This review has been a long time coming, I read this about 3 weeks ago and was pretty floored by the depth of information. Joseph J. Romm writes this piece with the depth of a textbook, but in a way that it reads like an extended essay. Nice.
The idea of a hydrogen economy has always fascinated me. With limited knowledge on the subject, I wanted to read as much as possible before trying my own hydrogen project (a hydrogen combustible engine). From what I’ve read/seen, you can run current engines on pure hydrogen, and you can make hydrogen by running a current through water (called electrolysis). These are both still completely true! However Romm’s book put it all in perspective for me, and actually discouraged me from pursuing a hydrogen engine.
Our author Joseph Romm, spent years working on Hydrogen research at the U.S. Department of energy. He’s no journalist trying to profit off of the hype of alternative energy, but instead has dedicated his career to pursuing hydrogen as a possible energy to run the world. Suffice it to say he’s qualified to write this book.
Most people have about the level of understanding of hydrogen as I did, and Romm does a great job putting the various components of hydrogen study into perspective. There are a few main points to consider when we actually sit down and try and implement a hydrogen economy.
Production – how do we make hydrogen?
Storage and transport – how do we get it from where it’s made into cars/trucks ? Then how do we store it and use it?
Fuel cell technology – how do we use it to make electricity to power buildings and engines?
Infrastructure – what will need to be built so that we can stop burning fuels to generate power? Factories, fuel refill stations along the highways etc.
When I read Mr. Romm’s background, I kind of anticipated this book to be an ‘academic’ take with a lot of theorizing and even more positive spinning of hydrogen’s strengths. I foudn quite the opposite, he takes a sobering look at each of the above mentioned points and talks out benefits and challenges in great detail. Real world examples (of commercial applications of hydrogen) are used, and plenty of his own research cited. Let’s sum up the points that really stuck with me, and led to my ultimate focus shift towards solar energy.
Production – Great so you can make hydrogen from water! The unpublicized catch of this, is where do you think the electricity came from? Right now, it almost always comes from a carbon spewing electric source. And even worse it can take MORE energy to produce the hydrogen, than it would’ve taken to just use the electricity in the first place. This one really struck me, bottom line is right now we haven’t found “The way” to produce hydrogen cheapely. One of the most popular ways right now is to use natural gas in a fuel cell. Obviously the thought of using natural gas (still a fossil fuel people!) was a bit depressing for me. Ok now what are fuel cells?
I found the fuel cell chapter to be one of the most interesting sections in the book. It was like a fuel cell technology for beginners, complete with diagrams and lengthy but approachable explanations. I won’t go into a ton of detail here but I learned a lot about fuel cells, and our author spends subsequent chapters not only explaining their functions but also the challenges along the path to commercialization. The bottom line on that is that we’re years away from industry actually wanting to use commercial cells. There are some in existence, but currently price and adoption costs are too high to attract any kind of serious market penetration.
Storage and transport – This is another blow against hydrogen currently. To get any kind of serious volume of hydrogen stored (to power a car for example) you’d need to compress it (takes energy) and even then the size of car gas tanks would need to triple to even come close to the same kind of capacity. Not good. Also storage density presents a problem for transporting hydrogen to refueling stations. You could lower the hydrogens temperature to liquify it and condense, but that takes even MORE energy. And guess where that energy comes from? Fossil fuels! Plus that means now we are increasing the amount of tanker trucks on the road, all of which will still need to run on fossil fuels. Hmmm…..
Infrastructure – There are two main options here, use the current model; which consists of making hydrogen in large factories and then transporting it (via truck or pipeline) to it’s destinations. We already saw some pretty big problems with storage so trucking doesn’t seem ideal. Pipelines could work, but would require huge amounts of investment by companies to build all under the hope that hydrogen is even utilized in the future. There’s no commercial incentive for the pipelines to be built, which is why none have been built yet.
These above points were enough to encourage me to focus on solar energy and battery technology because frankly it solves almost all of those problems. Solar energy can be generated on premise, no transportation needed. And batteries are getting cheaper and more efficient everyday. Tesla already has recharge stations along california highways that are free to car owners and powered self sufficiently by solar power. No infrastructure costs other than installing the panels. Awesome. I bought a bunch of solar cells this week and plan on trying my hand at building a panel. All goes well I’ll buy wholesale and try and outfit my building’s roof with them.
In conclusion, buy and read this book. Regardless of your interest in advancing these technologies, you’re still a human being on this earth and with outlandish levels of co2 being dumped into the world the solution will be important to you in the near future. Enjoy!