Little hydrogen holds planet to ransom

Had a very interesting discussion yesterday on fuel cells with colleague and closet scientist Sigurd and his colleague Arkady Malakhov – I was being educated on the benefits of solid cell fuel cells.

One of the topics we were discussing was the distribution infrastructure of different fuels feeding fuel cells – e.g. hydrogen, propane, syngas.

The propane (also called LPG) distribution network exists today in many parts of the world so fuel cells that use this as a fuel source can benefit.

The benefit to the end consumer is that; the fuel cells are much more efficient than a normal generator so 1 unit of propane fuel yields more power (kilowatt hours); and a fuel cell has minimal moving parts so ops costs / reliability are increased. The downside is that propane is a hydrocarbon and normally generated from processing of natural gas / petroleum.

Another source of fuel is methanol, which can be generated as a bio fuel from various feed crops. The issue here is that there is no “methanol” distribution infrastructure in place (except in very small bottles) and the bio-fuel industry is nascent and just really getting of the ground (some may say stumbling if you look at the Verbio share price). One key point is we would probably need several “planets” of crops to provide our total bio-fuel needs (I exaggerate to make the point).

However, propane is generally only used to produce “syngas” which the fuel cell actually uses to function.

Syn-gas a non-naturally occurring gas which interestingly can be generated from agricultural waste (pig s**t to you and me) – so a fuel cell with a fuel requirement of syn-gas (pig s**t) would be a useful device and help reduce our reliance on oil/gas reserves for a specific market.

Now to the “ransom note” – the main feeder fuel for fuel cells is hydrogen a very basic gas consisting of just two hydrogen molecules – what can be simpler than that?. Why then is hydrogen holding the planet to ransom?

    If hydrogen distribution infrastructure existed, we might have fuel cells in every house / building (fuel cell technology permitting) and cars running on fuel cells

    Hydrogen has less “power to weight” (kilowatt hours to weight) ratio than propane so for bottled distribution has to be more compressed into liquid form around 5 times as much as propane, hence requiring much more substantial (read impractical) containers

    Fuel cells needing hydrogen require a feed of pure hydrogen. This is where the little molecule really upsets us. Hydrogen loves leeching into anything and everything (inert substances excepted) so distributing pure hydrogen is a chemist’s and material scientist’s nightmare (or research funding source).

So fundamentally hydrogen is teasing us, resulting in today’s market recommendations are:


    go long on curry houses
    go long on farms (I wonder when the first cow and grain based power station will be listed on AIM?)
    go long on moon or mars farming

This is not as silly as it sounds as I know of a group of investors who have invested in farm s**t power generating and carbon trading infrastructure in South America (one used to be on BP’s main board!)

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~ by Nigel on April 11, 2007.

4 Responses to “Little hydrogen holds planet to ransom”

  1. Yes indeed distributing Hydrogen is indeed very tricky and problematic – it is especially upsetting to most metallic alloys so there is little scope to ‘upgrade’ much/any of the existing fuel distribution infrastructure to cope with H2.

    Also re biofuels… in the rush to embrace all that seems green/sustainable, it is extremely important to look at the total energy equation. As a leader in this week’s Economist points out for instance, ethanol from corn is at best an energetic wash (ie more energy goes into growing and processing the corn than comes out the other side…

    Imo one of the biggest near term gains is to be had by localized micro-generation (irrespective of the energy source, obviously cleaner is better) – ie improving energy efficiency by 10-40% by removing transmission losses and capacity bottlenecks.

  2. As pointed out by Sean, hydrogen has a tendency to make metal brittle. Bit of an issue in making jets propelled by hydrogen (though Boeing have made some experimental models) 😉

    One point needs correcting; it is principally low temperature fuelcell types that need pure hydrogen (PEM/DMFC, Alkaline) that need pure hydrogen. Higher temperature types (SOFC, Molten Carbonate, Phosphoric Acid) are much less critical – though sulfur is a problem for most.

    Having already invested in two low-temperature (pure hydrogen) fuelcell plays I’ve found the lacking hydrogen infrastructure a crippling dependency.

    Being such a light molecule, hydrogen finds holes where you don’t think they exist. A study was conducted on behalf of London Hydrogen Partnership (which I attend on occasion 🙂 to evaluate how and if reuse of London’s existing gas-network could be envisaged, which basically concluded it was not feasible in pure form but feasible bound to another (heavier) gas. Conclusion was the network upgrade cost was too large. Mind you, with the level of road-digging at least where I live someone (read: LDA) should be thinking ahead a bit.

