At a party this weekend, I had a conversation with someone who believed that the energy needs of the future would be solved by hydrogen. Not hydrogen as the input for nuclear fusion, but hydrogen as a feedstock for fuel cells and combustion engines. It’s not entirely surprising that some people believe this. For years, car companies have been spouting off about hydrogen powered vehicles that will produce only water vapour as emissions. The Chevron game mentioned earlier lets you install ‘hydrogen’ electricity generating capacity. The oversight, of course, is that hydrogen is just an energy carrier. You might as well say that the energy source of the future will be AA batteries.
AA batteries are obviously useful things. They provide 1.5 volts of power that you can carry around with you and use to drive all manner of gadgetry, but they are hardly an energy system unto themselves. The chemicals inside them that create their electrical potential had to be extracted, processed, and combined into a usable form. Inevitably, this process required more energy than is in the batteries at the end. The loss of potential energy is a good trade-off, because we get usable and portable power, but there is no sense in which we can say that AA batteries are an energy system.
A similar trade-off may well eventually be made with hydrogen. We may break down hydrocarbons, sequester the CO2 produced in that process, and use the hydrogen generated as fuel for cars. Alternatively, we might use gobs of electricity to electrolyse water into hydrogen and oxygen. Then, we just need to find a way to store a decent amount of hydrogen safely in a tank small, durable, and affordable enough to put in vehicles; build fleets of vehicles with affordable fuel cells or hydrogen powered internal combustion engines; and develop an infrastructure to distribute hydrogen to all those vehicles.
When you think about it, hydrogen seems less like a solution in itself, and more like the possible end-point of solving a number of prior problems. As far as ground vehicles go, it seems a safer bet to concentrate on improvements to rechargeable battery technology.