Against the backdrop of the comfortable references commonly made to how plentiful hydrogen is, I think the real challenges to producing hydrogen fuel in an efficient, industrialized manner is seriously under-estimated and under-reported.
Most of the people I talk to in the Superconductor and Energy communities assert that generating sufficient hydrogen fuel manufacturing capacity can only happen in one way. Renewable energy, for all its advances, still faces massive challenges to offering the enormous additional capacity that is project for the next 30 years. More feasible solutions such as “sustainable” energy all center on fusion (distant future) and 4th Generation fission (near-mid future) nuclear energy concepts.
A paper by France’s nuclear research center, CEA, discussing promising technologies for 4th-generation nuclear system, states: “A clean fuel hydrogen clearly has a bright future. There is one condition: the development of production processes that are less polluting than the ones used today, which consume lower amounts of hydrocarbons and generate less greenhouse gases.”
The paper continues: “Among the twenty major categories of concept being considered, six have already been chosen as deserving of public research support for their development. Among them, the two most advanced steps in the range of gas reactors being studied by the CEA are the extremely high temperature reactor for producing hydrogen and the fast neutron/complete recycling system for sustainable energy development.”
Looking to nuclear to fuel the future makes sense: it is very hard to imagine where the trillions of extra kilowatt hours are going to come from at all, let alone from very poorly understood technologies from equally poorly understood markets. However, the uncertainty is not grounds for caving in to the pro-nuclear juggernaut.
To give just one example of the hundreds of alternatives that should be evaluated, funded, and pursued, the other day I came across an interesting study: Renewable hydrogen from nonvolatile fuels by reactive flash volatilization.
Converting renewable fuels such as vegetable oils or biodiesel into hydrogen or “synthesis gas” (hydrogen mixed with carbon monoxide) without the buildup of unwanted carbon. The hydrogen could be used for fuel cells and on- board combustion in low-emission vehicles, and the synthesis gas can be used to produce larger molecules, including synthetic liquid fuels and chemicals. The low volatility of these biofuel feedstocks not only leads to soot production when they are used directly in internal combustion engines but also causes them to coat industrial catalysts with a deactivating layer of carbon, thus hindering their conversion to lighter products. James Richard Salge and colleagues show that if heavy fuels such as soy oil or biodiesel are sprayed onto hot rhodium-cerium catalysts as fine droplets in the presence of oxygen, the fuels can self-heat and fully react to form hydrogen without carbon formation and catalyst deactivation.