and there is still a lot of stuff on the white boards and pinned to the walls.
Huh. 85% of hydrogen used today is manufactured where it’s used because it’s so expensive to ship? Who knew?
The next big category is pipelines, custom built ones in Germany and Texas, about 3,400 kilometers between them. They lead from big natural gas and water hydrogen manufacturing plants mostly to oil refineries and fertilizer plants. Wait, the biggest single consumer of hydrogen is oil refineries?
Your organic chemistry PhD kicks you in the head and reminds you that crude oil is often really thick, especially if it’s from Alberta, Argentina or Mexico, tends to be full of sulfur and has a bunch of other impurities. All that oil we use requires a full third of the hydrogen we use just to clean it up and separate it into diesel, gasoline and asphalt. That’s a silver lining, you think. All that crude oil is going to go away once you crack this hydrogen for transportation, heating and energy thing!
And we can reuse natural gas pipelines! Maybe blend hydrogen in some percentage first! Let’s start with that. Is there anything on Bogdan’s whiteboards about that?
Disappointed, you read that blending even 20% of hydrogen in with natural gas isn’t a solution that makes the slightest sense. Your chemistry background starts filling in the blanks even before you read them. Hydrogen is much less dense than natural gas, of course, hence your problems with just storing enough of it. And it requires more energy to compress. And it’s harder on electronics. Out the other end, you might save 7% of carbon dioxide emissions with a 20% blend of natural gas, but you’ll also get less heat out of it. And as you’ve discovered, hydrogen isn’t cheap unless you make it in a windy, sunny desert beside a big freshwater lake.
But surely we can purge the natural gas and just pipe pure hydrogen. Wouldn’t that solve the problem? Bogdan’s left-hand slant handwriting answers that as well. You read with growing dismay about hydrogen embrittlement which your metallurgy background nicely fills in lots of details about, pressure surges in gas lines causing microfractures, sensor replacement with hydrogen-hardened sensors, new compressors that are triple the power — compressors again! You are starting to curse the existence of the things —, probably internal coatings and even then, you might have to run less hydrogen through the pipeline than natural gas as far as units of energy go. That seems like a lot of expensive work to reuse a steel tube and sure enough Bogdan is unenthusiastic about it.
Maybe at least the utility gas distribution grid that goes to homes and buildings? Nope. Even worse. Not a chance of reusing any of that. It would all have to be ripped up and replaced in most of the world. There’s some hope for some places that were using town gas, as that was 40% or 50% hydrogen, along with a very nasty amount of carbon monoxide, but even there the leakage rate of the escape artist molecule that’s 11 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide gives you a twinge in your gut. That’s why the one remaining hydrogen village in the UK, Fife, is seeing all the pipes leading to homes built anew at great expense. Millions for 300 homes, you read. Seems expensive.
Okay, so mostly new and more expensive pipelines built from scratch for hydrogen transmission. And you still have to solve getting the hydrogen from the mouth of the pipeline to where it’s going to be used. If it’s the only choice for heating and cooking, then obviously we’ll spend the money to rip up and replace the natural gas distribution grids, you think to yourself. A problem for another day.
While we wait for the pipelines, you think, what other options do we have? Oh, compressed hydrogen tube trucks per another whiteboard. Not even 300 atmospheres, more like 180 atmospheres. That’s not even two kilometers under the surface of the ocean, you think, remembering your days of trying to compress hydrogen to depths that would allow bathyscaphes to explore the Mariana Trench.
Wait, you know this one. You spend 10 seconds thinking about it and realize that at 180 atmospheres, there just isn’t that much hydrogen in a semi-trailer load. That you’d need 14 or 20 of them to move the same energy as a tanker of diesel. Well, that’s not viable. Did Bogdan agree? Definitively.
Were there any answers? Yes, the same ones you found when you were trying to store hydrogen. Much higher pressures, much more exotic tanks, much tighter tolerances, much greater expense. And while you were very careful around what would have turned into a massive explosive if it had burst, you were working under very safe conditions and taking every safety precautions in labs built for the purpose at great expense.
You have a sinking feeling. People are actually thinking of driving these pressure bombs on highways and city roads? While other cars, trucks and buses are on the same roads? With human beings behind the wheel putting on makeup, checking sports scores or texting loved ones? You note that they are a long, long way from getting approval for any of this and breathe a sigh of relief. You remember the times various highly pressurized tanks gave way during your time building them and how the building rang. 700 atmosphere pressure tanks and highway traffic are a terrible idea.
Surely there’s something else! Oh, wait. They want to put liquid hydrogen in trucks and drive that around the place? They already do, but it’s pretty rare and used only when hydrogen is the only substance for the job. Literally, if there is any alternative to driving liquid hydrogen trucks around, it’s taken. Bogdan notes that trucks of the stuff represent a homeopathic amount of the tonnage of hydrogen used annually and then only on carefully vetted routes.
You think about a collision that bursts the liquid hydrogen tank for a minute. You think of 20° above absolute zero liquid hydrogen spilling out over a school bus of kids, then flashing to 850 times the volume and igniting in an air fuel blast. You blanch at the thought.
