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Why Hydrogen is No Solution - Scientific Answers to Marketing Hype, Deception and Wishful Thinking

Seeing One Car Run on a Fuel Cell or Hydrogen Gas Does Not Make It a Solution for Anything, Especially If You Invest More Energy in the Hydrogen Than You Get from Burning It or If You Make More Greenhouse Gas at the Hydrogen Factory or If You Can't Afford to Ship or Store It

by Michael C. Ruppert

© Copyright 2003, From The Wilderness Publications, All Rights Reserved. May be reprinted, distributed or posted on an Internet web site for non-profit purposes only.

[August 18, 2003, 1930 PDT, (FTW) -- For months FTW has been besieged by misguided activists arguing that hydrogen is a real solution to the world's energy crisis. Sadly, these critics have been sold a bill of goods as deceptive and dangerous as Enron's cooked books, the intelligence "justifying" the Iraqi invasion, and oil reserve figures quoted by oil companies and government agencies. Hydrogen's problems are not difficult to understand and require little more than common sense applied to well-documented and easily understandable scientific fact.

There are no easy "magic bullet" solutions to the realities of Peak Oil and serious and irreversible natural gas shortages. Perhaps one of the most dangerous courses is to accept widely-hyped solutions without critical judgment and then waste the days and hours needed to look for real answers. Just because someone shows you a car that runs on hydrogen today, whether by burning the gas or by using a fuel cell to produce electricity, does not mean that they have shown you a solution. Spending more money or energy on a demonstration model than is produced from the resulting engine's output is a deception - nothing more. Snake oil salesmen have been around as long as mankind and there will be no shortage of unprincipled hucksters making a buck as the world begins to starve and freeze. Unfortunately, there will also be a bumper crop of gullible victims, easily led to the slaughter, who could have made other, more mature choices. Arguing that hydrogen burned in a car engine produces no greenhouse gases ignores the fact that those same gases were produced at the plant that made the hydrogen to begin with.

The truth is that Peak Oil and its implications will kill the human race a long time before global warming does. Just ask the innocent civilians who died on 9/11, the tens of thousands of civilians massacred in Afghanistan and Iraq and all those who will continue to die in the Empire's sequential war for oil - the war which Dick Cheney told us will not end in our lifetimes.

Hydrogen proponents need to answer FTW's 9 Questions for Evaluating Alternative Energy Sources at: Beyond that, they need only read the following two excerpts from FTW stories to understand that any rescue by a "hydrogen economy" is about as likely as George W. Bush withdrawing US troops from Iraq and saying it was all a mistake. - MCR]

PART I -- Excerpted from "Much Ado About Nothing" - Published by FTW Dec. 5, 2002. written by Dale Allen Pfeiffer

Spencer Abraham's Hydrogen Dream

The media was all aglow recently with Spencer Abraham's announcement that the U.S. now has a roadmap for making the transition to a hydrogen economy. Secretary of Energy Abraham announced the plan at the Global Forum on Personal Transportation held in Dearborn, Mich. In his presentation, he touted the line that hydrogen produced from renewable resources can provide unlimited energy with no impact on the environment. Secretary Abraham noted that the transition to hydrogen would be a long-term process, which will require the participation of both industry and government.

As a first step, in January 2002 Secretary Abraham, along with officials from the automotive industry and Congress, unveiled a FreedomCAR partnership to develop hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.26

The National Hydrogen Energy Roadmap is available on the internet in pdf form ( This roadmap glows with positive energy. In all areas of production, delivery, storage, conversion and applications, the document beams about what we can achieve if we put our minds to it, but inevitably winds up by saying that we have a long way to go in order to make it a reality.

The document does mention the various challenges to each area of fuel cell development, but makes little of the obstacles and instead comes off sounding like a pep talk. Buried in the text, they admit "The transition to a hydrogen economy... could take several decades to achieve."27

The document speaks of wind, solar and geothermal production, biomass, nuclear-thermo-chemical water splitting, photoelectrochemical electrolysis, and bioengineering. But they admit that all of these processes will require a great deal more research.

The intention is to bootstrap the move by first developing small "reformers" that will run on natural gas, propane, methanol or diesel. But the authors admit that even this technology requires further refinement for improved reliability, longer catalyst life, and integration with storage systems and fuel cells.

