False promise of the hydrogen age

In The New Atlantis, Robert Zubrin explains why Bush's $6 billion hydrogen-as-energy program is "bad science, bad economics, and bad public policy."

Hydrogen, after all, is "the most common element in the universe," as Secretary Abraham pointed out. Since it is so plentiful, surely President Bush must be right when he promises it will be cheap. And when you use it, the waste product will be nothing but water—"environmental pollution will no longer be a concern." Hydrogen will be abundant, cheap, and clean. Why settle for anything less?

Unfortunately, it's all pure bunk. To get serious about energy policy, America needs to abandon, once and for all, the false promise of the hydrogen age…

Hydrogen is only a source of energy if it can be taken in its pure form and reacted with another chemical, such as oxygen. But all the hydrogen on Earth, except that in hydrocarbons, has already been oxidized, so none of it is available as fuel. If you want to get plentiful unbound hydrogen, the closest place it can be found is on the surface of the Sun; mining this hydrogen supply would be quite a trick. After the Sun, the next closest source of free hydrogen would be the atmosphere of Jupiter…

So if we put aside the spectacularly improbable prospect of fueling our planet with extraterrestrial hydrogen imports, the only way to get free hydrogen on Earth is to make it. The trouble is that making hydrogen requires more energy than the hydrogen so produced can provide. Hydrogen, therefore, is not a source of energy. It simply is a carrier of energy. And it is, as we shall see, an extremely poor one.


Reader comment:

Ian says:

Zubrin's arguments against hydrogen are accurate and the sooner we bury the false hope the better. However, his advocation of manufactured hydrocarbons as fuel is equally preposterous: none reduce CO2 emissions by a single molecule. The real crisis is not peak oil, but climate change. Additionally, each method of hydrocarbon production has its own demons (e.g., corn-derived ethanol and the post from earlier today, environmental issues of coal mining, continued natural gas dependence, etc.) The future must run on energy derived from sources that do not pump CO2 into the atmosphere: nuclear, hydro, wind, geo… and of these, only nuclear has the scalability and proven performance to adequately supply the majority of the world's energy with today's technology. With respect to personal transport, battery technology is reaching the point where relatively affordable EVs will be able to provide the majority of people's needs (GM Volt, Tesla Roadster.)