Thankfully, you think, we’ll have hydrogen pipelines everywhere, no matter the cost, because we’ll need them for furnaces and stoves. Yeah, that’s the ticket!
You continue around Bogdan’s dusty, abandoned room. Oh, wait, people are seriously thinking about putting liquid organic hydrogen carriers in tankers and shipping them around the world? That might make sense, you think, if hydrogen could possibly be cheap, but even in the best possible conditions it’s a lot more expensive than natural gas for a unit of energy. And then you throw away even more of it to make the carriers and get the hydrogen back out in the end. That multiplies the cost rather substantially.
Huh, some people are talking about doing that with ammonia. Your organic chemistry PhD kicks you in the back of the head again, something you are starting to resent. It reminds you that while ammonia fertilizer is the bee’s knees, enabling the world to be fed, it’s treated as an extremely dangerous substance and handled very carefully by protective gear clad professionals wherever it’s used. You grab your phone and check the average cost of a ton of ammonia today, think through the cost of the hydrogen, add the Haber Bosch process capital and operating costs to it and come out with basically double the cost per ton.
Then liquification because it’s not a liquid at room temperature again. Then steaming across oceans, which Bogdan’s white board helpfully reminds you is done for fertilizer today. Then getting the hydrogen out or burning the ammonia directly. Bogdan’s notes again helpfully let you know that this would be roughly 10 times the cost of burning coal and multiples of the cost of natural gas. Well, that’s a non-starter. There must be another way.
Uh oh. The next white board has more liquid hydrogen, but massive ships of the stuff. That’s nutty you think. Liquid natural gas tankers are already massive bombs kept moored a long way from ports. And they contain a lot more energy in the same volume. And they take a lot less energy to turn into a liquid. And they are still the most expensive energy any country uses and so used only as the energy of last resort. Liquid hydrogen ships will cost five to ten times as much to deliver the same units of energy. That’s just nuts.
Well, thankfully we’ll be building massive pipelines thousands of kilometers from northern Africa or the like. We’ll pay the massive premium for liquid hydrogen shipping for only a few decades. After all, it’s not like there’s any way to generate a lot more energy much closer to home or another way of shipping energy long distances. We’ll need to import lots of hydrogen, you think and build massive international pipelines to move it.
After all, we have to use the stuff. At least that’s cheap, isn’t it? Time to roll up your sleeves and look at use cases, you think.
Wait, electrochemistry? You remember that stuff from your organic chemistry PhD. It makes the Krebs Cycle seem reasonable and that is so complex that no one who studied it could possibly believe in an intelligent designer. Fuel cells are all about the electrochemistry. But hey, you don’t have to learn the stuff, you just have to figure out how to use it in an end to end solution.
After all, you now know how to store hydrogen and that it’s expensive. And you know how to make hydrogen and you know that it’s expensive. And you know how to transport hydrogen and know that it is expensive. You have a sinking feeling as you start to put the long list of things before using hydrogen for heat or motion can happen.
You remember wondering why hydrogen refueling station prices in the EU and California were charging US$15 to $36 per kilogram when the natural gas and water process you built cost only $1 to $2 per kilogram to make the stuff. Perhaps all those hydrogen stations were using only very expensive green hydrogen? There’s no one around to ask, so you Google a few countries and sites. No, it’s almost entirely hydrogen made from natural gas without any attempt to capture the carbon dioxide. Huh.
Weaker people than you have long fled the building, almost everyone in fact, but you won’t let this sinking feeling of dismay keep you from making the hydrogen economy a reality. You’re going to look at all the ways to use hydrogen for energy and find the best one.
You start with the fuel cell. You remind yourself that you long ago decided you weren’t smart enough to do a degree in that black alchemical art, so decide to treat it as a component, failure condition and cost exercise. Not how the bits worked together, but that they did. At first it was reassuring. There was a long history of using fuel cells. In fact, the first one was invented in 1838. A warning light goes off behind your eyes, but with an effort of will you push it away.
They were used in the Gemini rockets starting in 1962. That’s excellent, you thought, whatever is good enough for space travel must be good enough for roads and homes. But if it’s used in space, it’s probably expensive. Surely they must have made them cheaper?
Huh. Not really. They need platinum. And those membranes. How much per square meter! Oh. Ions have to transit them, not get stuck and they have to last a long time. Wait, how long do fuel cells last? Huh, often only three years? Wait, some don’t last at all? You find out about the buses delivered 18 months ago to Mallorca in Spain, where some refrigerant got into the fuel cells and destroyed the stack. That wasn’t reassuring. It’s like accidentally putting diesel in a gasoline tank, but much easier to do and it destroys the fuel cell.
But it makes you wonder. How pure does the hydrogen and air coming into the fuel cell need to be? Ooops. Very. The stuff that makes natural gas smell like rotten eggs would destroy a fuel cell. In fact, almost anything that isn’t hydrogen and dry, filtered air will destroy a fuel cell. So, only very pure hydrogen, which costs even more. And so much for reusing natural gas pipelines, because the left over stuff in them would poison fuel cells as well. Really, it’s all brand new pipelines it seems, or redundant hydrogen purification plants all over the place.