The document also includes a short list of people who are in charge of various areas of development and transition. The list includes: Frank Balog of Ford Motor Company, Gene Nemanich of ChevronTexaco Technology Ventures, Mike Davis of Avista Labs Energy, Art Katsaros of Air Products and Chemicals Incorporated, Alan Niedzwiecki of  Quantum Technologies, Joan Ogden of Princeton University Systems, and Jeff Serfass of The National Hydrogen Association.28 This team will ensure that the new technology remains firmly in the hands of the top corporations.

The document is at least 80 percent public relations. While admitting that in all areas there are serious problems to be overcome before we will be able to make a transition to hydrogen fuel cells, nowhere does this document take a serious look at the obstacles. Instead, this paper paints a pretty picture of our hydrogen future and leaves the details to future research and investment. So let us look at a few of the difficulties of developing a hydrogen fuel cell economy.

First off, because hydrogen is the simplest element, it will leak from any container, no mater how strong and no matter how well insulated. For this reason, hydrogen in storage tanks will always evaporate, at a rate of at least 1.7 percent per day.29 Hydrogen is very reactive. When hydrogen gas comes into contact with metal surfaces it decomposes into hydrogen atoms, which are so very small that they can penetrate metal. This causes structural changes that make the metal brittle.30

Perhaps the largest problem for hydrogen fuel cell transportation is the size of the fuel tanks. In gaseous form, a volume of 238,000 litres of hydrogen gas is necessary to replace the energy capacity of 20 gallons of gasoline.31

So far, demonstrations of hydrogen-powered cars have depended upon compressed hydrogen. Because of its low density, compressed hydrogen will not give a car as useful a range as gasoline.32 Moreover, a compressed hydrogen fuel tank would be at risk of developing pressure leaks either through accidents or through normal wear, and such leaks could result in explosions.

If the hydrogen is liquefied, this will give it a density of 0.07 grams per cubic centimeter. At this density, it will require four times the volume of gasoline for a given amount of energy. Thus, a 15-gallon gas tank would equate to a 60-gallon tank of liquefied hydrogen. Beyond this, there are the difficulties of storing liquid hydrogen. Liquid hydrogen is cold enough to freeze air. In test vehicles, accidents have occurred from pressure build-ups resulting from plugged valves.33

Beyond this, there are the energy costs of liquefying the hydrogen and refrigerating it so that it remains in a liquid state. No studies have been done on the energy costs here, but they are sure to further decrease the Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI) of hydrogen fuel.

A third option is the use of powdered metals to store the hydrogen in the form of metal hydrides. In this case, the storage volume would be little more than the volume of the metals themselves.34 Moreover, stored in this form, hydrogen would be far less reactive. However, as you can imagine, the weight of the metals will make the storage tank very heavy.

Now we come to the production of hydrogen. Hydrogen does not freely occur in nature in useful quantities, therefore hydrogen must be split from molecules, either molecules of methane derived from fossil fuels or from water.

Currently, most hydrogen is produced by the treatment of methane with steam, following the formula: CH4 (g) + H2O + e > 3H2(g) + CO(g). The CO(g) in this equation is carbon monoxide gas, which is a byproduct of the reaction.35

Not entered into this formula is the energy required to produce the steam, which usually comes from the burning of fossil fuels.

For this reason, we do not escape the production of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. We simply transfer the generation of this pollution to the hydrogen production plants. This procedure of hydrogen production also results in a severe energy loss. First we have the production of the feedstock methanol from natural gas or coal at a 32 percent to 44 percent net energy loss. Then the steam treatment process to procure the hydrogen will result in a further 35 percent energy loss.36

It has often been pointed out that we have an inexhaustible supply of water from which to derive hydrogen. However, this reaction, 2H2O + e = 2H2(g) + O2(g), requires a substantial energy investment per unit of water (286kJ per mole).37 This energy investment is required by elementary principles of chemistry and can never be reduced.

Several processes are being explored to derive hydrogen from water, most notably electrolysis of water and thermal decomposition of water. But the basic chemistry mentioned above requires major energy investments from all of these processes, rendering them unprofitable in terms of EROEI.

