Occasionally, hydrogen comes up in conversations about energy.  There are a myriad of misconceptions about that subject and I will explain some:

I was only made aware of this misunderstanding recently, but I see what happened.  The term “Hydrogen” is not a contraction for “Hydro-electrical Generation”. 

Hydrogen is an element, like carbon, oxygen or nitrogen.  Hydrogen burns with pale blue flame that is almost invisible in daylight.  You may have seen a blue tint to the flame of your natural gas stove.  That is hydrogen from the mostly methane (CH4) that is natural gas (the part that is yellow or red is from carbon).  It is widely used as rocket fuel because hydrogen packs the most energy for its weight.

Burnt hydrogen “surrounds us and penetrates us”.  It is water.  Hydrogen being burnt creates nothing else.  No mystery then, why the “environmental” cabal wants to use hydrogen as automotive fuel, either burning it directly or in a fuel cell.  Hydrogen is the most common element in the universe.  Stars are made mostly of hydrogen and helium[1].     

  Why not turn to hydrogen for every sort of use since it is so blessed?   

Here’s the deal:  That burnt hydrogen (water) is obviously abundant.  Hydrogen is also in compound making up plants, animals and life in general.  Hydrogen is in every fuel currently in use, even in coal, which is mostly carbon.  However, free, pure hydrogen is not generally available.  It is all tied up with other molecules and has to be separated from same. 

That takes energy.  To get it out of water takes just as much energy as was liberated in the burning that made the water in the first place.  Practically, it takes much more energy than you can get back because no separation process is 100% efficient. 

For example, water can be split by an electric reaction.  But,  burning that hydrogen to make electricity – even in an efficient fuel cell – will return only a fraction of the electricity used to get the hydrogen.

Now, some might say that since it is electricity, the hydrogen was “cleanly” produced.  Those are folks who don’t know:

  1. The meaning of the word “clean”.
  2.  Whence Electricity?   (Spoiler: 85% from Coal, Natural Gas and Nuclear)

Hydrogen is industrially produced by “reforming” natural gas (mostly methane (CH4)) that is reacted with water (Steam, actually) and the resulting “synthesis gas” [2] (hydrogen and carbon monoxide) is reacted with some more water to make hydrogen and carbon dioxide.  So, there is a lot of energy input in the process, but you might come out ahead barely, in the energy sense.  That’s because a lot of the energy comes from the chemical reactions themselves.

 As Colombo would say, “There is…just…one more thing, sir.”  Why were you wanting to make pure hydrogen?  If you just want some rocket fuel, then you’re done.  If you wanted to avoid making carbon dioxide, go back and read the products of natural gas reforming.  That’s right, kids, “hydrogen and carbon dioxide.”  You would still be using “fossil fuels” and still be emitting carbon dioxide.  Capture the CO2?  Yes, you can, at great expense and further energy use.

And, when all is said and done:

Let’s say you have some way to produce hydrogen without making CO2 and you are very proud that you are not emitting “greenhouse gas”.  Well get ready for a shock.  Your burnt hydrogen is water vapor, which is the most abundant “greenhouse gas” in the world.  You have not changed much of anything, after all.

Let me say in closing that there is nothing wrong with carbon dioxide, petroleum, natural gas, coal or water vapor, for that matter.  Also, the Globe is not Warming

[1] Helium, was first discovered as a spectral signature in sunlight.  Its name comes from “Helios”  (the  Sun – Greek).

[2]  A while back  in South America there was no helium available at anything like reasonable prices to fill toy balloons.  And yet, my brother-in-law would sell balloons with his grandfather in Peru, 50- odd years ago.  Bro-in-law assures me these were synthesis gas balloons which floated because both hydrogen and carbon monoxide are lighter than air (CO, just barely).  They are also, however, both flammable, hydrogen especially so.  Synthesis gas can be used as automobile fuel.  On this one, my own father told of a taxi driver in Southeast  Asia (circa 1950) who heated chicken droppings and piped the output directly to the engine.  I’m thinking this might have been a tuk-tuk (three-wheel motorcycle) as I saw while in that part of the world.

[3]  Water Vapor

One thought on “Hydrogen

  1. Pingback: Going Walkabout

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