The oxygen and hydrogen combine to form water, which you knew from Grade 7. But now you have to think about what to do with the water. Well, in a bus, just shove it out the tailpipe, of course. Oh wait, you think. You’ve taken buses in the winter time. You wonder if the water ever freezes. Sure enough, your phone provides you an article about a 2010 to 2014 bus trial in Whistler, BC, in time for the Winter Olympics held there. The buses kept freezing up by the side of the road.
Okay, in addition to pretty hard core air filtration and dehumidification, filters good enough to eradicate 99.99% of pollutants in the air in cities, along with the costs of regular replacement of HIPAA-quality filters every few weeks or months, add dehumidification of hydrogen, quality sensors for the hydrogen, quality sensors for the air and thermal management of the water.
Oh wait, thermal management. Wow. The hydrogen in a vehicle tank might be 350 or 700 atmospheres. And hydrogen is a weird gas. Unlike virtually every other gas, hydrogen gets hot when it expands in temperatures where we might want to use it. A lot. Okay, add something to dump that heat. This is getting really complex. Thankfully you have the very high tolerance, precisely engineered components from your storage efforts. What? They probably won’t work?
Oh no. Vehicles operating in a variety of temperature ranges over rough roads have much higher vibration and external thermal expansion loads. Back to the drawing board on a whole suite of components you thought you’d finished with.
At least fuel cells are efficient when they are working, 60% or so. Wait, you think and start adding up the energy along the path from water and electricity through storage through transmission and storage again and through distribution. That’s 60% of a lot less than you started with.
Wait, what’s the power output of a fuel cell that fits in a bus or truck? Huh, that low? That won’t get a fully loaded bus up a hill. Better add a bunch of batteries and make the system a hybrid. At least batteries are simple. Electrochemistry, sure, but all on the inside, with nothing coming in and out except electricity.
Nice little black box component, come to think of it. Recharge it from hydrogen when the bus or truck is moving on level ground or parked. Get electricity out when you need it. Pity we couldn’t just use them with an electric motor. That would be incredibly straightforward, simple and low maintenance. But that would never work, obviously, you think, ignoring a sharp pain behind your right eye.
Oh well, you think. on top of the complex air and water management system, the complex, expensive and highly failure prone fuel cell you have to add a big battery too. Maybe there’s another way.
Somewhere in the building, a door creaks in a draft.
What about if you just burn it in place of gasoline or diesel in an internal combustion engine, you think? They already vaporize the fuel before putting it into cylinders and hydrogen is already a gas. Easy peasy. It’s the Carnot or Diesel cycle, but burning stuff is a lot less complex than fuel cells. We could probably go back to standard car air filters! We’d still have to manage the water out the tailpipe, but we’d have lots and lots of waste heat from the engine.
Oh, wait. That waste heat. Efficiency. Crap. Only 30% efficient on average at turning burning gases into forward motion. 70% waste heat.
That’s half the efficiency of a fuel cell. And hydrogen is expensive. You realize that whatever you make up in avoiding one set of complexity, you lose in operational costs. Wait, aren’t modern internal combustion engines absurdly complex beasts, with massive amounts of computerized monitoring and controls? You remember that one co-worker, Gelila, grumbling about how you couldn’t wrench an engine anymore without a degree in computers and a very expensive diagnostics rig.
Are internal combustion engines actually simpler? Or are we just used to them?
Then your organic chemistry PhD kicks you in the back of the head again. You are really beginning to regret that degree. Nitrous oxides. N2O and NO2. Laughing gas and the one without a fun name. One that is about 273 times worse than carbon dioxide as a global warming gas and one that causes smog that gives kids asthma. When you burn hydrogen or anything really, the nitrogen and oxygen in the air combine to make nitrous oxides.
Well, that sucks. Any way to deal with it? Oh, push twice the air in for complete combustion. That works. Any side effects? Half the power? So to get the same power from a hydrogen combustion engine we’d have to make it a lot bigger or bolt on superchargers, turbochargers or both?
Internal combustion hydrogen engines are clearly a complete dead end and only companies that make them would think that they made any sense at all. When you think about it, you realize that a lot of truck and engine manufacturers don’t have any intellectual capital to speak of outside of internal combustion engines, control systems for internal combustion engines and control systems for the highly variable power that comes out of them. Without the engines, the companies are going to disappear. Huh, you think to yourself, that’s got to lead to some irrational behavior.
There has to be another way. Fuel cells are clearly not something you want to expose to city air and internal combustion hydrogen engines are so inefficient it’s painful to think about them. Hey, maybe we can go back to that idea of liquid organic hydrogen carriers and ammonia, you think to yourself.
Not at that we would use ammonia or the carriers. The first is so absurdly dangerous that we aren’t going to be using that in transportation and the second doesn’t burn. But if we can make ammonia, we can make gasoline, diesel or kerosene!
Thankfully, you already have an organic chemistry degree, so this one is a cake walk. You already know how much everything costs to make hydrogen, you’ve already looked at Haber Bosch capital costs, you’ve already looked at the remote locations with perfect conditions of sunshine, wind and fresh water. You have everything you need!
