The "Frontlines" article in the Feb. 1, 2002 issue of by Richard Stavros gives me a welcome opportunity to contribute to the ongoing debate about how to supply hydrogen to fuel-cell-powered vehicles. In his article "Forgetting Someone, Mr. Secretary? The DOE's new hydrogen car initiative won't get very far without electric utilities," Mr. Stavros is critical of DOE Secretary Spencer Abraham's recent announcement of the "Freedom Cooperative Automotive Research" (or "Freedom CAR" for short) program as the follow-on to the "Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles." The reason is that in this new public-private partnership to promote hydrogen as a fuel for cars and trucks, he did not include the electric utilities. Mr. Stavros seems to fall into the same trap as so many of the major car manufacturers in assuming the need for a prohibitively costly infrastructure to supply this hydrogen when one already exists that offers by far the cheapest and environmentally vastly superior option-the natural gas transmission and distribution system.
His preferred option, until we have developed decentralized renewable power sources such as photovoltaics, is to use the electric transmission and distribution grid to supply electrolytic hydrogen. However, he recognizes that, since more than half of our power is generated from coal, this would greatly increase the emission of "greenhouse" gases-primarily carbon dioxide (CO2)-even compared to conventional internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles. However, packaged natural gas steam reformers can produce hydrogen for refueling vehicles with on-board pressure storage at much lower cost and with the lowest CO2 emissions from "well-to-wheels" of any option for powering surface transport. They would make ideal hydrogen filling stations.
Seth Dunn, in his August 2001 Worldwatch Paper 157, "Hydrogen Futures-Toward a Sustainable Energy System", cites data which show that, thanks to the synergies of the high-efficiency of natural gas steam reforming, the low carbon/hydrogen ratio of natural gas and the threefold efficiency improvement in going from ICE drive to proton exchange membrane fuel cell-powered electromotive drive, CO2 emissions per kilometer traveled ranges from less than one-third to one-half those of the other options-gasoline ICE, on-board gasoline or methanol fuel processing, and even decentralized electrolysis using natural gas for power generation. Citing a recent study by the Princeton University Center for Energy and Environmental Studies, Dunn also shows that total life-cycle costs, including environmental damage and consumer costs, of fuel cell vehicles powered with reformed natural gas would compete for the lowest value with gasoline hybrids. This assumes, of course, that the 40-fold cost reduction of the fuel cell drive train can be achieved.
I agree with the Princeton team that centrally refueled fleet vehicles offer an early market that would permit reductions in both fuel cell drive train and on-board hydrogen storage costs. Again, the Princeton team and I agree that the on-board gasoline or methanol (another non-logistic fuel!) processing approach favored by the major automakers is misdirected and based on the false premise of the need for a prohibitively expensive hydrogen infrastructure.
There are a lot of candidates for the title "father of the hydrogen economy" as pointed out so convincingly by Peter Hoffman in his recent book "Tomorrow's Energy - Hydrogen, Fuel Cells and the Prospects for a Cleaner Planet" (The MIT Press, 2001). However, I certainly advanced the concept while I ran the Institute of Gas Technology (now Gas Technology Institute) during the 1960's and 1970's-although for the wrong reasons. At that time, I was still concerned that we were "running out" of natural gas and that hydrogen produced from a variety of sources and with a variety of technologies would be preferable to electrification. How times have changed! Peter Hoffman also did all hydrogen enthusiasts a great service in pointing out that hydrogen is an energy (like electricity), not a primary energy source. Moreover, hydrogen is more versatile than electricity since it is fungible-i.e., can be stored at reasonable cost. This makes hydrogen also the ideal energy storage medium for the inherently intermittent high-tech renewable sources of electricity-photovoltaic, solar thermal and wind. For example, electrolytic hydrogen produced and stored during periods of high insolation can be reconverted to electricity in fuel cells when needed. The new reversible PEM electrolyzers/fuel cells will be especially well suited for this purpose.
There are many aberrations in today's hydrogen movement, such as efforts to use hydrogen as an ICE fuel or add it to natural gas. However, the fine work of the Princeton University team in developing the option for producing hydrogen in large coal gasification plants, separating the CO2 produced, and sequestering it in geologic formations or the deep oceans, is commendable. In view of the huge global coal resources, this approach could give us a couple of hundred years of lead time before we must abandon dependence on fossil fuels. I would, however, place my bet on a truly sustainable energy system well before the end of the 21st century in which the source of electrolytic hydrogen will be decentralized, high-tech renewable power sources, especially photovoltaics. In such a system, most stationary energy uses would be electrified and hydrogen would become the dominant transportation fuel and energy storage medium. I also believe that such a sustainable energy system would benefit from using virtually inexhaustible nuclear breeder power for baseload supply employing emissions-free, and inherently safe and proliferation-proof technologies such as the Integral Fast Reactor.
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