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The Death of Hydrogen? Fuel Cells, Marketing and the Future. August 20, 2006

Posted by Michael Hoexter in Green Marketing, Green Transport, Renewable Energy, Sustainable Thinking.
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h2Hydrogen has been one of those bright shiny ideas that has caught the fancy of technologists and politicians alike. Here was a clean fuel that you could get behind: the only emission it produces was good old H20 and major automotive companies and very smart academics were working on making it happen. Lately there have been signs that even the fabled “Hydrogen Highway”, backed by the California state government and California’s Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was finally being built as Honda, a leader in hybrid technology, has one FCX hydrogen fuel cell vehicle ($1million cost) on lease to a family and a hydrogen fueling station in Torrance, CA. BMW is designing internal combustion engines that can use compressed hydrogen or petroleum. It would seem that a long-heralded green technology is now finally gaining momentum.

But wait a minute. Ulf Bossel, an influential engineer, leader in the development of fuel cells and a founder of the European Fuel Cell Forum in 1994 has been declaring in the summer of 2006 that hydrogen is “dead”. On Ben Kenney’s cool podcast “The Watt”, Dr. Bossel explained his announcement at the latest Fuel Cell Forum in Lucerne early in June that hydrogen has no place in the sustainable energy future. Expecting little controversy from the scientific community, Dr. Bossel explained that hydrogen generated from electricity (called electrolysis where hydrogen is separated from oxygen) and turned again into electricity by the hydrogen fuel cell with an efficiency of 50% would yield a net efficiency of 25% from original electricity generation to usable energy. On the other hand, if that electricity were used to run an electric motor or stored in a battery, the net efficiency would be 90%!!

So it is not so much on grounds that hydrogen pollutes (though if it is reformed from natural gas or petroleum as is currently the practice there are net emissions of CO2), but on grounds that isolating and liquifying hydrogen gas is an inefficient use of energy, that Bossel is campaigning against its use as the energy carrier of choice for the sustainable economy. To replace the vision of the “hydrogen economy”, Bossel is suggesting that we build the “electron economy” where efficiencies of 75-95% are possible in energy storage and conversion into useful work.

How is it that we are discovering this NOW as most of the numbers that Dr. Bossel is using are pretty easy to arrive at, if you understand the physics of hydrogen gas and electrolysis? There are numerous theories about the strategic benefits to automotive companies of engaging in research that would delay higher fuel efficiency standards in an American market that allows higher profit margins in bigger and more fuel inefficient vehicles. However, well-intentioned people on a number of sides, including the futurologist Jeremy Rifkin, have trumpeted the benefits of hydrogen. In some sense, most of us were willing to believe, addicts that we are, that there could be a green liquid fuel that we could simply switch to once petroleum runs out or becomes environmentally unsustainable.

Electric vehicle advocates also point out that an unwillingness on the part of major automakers to create electric vehicles also plays a role in sustaining hydrogen’s run as the Next Green Thing. Chris Paine’s fun and informative movie “Who Killed the Electric Car”, highlights how hydrogen replaced electric vehicles in California’s influential clean air agencies as the next technology in part under pressure from the automakers. In another post, I will discuss that movie’s portrayal of how a failure of green marketing can set back promising technologies. Cheap gas in the late 90’s and early 2000’s and the semi-acquaintance that people have with electricity and electric motors made it fairly easy to divert attention to the new, sexy technology.

What is special about Dr. Bossel’s campaign is that he is a leading fuel cell researcher and is putting longer view sustainability over his own technical expertise. He is not saying that all fuel cells should not be part of the sustainable economy. As you may know, fuel cells use a variety of chemistries and technologies to generate electricity by “digesting” an energy-carrying fuel with varying levels of emissions depending on the technology and fuel. While not necessarily mobile or portable, fuel cells can reach efficiencies of 50% which compares favorably to heat engines like the internal combustion engine which max out at around 25% efficiency. In fact, if you used a fuel cell designed to extract energy from petroleum, it would be able to do more mechanical work through an electric motor than any internal combustion engine with the same amount of fuel. But Dr. Bossel points out it is still better where possible to use electrons and electrochemistry (i.e. wires and batteries) as the energy carrier where efficiencies range from 75% to 95% (meaning energy losses of only 25% or less).

Let’s say that Dr. Bossel succeeds in getting the attention of the public and research and investment in hydrogen is scaled back to that of say research for one of the many types of fuel cell. What does this mean for the marketing of electric vehicles, batteries or any new technology or new generation of an existing technology?

Well, of course, it is a publicity and marketing windfall but, unfortunately, not as much as the actual science and facts warrant. The logical conclusions from Dr. Bossel’s analysis are that money should be pouring into our electric infrastructure, electric storage devices, and electric energy conversion devices (motors, vehicles). Secondarily investment should go into biofuels for portable and aerospace fuels and fuel cells. But the trip to Hydrogen Land and back will have its costs for the credibility of advocates of clean technology in general. The public will adjust it’s BS meter just a little bit higher, though one can hope that there is some short-term memory loss. Oil prices and shortages might also drive people towards the more efficient solutions but there is still the need for a suspension of disbelief when investments in R&D require a number of years to bear fruit.

The problem is the love-affair with marketing a technology before its effects are well-understood. I advocate that green product manufacturers and marketers develop eco-certifications for prototypes and a system of handicapping technologies that minimizes the number of unpleasant “surprises” for the buying and investing public. We want to promote the good, greener aspects of what a product can do for us, but it will help that we have the support of an organized body that will minimize the likelihood that we will be hyping a technology rather than singing its deserved praises. Of course, some technologies will always come out of left-field but certification will not prevent that from happening.
It is impossible to see into the future, but in the case of hydrogen, it appears that the writing was on the wall a number of years ago.

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