Oh, wait. Where’s the carbon coming from? All along, it’s been a problem with making hydrogen from natural gas, but now you want to make gasoline or diesel, you can’t find any. Well, at least not cheaply, as you discovered when you tried to capture it from the natural gas and water process.
Well, it’s a waste product, so they must be giving it away. What? US$100 per ton delivered, if you are lucky? Maybe you can grab it from the air? What? $400 minimum per ton, more likely $1,000? You do the basic chemical mass balancing in your head before your PhD kicks you again and whistle. That’s going to be some expensive gasoline!
You go back and dust off some of your cost workups for all the bits and bobs. You think about sources of carbon dioxide and realize that fermentation for biofuels would be a good source of the stuff. So then you do a rough design of a bespoke integrated chemical processing plant in the middle of nowhere where there is great sunshine, wind and fresh water, along with all of the biomass feedstocks for a biofuels plant integrated in with the rest. Something is making your eye twitch, but you can’t figure out what it is and the company nurse stopped coming to work a year ago, so you ignore it.
You add up all the capital and operating costs, something you’re really far too good at now and look at the end result. In the absolute best case scenario, you could make gasoline or diesel for only 4-6 times the cost of current diesel, But at least you would be making a bunch of cheaper biofuels at the same time. You have to work hard to ignore the twitching now, but you’ve become oddly good at ignoring things.
Well, it looks like fuel cells are it then, hard as that is to believe after seeing how complex, expensive and failure prone they are. We’ll just have to live with it. With a sense of dread you do some Googling for maintenance data on fuel cell fleets. Ugh. California’s hydrogen buses are costing 50% more in maintenance than their diesel buses and double what the much more numerous battery electric buses are seeing. Thankfully, battery electric buses clearly can’t work and they’ll all fail, so full speed ahead.
You think, at least heat is a sure thing. Hydrogen burners are pretty easy to make and burning hydrogen turns the energy into heat with really high efficiency. We can make hydrogen furnaces, stoves and industrial heat components. That’s a slam dunk.
Wait, you think. Didn’t you just deal with burning hydrogen in an internal combustion engine? Doesn’t it make nitrous oxides? You look it up and sure enough, open hydrogen flames produce a lot of nitrous oxides. Surely there’s a solution? Sure, much higher velocity hydrogen, it turns out. That means much smaller hydrogen tubes with much higher pressures and very different flame and heat characteristics.
That means replacing a bunch more components inside furnaces, stove and industrial heating components. And for the industrial heat, typically that’s dialed in for the temperatures and characteristics of natural gas, so the entire process will probably need fixing.
But at least we’ll be warm in the winter,and know that African sunshine via the miracle molecule of hydrogen is keeping us that way. You think, sure, it will be really expensive, but it’s not like there’s any alternative. It’s not like we can move heat from inside our homes to outside the same way that refrigerators do. Sure there are electric stoves, you think, but it’s not like we can create instant heat in pans with magnetic induction or anything.
You feel a migraine coming on as you leave for the day, wondering when the security guard at the front desk stopped showing up.
But something was forcing itself out of the back of your mind into the front of your mind, something about ammonia. That’s right end-to-end system safety. You resolve to figure that out for a variety of use cases in the morning.
You’d already satisfied yourself that no one would possibly be thinking of highly toxic ammonia as a transportation or heating fuel. It was just too expensive to replace coal and just too dangerous to be put in gas stations. So you were a bit bewildered when you realized that the maritime industry was actually considering this.
You knew that you had to chill it to -33° Celsius to turn it into a relatively safe liquid, which seemed like a bad thing to require of a fuel. What if the ship was becalmed and the engine died? The ammonia would boil off as a gas and kill everyone on board pretty quickly. That would be hard to control for.
And putting it in ports outside of the hazardous materials zone? Pumping it from barges to ships tanks while waves were hitting both vessels? That just seemed a bit odd.
Your chemistry PhD kicked you again. There was something you were forgetting. Oh, wait ammonia reacts with water to create a very corrosive gas that rots lungs. And then it transforms one more time into something that’s just really bad for human health and aquatic life.
A big ammonia spill in a port would potentially kill thousands or tens of thousands of people, you realized. What are they thinking?
When you track back a bit, you find that it’s the lack of a need for carbon in the ammonia, which is just nitrogen and hydrogen. They can save a bit of money on the fuel so in the best possible case scenario it’s only 4-5 times as costly as current maritime fuel, which is better than synthetic methanol which would be 5-6 times as expensive.
Well, that makes sense, you think. Clearly someone has worked out that killing a lot of sailors and the occasional portful of people is cheaper than paying for methanol. Uh, you think, methanol is actually a liquid at room temperature and you remember that it can be made from existing human-caused biomethane, at least until you force the idea out of your head before your eyeballs explode with cognitive dissonance.
