Guest future-izing by David Middleton
The concept of hydrogen fuel cells (FC) has been very promising for many decades. From an infrastructure standpoint, transitioning from internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles to FC seems far more rational than transitioning to battery/plug-in electric vehicles (EV). There’s just one minor problem…
Hydrogen has the distinction of competing with nuclear fusion as the energy technology that is “always in the future.” Consider the following:
– In 1960, a reputable engineering magazine predicted widespread military use of hydrogen fuel cells (FCs) in about 3 years and industrial use in 5 years .
– In the mid-1970s, the US Energy Research and Development Administration published reports predicting the imminent arrival of the hydrogen economy .
– In 1998, Iceland, in cooperation with German and Canadian firms, announced a 10-year plan to create a hydrogen economy and convert all transportation vehicles, including Iceland’s fishing fleet, to FC power .
– A decade ago, the world was “on the cusp of a fuel-cell revolution”: Hydrogen FC-powered vehicles were poised to dominate the market and cheap, clean hydrogen power would be available for numerous other applications .
Of course, none of this happened. Why not? What are the current prospects for the hydrogen economy? What are the viable hydrogen technologies?
While the hydrogen economy has not arrived, hydrogen is nevertheless a big business and is growing rapidly.
In 1960, the arrival of the hydrogen economy was just 3-5 years away. In the mid-1970’s, the hydrogen economy was just as imminent as the next ice age. In 1998, the hydrogen economy was just a decade away. A decade later, it was once again imminent… Yet, it’s still not here.
While many hydrogen FC fans might think the Evil Fossil Fuel Industries are blocking the roll out of the hydrogen economy, we actually have a fairly strong interest in a hydrogen economy.
Hydrogen is currently required in the refining industry as a petrochemical for hydrocracking and desulfurization. During petroleum refining, hydrogen is used for desulfurization, and thus the requirement for hydrogen in refineries depends on the sulfur level present in petroleum products. Governments are regulating sulfur content in final petroleum products, and the demand for hydrogen in refineries is increasing rapidly.
Hydrogen is used in large quantities for chemical product synthesis, especially to form ammonia and methanol, and is used as an agricultural fertilizer…Bezdek, 2019
Methanol is also used to inhibit hydrate formation in natural gas pipelines… And natural gas is the primary source for hydrogen.
At present, nearly all industrial hydrogen is produced or “reformed” from methane in fossil energy, primarily from natural gas, although oil and coal are also used. The relatively low price and increasing availability of natural gas imply that it will be increasingly used to meet the growing world demand for hydrogen. It thus appears that hydrogen production will be an increasingly important driver of natural gas demand.Bezdek, 2019
Could it be the fact that hydrogen production is about 95% dependent on fossil fuel production is the reason that FC vehicles aren’t widely available?
However, there is an additional overriding problem with hydrogen production. As noted, much of the future increase in demand for hydrogen is based on the growing demand for clean transportation fuels, strict government regulations, and the focus on reducing CO2 in the atmosphere. It is true that at point of use, hydrogen is a clean burning fuel whose only by-product is water. But since more than 95% of hydrogen is produced using fossil fuels, hydrogen is not really “clean and green,” and electrolysis – the major hydrogen source other than reformation – is exceedingly inefficient, expensive, and energy-intensive. Experimental methods involving wind, solar, biomass, etc. are still far from being economic or commercially cost-competitive.
For example, California – the world’s sixth largest economy – has implemented increasingly stringent CO2 reduction goals and renewable energy mandates, and these include rapidly increasing requirements for zero emissions hydrogen vehicles. However, hydrogen produced from fossil fuels – specifically natural gas – does not count toward achieving these goals, and is not eligible for California’s lucrative low carbon fuel credits .
This is the 800 lb gorilla in the room that hydrogen advocates and hydrogen industry promoters conveniently ignore: The hydrogen economy is hitting a brick wall that will severely limit its growth potential.Bezdek, 2019
It’s a good thing that the climate crisis is fake, because the people whining about it the most are also the ones standing in the way of the only solutions that would actually work.
The 5% of hydrogen not produced from fossil fuels, comes from the electrolysis of water. Converting food and water to motor fuels just doesn’t sound brilliant to me. Dr. Bezdek notes that scrap aluminum can be used to generate hydrogen. This aluminum-based process could actually enable aircraft to generate their own fuel while in flight. The US Army inadvertently discovered an aluminum alloy that generates hydrogen when mixed with water. Of course, this would require a lot of water.
Dr. Bezdek finally hit upon the real reason that political hacks will eventually jump on the hydrogen bandwagon: Green Jobs.
– Salaries differ substantially, from $20,000–$25,000 for various technicians to nearly $140,000 for a director of hydrogen development.
– Educational requirements cover the range from apprenticeship/trade school and HSD/GED/OJT to advanced university degrees.
– Nevertheless, there are numerous jobs and education and training requirements, and many of the jobs do not require university degrees.
– Similar jobs in different parts of the industries have diverse earnings and education/training requirements. For example, a hydrogen lab technician requires an Associate Degree and earns a salary of nearly $41,000, whereas a junior hydrogen energy technician may require only a HSD/GED and earn a salary of less than $25,000.
– Similarly, a hydrogen plant operations manager with a Bachelor’s Degree may earn more than $95,000, whereas a senior automotive FC power electronics engineer with a Bachelor’s Degree may earn less than $70,000.
– There exist numerous career paths that allow employees with apprenticeship/TS and HSD/GED to earn relatively high salaries, such as hydrogen vehicle technician, FC power systems operator and instructor, FC backup power system technician, and hydrogen energy system operations engineer.
– Here we identified 42 emerging occupations. This list must be expanded and updated as the H2 and FC industries mature.
– Training for new skills will be needed across a wide spectrum of industries. Some changes in skills are relatively well defined, but many likely changes remain difficult to forecast since many of the technologies are still evolving. Many job tasks currently remain unknown, and thus identification of training needs requires interactive research combined with job definition.
– Science and engineering education needs to change to prepare students for hydrogen and FC careers, and university and vocational programs need to be assessed to understand where opportunities lie and what additional curricula may be needed.
– Community colleges, technical schools, colleges, and universities need to be evaluated to determine how well they are preparing the workforce for the emerging hydrogen/FC economy and labor market.Bezdek, 2019
This pretty well guarantees that government will force the H2 and FC industries to mature in the least efficient and most expensive manner possible, for the sake of creating 42 emerging green occupations… Was 42 a coincidence?
How could I possibly end a post about hydrogen without this:
And of course, Les Nessman’s version…
Roger H. Bezdek, “The hydrogen economy and jobs of the future”, Renew. Energy Environ. Sustain. 4, 1 (2019)