Sunday, November 12, 2006

Connecting the Hydrogen Dots

Three articles in the November issue of Popular Mechanics caught my eye recently, and I've been connecting the dots for Reductio and whoever else would listen for a couple of weeks now.

The issue's cover story "The Truth About Hydrogen" was generally pessimistic in tone regarding the prospects of switching the United States to a primarily hydrogen-powered economy, citing as one hurdle the difficulty in assembling a carbon-neutral or carbon-negative hydrogen production process (after all, we're trying to make sure the planet doesn't become an EZ-Bake oven around us).

However, I was struck by the article's concluding chart, which summarizes the financial costs and CO2 fallout of various hydrogen production methods with the stated goal of replacing all fossil fuels used in American passenger cars by 2040. My attention was captured by the fifth column, "Biomass":

  • Cost: $600 billion

  • Carbon: Neutral, due to CO2 consumption by fuel crops

  • Fuel: Peanut shells at first, then dedicated crops

Keep in mind that peanut-shell fuel. We'll come back to it.
Now, $600 billion may seem like a lot of money. It is, in fact, about 1/4 of the annual $2.5 trillion Federal budget. But the cost of the pointless Iraq war as of this moment is $341 billion.

Is it unrealistic to imagine an annual Federal budget item of $60 billion over a decade to replace all gasoline used in passenger cars in the United States? Is it impossible to imagine a gasoline tax to pay for that transformation?

Naturally, there's a whole universe of costs not accounted for here, like the cost of replacing or refitting every passenger car in the United States with a hydrogen-fueled vehicle, but that's a transformation that could happen over an even longer period.

Remember how I said remember the peanut shells? As you might not know, peanuts are a major source of protein for about 500 million people worldwide. China leads the world in peanut production, followed by India, followed by the United States.

In the same issue of Popular Mechanics, Jock Brandis was awarded a 2006 Breakthrough Award (scroll down) for inventing a $75 machine for hand-cranked peanut shelling, and he's distributing the devices in Mali, Ghana, Zambia and the Philippines.

Imagine third-world countries fueling hydrogen power plants with peanut shells. Imagine them exporting their excess peanut shells to other countries with the same type of power plants.

The third article is another 2006 Breakthrough Award for GE, entitled "Cheap Hydrogen". GE has come up with a novel use for a plastic they invented, dropping the projected cost of splitting hydrogen out of water from $6 to $8 per gallon-of-gas-equivalent-energy to a mere $3 for the same unit. We've already seen that price at the pump this year, and will again, now that the election has concluded.

Connect the dots. We've got most of the pieces for a hydrogen economy sitting right here on the workbench. All we need is the political will to begin.

Next: Ethanol


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