Tell me, you think to yourself, that no one is seriously thinking about putting liquid hydrogen in airplanes with human passengers! You had nightmares for a week thinking about liquid hydrogen on roads, but in a pressurized tube at 38,000 feet with 300 people aboard? Wait, the required globular, heavily insulated, mirror-finished tanks would have to be at the back of the air craft! You know you can’t put liquid hydrogen in the wings and frankly in anything except globular, heavily insulated, mirror-finished tanks and have much hydrogen left when you need it.
So all of the weight of the fuel would have to be inside the fuselage. That’s got to screw with how many passengers or how much cargo you could carry, you think. The current fuel is supported by the wings, but if it’s inside the fuselage that’s tons of people or cargo that can’t fly. And it takes up a bunch of space.
Wait, all that boil off has to be dealt with as well as any leaks along the fuel lines to the engines. If it starts leaking into the fuselage with the passengers, it would build up and be ignited by a spark in the coffee machine in the galley. Yikes, you think, that would turn a passenger jet full of people into a rapidly dissolving cloud pretty quickly. What’s the ratio that hydrogen can explode at, 4% to 75% of the air? That’s a lot of energy in an enclosed tube, which is kind of the definition of an explosive. That’s a terrible idea.
And you remember a few brief years when you took flying lessons, back when you weren’t working massive amounts of overtime to successfully transform the world into the glowing future of the hydrogen economy. It was really important to make sure that the center of gravity of the plane was over the wings. Those big tanks at the back are fine because you can balance for them, but not for the hydrogen in them. When it gets consumed, a lot of weight gets removed.
You find a typical narrow-body jet aircraft, look at how many tons of fuel it requires, then do the simple math to figure out how much the equivalent liquid hydrogen would be. And you realize that over a normal distance flight, an African elephant’s worth of weight would evaporate from the back of the plane and it would nose down and crash.
Then you replay the liquid hydrogen tanks cracking, spilling cryogenic liquids over what passengers survive in the burning wreckage, flashing to gas and exploding.
Yet people were working on this. What were they thinking? Some of them had spent 20 or 30 years working on this and were pretending none of this was real. Why, you’d just started looking at aviation and you’d seen this. Maybe the Boeing 737 Max failures for similar reasons tipped you off, but really, it was dead obvious.
Then you remember that episode of 60 Minutes you watched when you still had time to do anything but fix the next problem with hydrogen for energy, the one where they talked with civil aviation experts about how carefully aircraft must be tested and proven safe before they are allowed to carry customers. You relax. No one will be able to certify a liquid hydrogen aircraft that will carry passengers. There’s no path to that end point, so you can chill out. But it does make you think that some people working on hydrogen for energy are less intelligent than others.
Thankfully, you manage to avoid thinking about the last 20 years of your career, but a stabbing pain in your lower back reminds you to take your muscle relaxants.
Well, at least hydrogen furnaces and stoves should be fine, you think. Then your chemistry PhD kicks you in the back of the head again. Tiny, tiny molecule that’s an escape artist. A much higher range of ratios to air where it’s explosive. Lots of sparks inside a house. That’s not good. You compare it to natural gas, because lots of people have natural gas and find that even now after decades of safety and certification efforts with that much safer gas, 4,000 buildings a year in the USA alone blow up or burn due to natural gas leaks. Oh, that problem with fuel cells and the like means it probably won’t smell like anything, never mind rotten eggs, so that’s an added risk factor.
Then you find the safety study which finds that risks of hydrogen are four times greater. That certainly gibes with your experience. You work with hydrogen professionally and have bought more multi-hundred dollar hydrogen detectors than you can shake a stick at. And installed very significant venting. And had expensive inspections regularly. And are a bit phobic about hydrogen explosion risks as a result.
Never mind, multi-hundred dollar hydrogen detectors in every home. And probably big venting holes near the ceiling in every wall leading to the outside. That will wreak havoc with the insulation, but that’s why you burn gas, to make things warmer. Too bad it’s going to be much more expensive gas.
That makes you ask yourself, how much more expensive? Well, a gigajoule of hydrogen is just under eight kilograms. You’ve done the math and even via the brand spanking new hydrogen utility pipelines to homes, the cheapest it’s possibly going to be is $10 per kilogram and that’s with a stiff favoring breeze. So that’s $77 per gigajoule. How much does natural gas cost? You don’t know because you live in a building with electric heat, so you look it up.
Wait, natural gas is about US$2 per gigajoule in western Canada? What? Maybe it’s a lot more expensive in Europe? How about Germany? About $43 per gigajoule there. Still, $77 per gigajoule. Oh, wait, Europe just went through an energy crisis and is still buying really expensive natural gas. What were they paying before that?
About half that? So they are used to about $21 per gigajoule and the cheapest price that hydrogen heating will manage is over 3.5 times that?
If only there were an alternative, you think, as your migraine gets worse.
You’d already worried enough about lots of liquid hydrogen trunks crashing into school buses, so you leave that one aside, except for a brief concern that Department of Transportation truck certification might not be as rigorous as aviation certification.
As you think through end to end system safety, you realize that the least risky use of hydrogen is to manufacture it in an industrial facility in the volumes required as an industrial feedstock for something like ammonia. That’s the place where experts in its use will be working with carefully monitored and maintained equipment, have the budgets for safety equipment and processes and be fully aware of the risks they are dealing with.
