Hydrogen: The Fuel of the Future. Will It Always Be Thus?

by Richard T. Stuebi

For years, the utopian vision for powering humankind’s energy requirements has been based on hydrogen, produced by decomposing ever-abundant water (H2O), via renewable sources of power (e.g., sunlight). When hydrogen is used in fuel cells to produce electricity on-demand, the only by-products of the chemical reaction are water vapor and pure oxygen. In other words, an energy cycle that is infinitely sustainable (at least as long as we have a sun).

Of course, there are a number of well-documented challenges to achieving the so-called hydrogen economy. Producing, transporting and storing the hydrogen are all expensive relative to the current conventional energy approaches — and require a major change-out of infrastructure, which would entail a massive societal investment. Fuel cells also remain expensive, due to high materials costs and short lifetimes, until further engineering obstacles are overcome.

With this as backdrop, it’s interesting to read “Sun + Water = Fuel”, an article in the current Technology Review. The article profiles the work of Daniel Nocera, a professor of chemistry at MIT, who claims to have discovered a catalyst that facilitates a reaction in which oxygen is generated from water by sunlight — making, in effect, an artificial leaf. Of course, if one produces oxygen from water, one is also producing free hydrogen.

Therefore, Prof. Nocera is suggesting that he is on the verge of discovering how to produce hydrogen from water via sunlight. If true, this would be a major breakthrough towards the hydrogen economy, dramatically simplifying the hydrogen production, storage and transportation issues, because water and sunlight are respectively inexpensive and free — not to mention almost ubiquitous.

That being said, we must be cautious to avoid getting prematurely overexcited. To illustrate, let’s not forget the promising claims made in 1989 by Pons and Fleischmann of cold-fusion: twenty years hence, and other than lots of controversy, not much to show for it. And, even if Prof. Nocera is really onto something, there’s still the little issue of repairing hydrogen’s public reputation in the wake of the Hindenburg disaster: seventy years later, and many urban legends about hydrogen’s dangers still linger, as in this recent satire.

This reveals a constant occupational hazard for those of us who work in the cleantech field: things just don’t change as fast as we often would like for them to change. In the case of hydrogen, many things must change, and some of the changes — technical, institutional and cultural — must be profound, for hydrogen to become a major actor in the world’s energy economy. I hope that day comes far sooner than I frankly expect it will.

Richard T. Stuebi is the BP Fellow for Energy and Environmental Advancement at The Cleveland Foundation, and is also the Founder and President of NextWave Energy, Inc.

3 replies
  1. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Our best new source of energy for the future is solar thermal with heat storage. It can provide base load, follow on, or peaker power. It is the only viable renewable that can do that. It can therefore replace the energy now provided by coal plants, and at competitive rates. The whole country could be powered by solar thermal using 1% of the desert land in the southwest. A must read article on solar thermal is at :http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2008/04/14/solar_electric_thermal/index.htmlMore on solar thermal here :http://solarsouthwest.org/and a solar plan here :http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=a-solar-grand-plan that emphasizes concentrating PV plants more than solar thermal, which is not as good a choice. Worth looking at anyway as it shows what can be done and how to pay for it. Solar and wind are fast to get up and running when compared with coal or nuclear plants.

  2. Jed Rothwell
    Jed Rothwell says:

    You wrote that there is "not much to show for" cold fusion. I disagree. The field has made great progress despite minimum funding and intense academic opposition.Cold fusion was replicated by hundreds of world-class laboratories, and these replications were published in mainstream, peer-reviewed journals. You will find a bibliography of over 3,000 papers and the full text from over 500 papers here:http://lenr-canr.org– Jed RothwellLibrarian, LENR-CANR.org

  3. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Just spotted online that a new initiative called The Digital Energy Solutions Campaign launched today at the Smart2020 Conference. The group is made up IT firms and Environmental organizations who "will work with the incoming Obama Administration and Congressional leaders to educate and promote how ICT strategies can make our economy robust while at the same time becoming increasingly energy efficient and environmentally friendly." Members include Dell, EMC, HP, Intel, the Technology CEO Council, Verizon, the the Alliance to Save Energy, The Climate Group, and the World Wildlife Fund. They've also “outlined a policy framework to make private industries and government more energy efficient, create behavior changes to make us more energy efficient and reduce ICT’s energy needs.” More info at behindthegreen.org/about/desc

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