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Hydrogen as clean energy source not ready for prime time

Sep 21


Hydrogen fuel is used to propel NASA rockets into space, and certain car manufacturers are placing their bets on hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles to advance sustainable mobility. Despite these promising applications, hydrogen fuel has yet to achieve widespread adoption.

Straight Arrow News contributor Peter Zeihan delves into the mechanics of hydrogen fuel, its potential for cleaner energy, and why it is still not the answer to our energy challenges.

Excerpted from Peter’s Sept. 21 “Zeihan on Geopolitics” newsletter:

Is the hydrogen economy really the future? Or Is it all a farce? I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself, but it’s somewhere in between…

All the math and science behind using hydrogen checks out. And yes, it removes the carbon question from the equation, but where do you get the hydrogen from? Ideally, we would use clean energy sources to separate water molecules, but that’s too energy-intensive for solar and wind to get us there this century. We could source it from fossil fuels, but it would be more carbon-intensive than what we do now. So no utopia for us quite yet.

Some bridge technology uses ammonia to create hydrogen, but it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. Ammonia comprises one nitrogen and three hydrogen atoms; unfortunately, nitrogen is critical for much of the world’s fertilizers. And when you have to choose between having food with dirty energy or starving to death w/ clean energy…the answer is pretty straightforward.

So while this is interesting technology and SHOULD be experimented with, that does NOT mean we should start implementing this tech at scale. We’re working with finite resources here, so the tech needs to be thoroughly vetted and proven before we take that next step.

Everyone Peter design here coming to you from the foothills of the Colorado Front Range. This is the latest in our ask Peter series, which was born of my flight delay in California a couple of weeks ago. Anywho. The question today is about hydrogen, the hydrogen economy, is it where we’re going, is it a farce is it will save us all, as it’s somewhere in between, it’s somewhere in between. The whole idea is that when you burn hydrogen, you do not produce any sort of carbon. So if you can move to 100% hydrogen energy system, then you the carbon question largely goes away. And on the back end, the math of that the science of that is totally true. But that’s the back end, there’s the front end, where do you get the hydrogen. Now the goal is 100% clean system where you are using solar and wind and hydropower. Or maybe if you’re an open minded environmentalist, maybe some new killer to break apart water molecules. Now, all of you have drank a lot of water in your life. And it should come as no surprise that water is one of the most stable chemical materials we have on the planet. It’s one oxygen, two hydrogen atoms, they really like each other, they stick together through thick and thin, and it’s really hard to split them apart. So you have to inject a massive amount of energy into the system to do that. And since with wind and solar right now, even by the most aggressive estimates, we’re going to be nowhere near 100%. Green, by 2050, much less replacing things like the transport system for 2050. There is never ever going to be enough electricity generated from these sources this century, in order to then be able to produce hydrogen at scale. So that be the utopia goal is out of reach, at least for the moment, let me go to the other side, the far side, the bottom is fossil fuel, source hydrogen, basically, you vaporize coal. Or you pluck the hydrogen off of a natural gas molecule natural gas is a carbon atom with four hydrogens around it. But then you produce a lot of co2 as a byproduct. So you’re basically producing hydrogen, you’re just burning a fossil fuel before you get to the actual energy source. And once you take into account things like transport, and building out a parallel system to use the hydrogen, it’s actually more carbon intensive than what we’re doing now. So the only people who are doing hydrogen in this way, are folks who are doing it as a testbed to see what they can do with hydrogen. And that requires some volumes, which leads us to the bridge technology, potentially the middle step, and that is to take hydrogen from a ammonia molecule. Now an ammonia molecule is a single atom of nitrogen surrounded by hydrogen molecules, unlike hydrogen, which is a gas that is wildly explosive, and difficult to contain, because the molecules are so strong, so they couldn’t use the pipelines we use currently, to move hydrogen at scale, you’d have to build new ones. And they’d be much more expensive and much more dangerous. Ammonia has none of those problems, it can be compressed without making it explosive. If it does get out of the environment, it’s not going to burn in the same way, if at all. And we already have a parallel system in the world to produce it at scale, because nitrogen is one of the three main nutrients that we use in our fertilizers. Now, there’s some challenges here, because you know, if you’re going to use nitrogen at scale, that means it’s competing with other industrial uses. And one of those uses is what keeps us all alive. So you’re talking about a massive industrial build out. And in many ways, that’s the problem with hydrogen overall, if we’re going to switch to hydrogen, you need to have a massive build out for the consumption side of the equation. Because what we do today, with oil and natural gas and the rest, you can’t just slap a patch on it, you just fundamentally new infrastructure. So you’re talking 10s of trillions of dollars. Second, this, the intermediate step, to massively build out and basically double and triple the size of the nitrogen production that we have globally, is something would be incredibly expensive, take decades and trillions all by its own. And then you’re telling industry, and by the way, you’re just a transition step. And a few decades, we won’t need any of this anyway. So it’s a technology that is interesting. But this is not the same as me saying it’s stupid. One of my big problems with the environmental movement, is we have a series of technologies that we really know already are not appropriate to the problem. Anyone who puts up a wind turbine, and still area, you know, gets made fun of, but people can put up solar panels in places that don’t see the sun for months and people think they’re great. No, that’s just dumb. The problem is we’re spending trillions of dollars on technologies that are not applicable to the geographies that we’re in. And a lot of them are very carbon intensive to install in the first place. So it’s really questionable whether we should be doing it at all, but that’s not the same as saying we shouldn’t try. What we need to do is just be smarter about it, we need to make some choices. So in the case of hydrogen, what we have discovered through the experimentation so far, is that if you take a ammonia, and you burn a little bit in a fossil fuel power plant. Not only do you vastly reduce your emissions, you actually generate a little bit of extra energy pays for itself in both components. We would have never found that out if we hadn’t experimented. My problem is that we’re not experimenting. We’re installing at scale technologies that are at best unproven and at worst ones that we know won’t work. So I’m all for trillion dollars in materials research to find better technologies and materials so that we can do this smarter and at a lower carbon cost and lower financial costs. Until we do that we’re wasting slim resources. Trying to solve a problem that we know won’t get fixed by the path we’re on. Anyway, that’s my two cents. So hydrogen Interesting. Yeah, I want to see some people tinker with that, but it is definitely not ready for primetime. Alright, that’s it.

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