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What Hydrogen Advocates Don’t Want You To Know

Hydrogen-Powered Cars
Posted July 16 2008 01:00 AM by Johnny Hunkins 
Filed under: Tech

The Honda FCX Clarity: Not the answer, right now at least.

If you think the promise of clean hydrogen power is too good to be true, you’re right.

As the editor of Popular Hot Rodding, I will always approach a subject such as hydrogen power from the perspective of performance, and other than the problem of energy density, hydrogen power gets a big thumbs up in many areas. You need to look no further than the horsepower wars of 1969 to see what I mean. Neil Armstrong didn’t get to the moon on a big-block Chevy—he did it on the back of a hydrogen-powered Saturn V booster.

If hydrogen becomes the dominant energy source for automobiles 25 years down the line, that would be fine with me—we’ll be able to build some incredible hot rods with hydrogen fuel, provided we come by all that hydrogen honestly (you’ll see what I mean in a minute). But don’t look for hydrogen to be a panacea for hydrocarbon pollution in the short term. We’ll sidestep the issue of global warming, because I’m not buying it, and it’s not material to my argument. What I can’t sidestep is the very real negative environmental impact that hydrogen power will have if everyone out there continues to “drink the Koolaid” that the environmentalists are serving.

Pictured is the new Honda FCX Clarity. It’s an all-hydrogen powered car that will be sold here soon. Chock-a-block full of technology, the FCX is a twenty-first century tour de force. Honda and other manufacturers are galloping full steam toward hydrogen cars like this, and they will be a reality very soon. Too soon, in fact. You may have even contemplating getting one, but before you do, consider this fact: Hydrogen is not a fuel in the traditional sense, it is just the energy carrier.

Hydrogen, the most common element in the universe—is not very common on the earth in its atomic form. Hydrogen is here, but it’s combined with other atoms like carbon and oxygen. In order to liberate this hydrogen from carbon or oxygen, you need to put a lot of energy in. That’s why it’s good as a fuel. And guess where all that energy must come from for the foreseeable future? You guessed it: fossil fuels.

Almost half the hydrogen currently produced is created by a process called reforming. In this process, natural gas—a fossil fuel—is made to react with steam, producing hydrogen, and carbon dioxide. That carbon dioxide is chemically the same as that currently emitted by the vehicle you are driving right now. The other means of creating hydrogen is a process called electrolysis, which uses electricity—the vast majority generated by fossil fuels—to liberate hydrogen from water. For the foreseeable future, fossil fuels will be the primary source of all this hydrogen, whether it comes from reforming, or electrolysis. Put another way, a hydrogen-powered car is in reality a natural-gas or coal-powered car, with the net difference being that the source of the byproduct emissions have been geographically divorced from the vehicle. If that doesn’t drive it home, consider another unintentional byproduct: Every non-US hydrogen-powered car that replaces a gasoline-powered car potentially means one less car with pollution controls on it. This could really get out of hand in countries like China and India, where current cap and trade protocols allow far higher levels of stationary pollution.

One possibility is that genetic engineering will come to the rescue. It is hoped that bacteria can be designed in a test tube that will use the energy of sunlight to convert biomass into hydrogen—but that’s a long way off. More nuclear plants are also a viable alternative, but that doesn’t have a lot of support from the very lobby—the environmentalists—who want hydrogen cars the most. Large electricity-generating solar arrays and wind farms may also convert water into hydrogen via electrolysis, which would also be a clean solution, but like a bio-engineered bacteria, these “honest” solutions are still decades off. What shall prove to be the most difficult challenge is the emerging demand for automobiles in China, where the predominant form of energy is coal—not natural gas, nuclear, wind, solar, or crude oil. The business of producing electricity from coal is a messy, dirty process in the best of circumstances, but what makes it particularly egregious is that the Chinese don’t give a lick about doing it cleanly.

Irrespective of your view on global warming, the hydrogen-powered car is clearly not the answer. We’d be better off driving natural-gas or ethanol-powered cars, which are already being manufactured right now in Detroit for way less than the cost of a hydrogen-powered car. Hydrogen may be the way of the future, but the necessary technology of generating plentiful, “honest” hydrogen is still a long way off.

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