Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Hydrogen Initiative report from American Physical Society panel released

The American Physical Society's Panel on Public Affairs has released a report on the technical problems that need to be solved before a hydrogen powered car would be feasible.

The most promising hydrogen-engine technologies require factors of 10 to 100 improvements in cost or performance in order to be competitive. Current production methods are four times more expensive than gasoline. And, no material exists to construct a hydrogen fuel tank that meets the consumer benchmarks. A new material must be discovered.

These are very large performance gaps. Incremental improvements to existing technologies are not sufficient to close all the gaps. Significant scientific breakthroughs are needed.

This poses a problem for President Bush's hydrogen initiative which proposes to have hydrogen fuel cell powered cars ready by 2020. California governor Schwarzenegger has also proposed a major hydrogen initiative.

The main problem with hydrogen as a fuel is that it is so light that it has very little energy for the volume it takes up. The Hindenburg disaster makes a perfect example. For all the fiery blaze that hydrogen filled blimp made when it went up, two thirds of the passengers survived. Imagine if that huge of a volume of gasoline had exploded.

Finding a way to store enough hydrogen to power a car is a major technical difficulty. In the words of Peter Eisenberger, chairman of the committee, "Hydrogen storage is a potential show stopper."

The urgency of finding an alternative to oil and the stakes involved are outlined in Will The End of Oil Mean The End of America?

The world is quickly running out of oil. In the year 2000, global production stood at 76 Million Barrels per Day (MBD). By 2020, demand is forecast to reach 112 MBD, an increase of 47%. But additions to proven reserves have virtually stopped and it is clear that pumping at present rates is unsustainable. Estimates of the date of “peak global production.” vary with some experts saying it already may have occurred as early as the year 2000. New Scientist magazine recently placed the year of peak production in 2004. Virtually all experts believe it will almost certainly occur before the end of this decade.

And the rate of depletion is accelerating. Imagine a production curve that rises slowly over 145 years—the time since oil was discovered in Pennsylvania in 1859. Over this time, the entire world shifted to oil as the foundation of industrial civilization. It invested over one hundreds trillion dollars in a physical infrastructure and an economic system run entirely on oil. But oil production is now at its peak and the right hand side of the curve is a virtual drop off. Known reserves are being drawn down at 4 times the rate of new discoveries.

The reason for the drop off is that not only have all the “big” discoveries already been made, the rate of consumption is increasing dramatically. Annual world energy use is up five times since 1945. Increases are now driven by massive developing countries—China, India, Brazil—growing and emulating first or at least second world consumption standards. Fixed supply. Stalled discoveries. Sharply increased consumption. This is the formula for global oil depletion within the next few decades.

The situation is especially critical in the US. With barely 4% of the world’s population, the US consumes 26% of the world’s energy. But the US produced only 9 MBD in 2000 while consuming 19 MBD. It made up the difference by importing 10 MBD, or 53% of its needs. By 2020, the US Department of Energy forecasts domestic demand will grow to 25 MBD but production will be down to 7 MBD. The daily shortfall of 18 MBD or 72% of needs, will all need to be imported.

Europe, which is less exposed to the problem than the US, is farther ahead in developing alternatives to oil. So far the US strategy has been to push to open the few remaining reserves in the US such as ANWR, to intervene in the Middle East to try to ensure a stable supply from there, and to gamble on hydrogen technology.

It may be a losing gamble.


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