If only there were alternatives for transportation and heat, you think, before you collapse from the pain in your head.
When you recover, you say to yourself, lets go look. Everything else must surely be a lot worse, otherwise what have you done with your life? Let’s starting with ground transportation. You understand that fuel cell cars won’t be a thing, but surely that’s all that batteries and charging will be able to do.
Oh, electric trains have been around for over a hundred years and every country in the world that doesn’t share a border with the USA is just putting up overhead wires? And they are putting batteries on trains to get them past the bridges and tunnels that are too expensive to wire up?
India is going to be done electrifying this year? India? They are ahead of China which is only at 72% but building more electrified rail all the time and most of the new stuff is high speed.
The German state of Baden-Würtemberg did a total cost of ownership study and found that hydrogen would be three times as expensive as wires and batteries? Sure just the efficiency and maintenance costs alone make that obvious, you think, as your right temple throbs painfully. And Lower Saxony tried it at great expense, found the same costs and are giving up?
What is the USA thinking, holding out for hydrogen on trains?
But surely big trucks need hydrogen. The Nikola is one sexy beast and clearly more competent than that weak Tesla Semi. Oh wait, What’s Run on Less? NACFE? The North American Council on Freight Efficiency. Okay, seems legit, you think. Surely the hydrogen semis rocked that and the electric ones failed. Ummm. The Tesla Semis ran for over 1,600 km in a single day of full service with loads up to the full 82,000 maximum weight loaded with flats of Pepsi?
Sure, every other electric semi only managed more range than the average for 60% of all truck work days. Wait, you think.
Okay, so the Tesla Semi is pretty good, but surely the Nikola FCEV kicked its butt. Huh. Nikola had their battery electric truck running in the study and managed 800 kilometers one day? Only half of Tesla, but still. 800 kilometers in a single day for a truck.
But surely that’s the limit. Batteries are at end of their development you think. Oh, the world’s biggest EV battery manufacturer, CATL, announced a battery with twice the energy density of the ones in the Run on Less trucks in 2023 and is delivering it in 2024? So the Tesla Semi will be able to run something like 3,200 kilometers in a single day and the other trucks could see 1,600 just by putting new batteries in? Or they could be lighter with the same range.
But surely hydrogen trucks are going to get cheaper to operate, you think. Then you slap yourself in the forehead. You already know that a hydrogen electric truck is just a battery electric truck with a lot of complex, failure prone equipment added, including tanks of highly compressed hydrogen that you really don’t want to think about in the event of a collision. You’ve looked at the statistics.
But at least the hydrogen will be relatively cheap to deliver, you think, because there’ll be a huge network of gas pipelines running into every building. Something about that statement makes you shy away in terror, but you’ve learned to stare into the abyss.
Tomorrow, you’ll do that tomorrow. Tonight you need a beer. You go looking for someone to drag out to the nearest watering hole, but after wandering the empty building for an hour you realize, you are the only one still working there.
Well, that’s an embarrassment of riches for heating with electric solutions. They’re all more efficient and cheaper than hydrogen for heating. And no nitrous oxides!
Why did you think burning gases were required for high-temperature heat again, you ask yourself? You have three PhDs and know the deep science of electromagnetics, electric arcs and thermal heat management. Why were homes, buildings and industrial heat somehow sacrosanct areas for burning gases?
Heat pumps and district heating alone kill heating gas pipeline networks. Heat pumps are vastly more efficient than burning things for heat, using one unit of electricity to move three units of heat around. Just like refrigerators. Big heat pumps running off ground or waters sources and district heating and cooling are like peanut better and jelly, Abbot and Costello or other famous pairs, they are just better together.
All the glory of the electromagnetic spectrum is available with electric heating solutions, with absurd amounts of control. Burning gases is so crude and hard to control by comparison.
Infrared, resistance, electric plasma and even heat storage make it clear that if you were building something from scratch to be a decarbonized building or industrial facility, you wouldn’t bother with pipelines running hydrogen into it at all. And then the other penny drops for you.
The one tiny shred of relief comes from finding that some chemical processes, at least ones we use today, do require the chemical and thermal characteristics of open flames to work and that hydrogen could play that role. Then you remember biomethane.
No use for hydrogen for heat in residences, commercial buildings and most industrial facilities means no massive networks for hydrogen pipelines that are as easy to connect to as natural gas distribution networks today. And there’s no massive network of distribution pipelines for hydrogen, end uses for hydrogen just got even more expensive.
Trucks stops will have to receive a lot more tanker loads of liquid or highly compressed hydrogen than the diesel tanker trucks that they receive today. That multiplies the costs and safety risks even more.
Surely no one is seriously considering this, you think? Very little Googling finds that Mercedes Benz Group and hydrogen-supplier Linde have trucked liquid hydrogen to a refueling station that stores it as liquid hydrogen and then they pump liquid hydrogen in liquid hydrogen storage tanks on a Mercedes truck. You read that again, as you were having trouble believing your eyes.
