H is for Hydrogen - the cleanest fuel there is . As long as it is made out of water. Which it is--right ?
Dream on- hydrogen produced from H2O is a rare and precious commodity , costing a quarter its weight in silver because of the high price of American electrical power-- most of which comes from coal. But don't count on cashing in the contents of your bathtub just yet . Though the hydrogen in a pound of water is worth $22 on paper, pure hydrogen produced by water electrolysis can't compete with the ordinary stuff, made from natural gas -- it sells for $6.00 a kilo liquefied . The two processes costs don't cross until electrical power gets _almost _ too cheap to meter-- under thee tenths of a cent per kilowatt hour.
So when Alan Alda next rhapsodizes as he drives yet another very special hydrogen car on a PBS Green TV special , you may want to ask where its fuel is coming from ? And likewise the carbon fiber or titanium of its scarily pressurized gas tanks. The environmental economics of hydrogen are presently so preposterous as to serve as a sort of Found Advertising for Big Coal.
Neither Greens or Appalachian mountain scalpers can do a thing to reduce the energy cost of liquefying hydrogen, because thermodynamics dooms refrigerating the stuff to minus 400F to fearful inefficiency. When there's almost no heat to pump, heat pumps mostly spin their wheels.
So though energy in hydrogen made from methane costs only twice as much money as that in gasoline, there is another thermodynamic bill to pay. Besides the carbon in the methane burned to CO2 to drive the hydrogen production process at the gas refinery, more fuel - mostly coal in the real world-- must go up in smoke to liquefy the hydrogen , or cram it energetically it into storage. Put them together, and the bottom line is that today, a hydrogen fueled compact can end up putting more CO2 into the atmosphere than an evil SUV.
Materials science will help solve the hydrogen storage problem , jsut as it is stuffing ever more charge into batteries, yet compared to CO2 capture at coal plants, hydrogen is a thermodynamic joke played at Gaia's expense. Media enthusiasm for the subject has cost naive investors a bundle too . Kudos for candor to Reason's Ron Bailey for providing the bottom line at the end of his recent review of Robert Zubrin's expose' , 'The Hydrogen Hoax':
"Disclosure: I own a few shares of stock in two hydrogen fuel cell companies which have declined more than 90 percent in value since I purchased them 6 years ago. In fact, a shareholder suit against one of the companies just netted me something like $30 as compensation... If you run out and buy such stocks based on what you read here, you've clearly not understood the arguments... if you nevertheless feel like mandating or subsidizing hydrogen production, one side effect may be that value of my almost worthless stock will go up."
As to why the relative and highly variable amount of hydrogen in coal will continue to dwarf the Hydrogen Economy as a real-time environmental variable for decades to come, You read it here first-