Much thought has been given to harnessing sunlight through photovoltaic cells and using the resulting energy to split water in order to derive hydrogen. The energy required to produce 1 billion kWh (kilowatt hours) of hydrogen is 1.3 billion kWh of electricity.38 Even with recent advances in photovoltaic technology, the solar cell arrays would be enormous, and would have to be placed in areas with adequate sunlight.

Likewise, the amount of water required to generate this hydrogen would be equivalent to 5 percent of the flow of the Mississippi River.39 As an example of a solar-to-hydrogen set up, were Europe to consider such a transition, their best hope would lie in erecting massive solar collectors in the Saharan desert of nearby Africa. Using present technology, only 5 percent of the energy collected at the Sahara solar plants would be delivered to Europe. Such a solar plant would probably cost 50 times as much as a coal fired plant, and would deliver an equal amount of energy.40 On top of this, the production of photovoltaic cells has a very poor EROEI.

The basic problem of hydrogen fuel cells is that the second law of thermodynamics dictates that we will always have to expend more energy deriving the hydrogen than we will receive from the usage of that hydrogen. The common misconception is that hydrogen fuel cells are an alternative energy source when they are not.

In reality, hydrogen fuel cells are a storage battery for energy derived from other sources. In a fuel cell, hydrogen and oxygen are fed to the anode and cathode, respectively, of each cell. Electrons stripped from the hydrogen produce direct current electricity which can be used in a DC electric motor or converted to alternating current.41

Because of the second law of thermodynamics, hydrogen fuel cells will always have a bad EROEI. If fossil fuels are used to generate the hydrogen, either through the Methane-Steam method or through Electrolysis of Water, there will be no advantage over using the fossil fuels directly. The use of hydrogen as an intermediate form of energy storage is justified only when there is some reason for not using the primary source directly.42 For this reason, a hydrogen-based economy must depend on large-scale development of nuclear power or solar electricity.

Therefore, the development of a hydrogen economy will require major investments in fuel cell technology research and nuclear or solar power plant construction. On top of this, there is the cost of converting all of our existing technology and machinery to hydrogen fuel cells. And all of this will have to be accomplished under the economic and energy conditions of post-peak fossil fuel production.

Based on all of this, I submit that Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham does indeed have ulterior motives for his Hydrogen Energy Roadmap. First, I suggest that this distant goal will help to pacify the public once they begin to suffer from the effects of fossil fuel withdrawal. Secondly, this project will allow the elite to transfer more money from the general public to the pockets of the rich. Third, in the words of Karl Davies, this proposal will deflect a stock market collapse once news of declining oil production becomes generally recognized.

Tied to this, it will brace stock prices of the auto corporations and oil majors to help them survive well into the era of oil depletion. And finally, the idea that we are working on a transition from fossil fuels to a hydrogen-based economy will help to destabilize OPEC, hopefully making it easier to deal with that organization and the Arab oil states.


(The full original story is at:

26 Energy Secretary Abraham Gives Major Address on the Future of Personal Transportation. Government Press release.

27 National Hydrogen Energy Roadmap, November 2002. United States Department of Energy.

28 Ibid.

29 Hydrogen FAQ. Stanford University.

30 "The World will End not with a Crash, but in a Whisper...." by Ian Forrest, 10-03-98. University of California.

31 Ibid.

32 Op. Cit. See note 23.

33 Ibid.

34 Op. Cit. See note 24.

35 Ibid.

36 Energetic Limits to Growth, Jay Hanson. Energy Magazine, spring 1999.

37 Op. Cit. See note 24.

38 Renewable Energy: Economic and Environmental Issues, David Pimentel et al. BioScience, Vol. 44, No. 8, September 1994.

39 Re: Hydrogen and Solar Energy Question, Message 25271, EnergyResources List. Also message 25245 and other messages in the string Hydrogen and Solar Energy Question.

40 An Outline of the Global Situation, the Sustainable Alternative Society, and the Transition to it, Ted Trainer. University of N.S.W.

41 Hydrogen & Fuel Cell Vehicles.  California Consumer Energy Center.

42 Op. Cit. See note 23.

Part II -- Excerpted from FTW's exclusive report on the May, 2003 conference of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO) in Paris.