They are putting liquid hydrogen tanks into a semi tractor, then bringing that liquid hydrogen to room temperature with that massive pressure and temperature change and then putting that into a fuel cell. And they are doing that in a truck with a human driver that’s traveling on public roads with texting idiots?
That requires a full top-down commitment to idiocy, you think. And sure enough, a Board executive is out in public promoting and defending it on social media, the executive head for the program is heavily engaged and various members of the team are actively celebrating this. At least that building is still full of people, you think, even though you are now pretty sure it won’t last.
Why is Mercedes Benz building fuel cell trucks when the Tesla Semi and megawatt charging have made it clear that minor operational changes are all that’s required for the massive gains in operational and maintenance costs? Maybe they didn’t specially build a truck for battery electric and are trying to shove different drive trains into the same frame.
You vaguely remember something about Tesla and the Roadster on that point, but you were well into the hydrogen journey then, so tended to dismiss Tesla. Pity, as your retirement portfolio would be a lot more robust. You lost a lot of money in 2000 on Plug Power, Ballard and FuelCell Energy and held onto those stocks, sure they’d bounce back.
Okay, so no hydrogen for heating and none for ground transportation. But surely maritime shipping will use it?
There’s some good news for you in maritime shipping! The world’s now second largest container shipping company and a leader in the space, is buying methanol dual fuel ships and contracting for low-carbon methanol! You like methanol. It’s clean burning, a liquid at room temperature and only about as toxic as diesel. You don’t want to gargle with the stuff, but it doesn’t make you run screaming from the room like ammonia.
Obviously they are buying synthetic methanol made from green hydrogen, never mind the price, right? You have a look, luxuriating in the rare feeling of being sure of something and that hydrogen for energy was a winner. And then you realize that every contract you can find an article about indicates that they are buying biomethanol. In fact, the first ship that sailed out of South Korea for northern Europe was powered by methanol that came out of landfill.
Methanol isn’t a hydrogen shipping story at all! Also, as you poke at it you wonder why they are bothering. It’s clearly going to be a lot more expensive than biodiesel which is being bunkered in ports globally already.
But at least batteries aren’t powering ships. That would be adding insult to injury, you think. Then you see that a pair of 700 unit container ships were launched in China and are running regular 1,000 km routes on the river. 1,000 km! How are they doing that? Oh, of course. Containers full of batteries that they replace with charged ones with ports along the route. Huh.
You do some math. The energy equations are really simple after organic chemistry and metallurgy. Even with Tesla’s batteries, never mind CATL’s, a ship can travel a long way fully loaded. 3.9 MWh in a single Tesla Megapack. That’s a lot in a shipping container. And ships just churn through the water at the same speed. And battery electric to motor drive trains are really efficient.
That’s like half a ton of hydrogen, without all the massive amounts of fuss. But hey, that certainly won’t get a ship across an ocean.
Look, liquid hydrogen. You aren’t as excited as you feel you ought to be. You rapidly find that Equinor and Air Liquide gave up entirely on a liquid hydrogen plant in Norway where there were about the best possible conditions for making green hydrogen, 24/7/365 electricity from fully amortized hydro and transmission, along with lots of water. You know how much all of the kit costs inside and out and how failure prone it is. Well, at least a liquid hydrogen fueled tanker would be fairly safe. Not much to run into out at sea. But the cost. And the boil off. And putting 20° Kelvin cryogenic hydrogen into a ship from a barge. That’s not going to be cheap. Maybe there’s another alternative?
Oh, right, biodiesel. What’s that cost? 1.5 to 2 times maritime diesel? That’s it? When synthetic diesel, methanol or ammonia would be 4-6 times the cost of fossil maritime fuel in the best case scenario? Who thinks anyone is going to pay that you think. That’s just stupid. You love your Toyota Mirai, but you wouldn’t be able to afford it if Toyota didn’t give you $15,000 worth of free hydrogen when you leased it. You have a Tesla Model 3 too, because hydrogen refueling stations are so flakey that you can’t afford to have a Mirai as your only car.
You wouldn’t be able to get to the lab a lot of days to work on solving the hydrogen for energy problem if you had to rely on your Mirai. You wonder why your eyes are crossing and you are making little grunting noise, but dismiss it.
You leave work early and drink alone, thinking you’ll have to get through aviation next.
You walk in late, hungover. You sit down at your desk and start Googling. The information is all there. It’s been there all along. Why didn’t you ever look for it, you ask yourself. What prevented you from comparing obvious alternatives with real data. Why did you just accept that batteries and biofuels couldn’t possibly power airplanes?
Liquid hydrogen you already knew wasn’t certifiable. No way to square that freezing, explosive circle of passenger doom. And you knew that gaseous hydrogen inside airplanes was loony too. Too little energy density in explosively pressurized tanks that would turn into very high speed shrapnel if anything went wrong. You wonder why the civil aviation authorities like the FAA and EASA are bothering to engage with the firms still trying to make any of this work.