    I’ve concluded that large-scale economic hydrogen distribution is a long time away, for both practical and economic reasons. Even with the great strides in high-pressure carbon-honeycomb storage containers and metal-hydride chemical bindings hydrogen is still nowhere near the energy-density per volume and ease-of-use and cost-base that a stainless steel tank/canister of petrol/diesel represents. Traditional stainless-steel hydrogen tanks are at several hundred bars to reduce footprint, but the pressure puts them into secure compound territory.

    I now focus on SOFC fuelcells as a less fuel-critical technology to leverage widely available hydrocarbons (e.g. LPG, anaerobic digester and waste-reformation output syngas) whilst substantially increasing the overall efficiency and thus reducing consumption.

    SOFC’s have been a long time coming due to the materials complexities/ceramics and electrolytic coatings thereof. To my knowledge, even well-known/funded entities such as the Imperial College spin-off CERES have not yet perfected their technology (but now have a large cash-pile ready to buy out whoever seems to get there first ;-).

    On biofuels, I am in agreement with my old LCE colleague Clive Furness who I saw this morning: it is ethically untenable to use foodstuffs for energy whilst we fail to feed the existing global population. Clive is doing a lot of analysis/strategy work on biofuels, and agrees with me that Jatropha (1), (2) has huge potential role as a fuelcrop as it grows in wastelands, has no known disease vectors and is inedible. Substantial investment is being undertaken in this area, especially in Africa which potentially could propel themselves out of energy-poverty on the basis of this crop and the existing petrochemical reserves in Nigeria.

    Thought of the day: What stops Nigeria repatriating their oil/gas resources in the same way that Russia has? Nigerian reserves count for a substantial part of non-Arab world stock, and the West African power-trading network is already there to provide distribution mechanism.

  3. Sigurd and Clive (good to know you are still knocking around) both make a good point regarding the total lifecycle impact of renewable energy; where cost is monetary, by-product production, energy consumption and social (as in the feeding example mentioned above).

    Now admittedly generating change there is no “perfect” solution and something will always lose out in the prioritisation process (whether politically led or sensibly led).

    If I was advising those who really have the power to make global change happen, quick wins to improve efficiency would be highest on agenda (whether this is in energy or food distribution). This is obvious to anyone – although if those quick wins lose votes, not obvious to government.

    For energy consumption – how about focusing on one area, home electricity usage? (watch this blog for reports on how chezverdon is rying to reduce our usage – or more correctly put, increase our efficiency)

    – I agree with Sean re: pushing near-source micro production to reduce distribution loss and bottlenecks. Some of these technologies exist or are at near production

    – Technologes exist (and are available in shops) to make much more efficient and longer lasting light bulbs (e.g. 1 1W rated LED based spot has same light output as a 20w halogen bulb). The problem is the pricing model of light bulb manufacturers – they currently premium price based on “these last longer so should cost more”, which is not an unresonable stance if you made light bulds as you would be facing the challenge of less light bulbs sold equals less P&L

    – Unfortunately we are fighting existing energy firms who generate their P&L from power consumption so in all honesty are dis-inclined to increas efficiency (except perhaps in the industry sector/clients) – and these guys have significant political clout, whereas the man in the street does not.

    We need a strong government to provide more than the token tax breaks currently offered and pass legislation on energy companies, light bulb companies, washing machines to drive change (to be fair there have been some steps in the right direction)

    Government may also need to fund this… personally, I would pay a 2p hike in income tax (even call it an energy change tax) if I could directly see where this 2p was being spent – but this is anohter topic; the indemmic in-efficiency, un-accountability and lack of transparency of government.

    Now didn’t Ross Perot run an election campaign on this?

  4. Moon / Mars farming bring it on!
    It was the concept of harvesting near space assets that prompted me to study Law and Japanese – I knew that I would never be a space jockey but really thought by the year 2000 there would be some serious commercial activity taking place in the heavens, lead by the Japanese and with big ticket IP issues in play.

    Maybe 20 years from now but it is going to happen. Ben Bova did some books that looked at this subject from a SF point of view but it was interesting seeing one persons point of view of the commercial benefits of near space harvesting.

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