One conclusion generally accepted by almost every attendee was that hydrogen, contrary to popularly accepted comfort promotions by writers like Jeremy Rifkin, was not a solution either in the near or long term because of intensive costs of production, inherent energy inefficiencies, lack of infrastructure and impracticalities. Speaking for Daimler Chrysler, which paid lip service to Peak Oil yet acknowledged that it had done extensive research on hydrogen vehicles, Dr. Jorg Wind told the conference that his company did not see hydrogen as a viable alternative to petroleum-based internal combustion engines.

"We use fossil fuels to make hydrogen. That does not result in a significant CO2 reduction. We predict that by 2020 only 5% of fuel use will be hydrogen and that infrastructure and the political framework is the most important factor. In order of relevance and likelihood from the standpoint of the auto industry Wind stated that we would see improved conventional vehicles, starter hybrid vehicles, electric hybrid vehicles and, finally, fuel cell vehicles as solutions, but he had little optimism that fuel cells would ever amount to a significant market share. In a telling left-handed acknowledgement of Peak Oil, Wind noted that one third of all diesel fuels currently used in Germany were biodiesel relying on recycled waste and or plant feedstock. He was particularly critical of ethanol stating that it was not energy efficient.

French presenters confirmed that ethanol was only viable in France due to a three hundred per cent government subsidy to farmers. Otherwise it was a net energy waster.

When asked by FTW if Daimler-Chrysler had estimated the costs for infrastructure changes and capital investment to produce fuel cell vehicles Wind stated that the company did not know these costs. The implication was that having evaluated the technology involved in the vehicles themselves the company didn't consider it worthwhile to undertake further financial evaluation.

Wind elicited groans from the audience when he asserted that everything was customer driven and that corporations bore no responsibility for the shortage of practical solutions to the looming crisis.

Hydrogen's Lead Financial Balloon

Pierre-Rene Bauquis, Vice President of the French Energy Institute, associate IFP professor and former special advisor to the president of TotalFinaElf, confirmed prior research by FTW citing hard scientific data showing that hydrogen is not a practical solution. As a member of Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy he made no secret of his advocacy of nuclear power. And it is quite probable that if Total or any other oil company could make a profit from hydrogen they would rush to do it, especially since they know that they are running out of their current product.

Noting that one half of all oil is used for transportation, Bauquis insisted that renewable energy sources would not solve the problem and stated flatly that "Hydrogen is not the fuel of tomorrow." He noted that the first internal combustion engine, built in 1805, was a hydrogen engine and that it was quickly discarded because of the problems hydrogen poses with transportation, storage and efficiency.

Bauquis observed that, "Commercial production of hydrogen is two to five times the cost of the fossil fuels used to make it. Transportation is impossible. It is two times as costly to transport hydrogen as it is to transport electricity. The storage costs for hydrogen are one hundred times the cost of liquid petroleum products."

He was equally unforgiving when it came to ethanol. "To replace forty per cent of the oil in use you would need three times the currently available farmland just for feedstock."

Bauquis drew some groans from the audience when he insisted that the "Chernobyl" disaster was a hoax perpetrated by Green Peace which had grossly exaggerated the number of deaths resulting from the 1986 nuclear accident but his observations about hydrogen are consistent with a wide number of scientific studies from a number of differing political and economic interests. He did acknowledge that perhaps in several decades, so-called green or white hydrogen (produced by electrolysis rather than from methane) might become feasible but only as a result of nuclear energy to power the conversion process.

One audience member elicited boisterous audience laughter by asking another presenter, "Now we have one situation in the market in which we get conventional fuel, namely oil, we burn it in a combustion engine, and we do work.  Now what I understand the hydrogen defendants are promoting, led by Mr. Jeremy Rifkin, is a hydrogen economy consisting basically in getting the conventional fuels again and producing alternative/solar energies or clean energy… or a wind generator …to produce electricity to then split the water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen and then compressing the liquefied hydrogen for transportation and storage and then injecting the hydrogen into the fuel cell to produce electricity to do work in the machine.  Do you really believe that this is efficiency?"    

Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies

By Richard Heinberg

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