Then you think, well those firms have to spend a lot of money on certification and a bunch of that must go to the authorities. Not only that, the excitement it must bring them to be looking at truly dangerous new stuff after spending decades making sure aviation was the safest form of transportation per passenger kilometer on Earth must give them a big thrill. They know it’s not possible, but they are undoubtedly delighting in thinking of all the ways it could go wrong and there are so many of them, as you know.
And then there is synthetic kerosene. Same story. 4-6 times the cost of current aviation fuels in the best possible case scenario. While millions of tons of sustainable aviation biofuels are being put into planes already at a much lower price point.
Oh well, at least there won’t be any batteries, you think ironically to yourself, sure now that you had no idea what you were thinking in the past. And sure enough, you find startup after startup with batteries, even less energy dense ones than Tesla’s. A hybrid electric plane flew for twelve hours and had fuel left over, you see. And you spot the recent papers making it clear that 100 passenger battery electric aircraft with a biofuel generator for divert and reserve can already cover 80% of passenger aviation on most continents.
Not good enough for crossing oceans, but biokerosene is good enough for that. You relax and leave for an early lunch and maybe a round of golf, thinking you’ll take your Tesla. After all, it has a lot more room in the trunk for clubs. You start wondering what the resale value of a slightly used Mirai is. Your headache threatens to come back, so you focus on visualizing your swing.
Tomorrow, you’ll look at grid storage, just for fun. You are pretty sure what you’ll find, but you’ve always been a completist, which is why you’ve been working alone in an empty building for the past couple of years.
You park your Model 3 in the spot closest to the door at 10 and stroll into the building, your shoulders and back loose after your 19 holes of golf the previous day . You sit down at your computer and start Googling.
No surprise. Cell-based batteries, mostly lithium-ion for short duration storage. They are everywhere. In fact, there’s so much going in in the UK that it looks like the entire requirement for that duration of storage will be completed by 2030. Oh and lots of new battery chemistries emerging look like they’ll be even more economically viable for stationary storage.
Redox flow storage looks promising you think. Your metallurgy PhD and hydrogen efforts make you think about the iron redox reaction and sure enough, Form Energy is doing that. You wonder idly if they’ve solved the hydrogen buildup problem, but decide that there are so many people working in the space — all those full buildings! — that even if their solution is dead, others will work.
Huh, you think, the carbonates you spent time on are effectively energy storage of a certain type. You could probably create a redox reaction around that too. Aha, Agora Energy. But ugh, electrochemistry, which you know is beyond you.
Anyway, redox makes it easy to separate power and energy, just like a tank of hydrogen and a fuel cell, but without all the problems of hydrogen. That’s going to probably be a wedge you think.
Pumped hydro is still a thing? China has built 58 GW of capacity, probably a TWh or more of energy storage in just the past few years and is building 365 GW more by 2030? What’s this? The Australian National University did a GIS study a few years ago and found 100 times the resource capacity in twinned small reservoirs with high head heights as the global requirement for energy storage?
Hmmm, you think. Grade 7 science. Mass times acceleration due to gravity times height. For fun you scribble it out by hand. A billion liters of water, a gigaliter, with 500 meters of head height is a GWH of storage. Pretty good.
So that covers peaking, fast response, time shifting solar to the evening, shifting night time wind to the day time and day ahead reserve. Overbuild it a little and it’s pretty easy to cover a week, you think.
There’s no real play for hydrogen for storage in any normal duration.
But what about dunkleflaute? Maybe hydrogen has a play there? So, specialized massive salt caverns sluiced out, make lots and lots of green hydrogen when electricity is cheap and pump it underground. It’s a strategic reserve after all, not a regular use thing. Your sure someone has studied that and sure enough Sir Chris Llewellyn Smith did for the UK with decades of weather data.
Every ten years you need ultra long duration storage. Not every year. And Smith thinks green hydrogen is the molecule for the job. You wonder why. After all, as you’ve discovered, there’s lots of excess biomethane human processes are creating every day. Some of that will be use to decarbonize methanol, you assume, but why not just take a bunch of the rest and shove it into existing natural gas strategic reserves? Ah well, not your problem. Definitely an end game issue.
You lean back in your chair. You think for a minute. You wonder if you’ve missed anything. And then it comes to you. The reason for all that hydrogen storage and shipping was to make the energy we need a long way away and import it, just like we do oil, gas and coal. That seemed so obvious back then.
But you realize that every country has lots of room for renewable generation and you know that electric heating and motors are vastly more efficient than burning stuff. The total energy we’ll need will plummet and we’ll make a lot more of it a lot closer to where we need it. And we won’t need nearly as much of it to extract, process, refine and ship fossil fuels, come to think of it.
How much energy are we going to need to move across long distances? Not nearly as much, you think. And how will we move it? A bit of Googling turns up ultra high capacity direct current transmission that’s already running thousands of kilometers from one side of China to the other, connecting Greece to Israel, northern Africa to Europe, Europe to the UK and soon Georgia to Romania.
You have a lunch date, so you don’t bother to work out the math. And tomorrow will be time enough to reach out to your buddy at Yara and see about decarbonizing ammonia fertilizer. You pack up your laptop, throw the withered cactus in the garbage, turn off the lights and leave.
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