August 28, 2006

Black Hydrogen

                                                       The Green’s Black Secret

343818 If  you find ideological certitude frightening, stay away from An Inconvenient Truth--  it's a very scary movie.Its star evidently believes he is doing the Lord's work as he ignores America's present and future dependence on its greatest indigenous fuel source.

Despite  Gore preaching the renewable Gospel , and  biofuel frenzy as widespread as the newstand distribution of Vanit Fair, coal remains the mainstay of America’s power supply. Apart from it lighting half the nation's darkness, we  export the stuff, and possess reserves reckoned in centuries.

Once everyone knew this, but while coal still outcrops in parents memory, few post-modern children would recognize a lump of the stuff if it fell out of a Christmas stocking. Solid fuel is no longer on the domestic mind of Europe either,  because many homes are being heated by Russian natural gas-- while it lasts. But when Europeans get up and go to work, the high cost of carbon permits makes then realize that  what they see rising rising from their industrial chimneys is more than CO2 -It might be a tax rebate going up in smoke.

When natural gas is the fuel, the plumes they see on frosty mornings contain mostly water vapor. But even the exhaust of those burning coal can be less than half CO2. The hydrogen that makes  natural gas the Green's environmental gold standard is present in coal as well. But how much?  Enough to matter. By ignoring what coal is actually made of, and how much it varies , costs America  billions of  tons of  superfluous CO2 emission a year.  This will worsen as oil and gas prices rise ,for  the low cost of coal energy  just 12% of the cost of  natural gas - assures its use will grow even in Green Europe where a  a permit to burn a truckload of coal costs as much as an ounce of gold.

Economic and environmental commonsense would suggest saving CO2 emissions by burning less carbon would earn a hefty rebate.  Not so- the polemic equation of coal and carbon by America’s Greens ignores coal's chemical reality -it is never pure carbon. It’s not even a mineral with a fixed chemical formula.
Coal is just a shorthand term for a spectrum of rocks rich in organic compounds, some relatively rich in hydrogen. Since America burns far more coal than natural gas, understanding what coal is made of is critical to understanding its impact on climate. The high carbon ‘hard coal’, called anthracite (anthrax is Greek for coal) is as rare as hydrogen rich  bituminous coal is common. Biblical “bitumen is nowadays called asphalt, and the asphalt of Trinidad, the viscous oil of Venezuela, and North American coals rich in bitumen all form a chemical continuum.

All coals contain hydrocarbons, and some coals contain far more hydrogen than others. America has these in abundance, and their hydrogen content already contributes considerably to generating the bulk of this nation’s electrical power.  Yet in our chemically illiterate society few recall the elementary fact that carbon atoms are twelve times heavier than those of hydrogen.

Atoms matter- CO2 emissions cannot be gauged by fuel weight alone because fuels burn one atom at a time, and a ton of hydrogen contains twelve times as many atoms as one of carbon, so common coals containing over 4% hydrogen by weight are roughly half as rich in hydrogen as liquid benzene or acetylene welding gas. Switching a power plant from low to high hydrogen coal could reduce CO2 emissions by as much as 15 %  because burning anthracite to raise steam releases up to 230 pounds of carbon dioxide per million Btu , versus 200 from the best bituminous coal. Such a shift would reduce CO2 emissions as much as a 3 MPG  improvement in  automotive gas milage , without the enormous attendant cost of replacing  the nation's vehicle fleet.

This  scientific paradox is one  neither coal lobbyists or “Green “natural gas spokesmen chose to publicize,  but If as many environmentalists gave serious thought to coal as casually demonize it today , they might end up demanding that  Big Coal shift to mining  coal reserves high in hydrogen  tomorrow. So far they haven’t even informed themselves as to the possibilities- despite billions so far spent on ‘alternative’ energy, no one has assembled a data base ranking solid fuel deposits- there are thousands, by how much hydrogen contributes to the energy they yield. With one of Al's virtual "wedges " of potential CO2 savings at isue , why are ardent Greens anxious to keep the media, and the public ,in the  dark about black hydrogen?

In  Uncommon Cariers John McPhee shrewdly points out that bulk transport cost , not coal quality, has historically determined what gets mined. Since doing nothing costs nothing , Big Coal 's inertia  understandable, but the silence of the Greens onthe question of coal quality is perplexing.  It may pain both to acknowledge that good coal is abundant enough to drive the bad out of circulation , but in the political here and now,their denial risks denying many in the developing world the only fossil fuel they can afford. Greens who care more about economic reality than scoring debating points may find the carrot of hydrogen rebates as useful a policy lever as the big stick of carbon taxes.

The author has written on science technology and energy policy in Nature, Physics Today and Forbes. Copyright 2006 Russell Seitz


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