Volume 22, Number 1 January 1993
The Hydrogen Energy EconomyIn the months since suggesting the Forum study on the hydrogen energy economy (October 1992), I have begun a more detailed study myself. This is essentially a progress report. The field has grown to where a six-month part-time study by a single individual is not enough to cover it adequately, though some preliminary conclusions appear reasonably firm.
Briefly, there is essentially universal agreement that hydrogen is an environmentally benign, versatile, renewable, transportable and storable fuel, probably unique and indispensable for the vast energy storage needed to permit solar, wind, and other renewables to contribute significantly to the world energy economy and ultimately to break our dependence on fossil fuels. There is widespread agreement that transition to the hydrogen economy is inevitable, but a large range in estimated times for the transition to come about. The optimistic time scale is decades, pessimists (realists?) implicitly estimate large fractions of a century or more. My own feeling is that decades could suffice if the hydrogen economy becomes a national priority. Industry might swing it alone in a few extra decades. The transition would be costly, and I believe this is the major hurdle. Other impediments, technical and scientific, should be surmountable with determined techno-scientific effort. This would probably be expensive and protracted, but small in cost compared with that of constructing the needed infrastructure.
There is widespread agreement that transition to the hydrogen economy is inevitable, but a large range in estimated times for the transition
Thousands of papers have been published by research workers the world over, many in the International Journal of Hydrogen Energy, others in standard journals or journals devoted to solar, or other alternative energy sources, in conference proceedings, specialized monographs and various texts. The range, quality and diversity are enormous. Physics, engineering, economics, photobiology, photoelectrochemistry, industry and government programs are some of the major headings and each splits into many sub-headings. Activity is international, extensive, diversified, often sophisticated and ingenious, sometimes naive and repetitious (like R&D in general!), generally laboratory-scale or theoretical and rarely coming near, even in theory, to realistic pilot-plant scale. I do not believe cost alone should be blamed for the limited practical progress to date. To it should be added tradition, inertia, inability of specialists to appreciate alien areas, lack of communication between fields which developed independently but which need to be combined in this effort, the natural reluctance of an enterprise to invest prematurely in areas lacking proven markets, the inability of such markets to develop without supporting infrastructure, and the difficulty of developing such infrastructures if the markets to support them do not yet exist. This list can be lengthened. But society has been able to get off dead center in similar situations in the past (e.g., development of nuclear energy, the TV industry and the computer revolution, earlier the rise of the automotive, petrochemical, and electrical industries, and still earlier the steel and chemical industries and the industrial revolution itself).
How can we get the transition to the hydrogen economy started? In cases of rapid transition, like atomic bombs/nuclear energy there have been strong pushes and pulls, respectively the need to win World War II and to provide what was at first thought to be cheap, clean, almost inexhaustible energy. Large federal funding was decisive. In the case at hand push and pull are fragmented, the funding climate hostile, and lower cost alternatives still available in most cases (a very important cost factor). One is tempted to conclude that the transition will be evolutionary, doomed to slowness until both pushes and pulls become unified forces, and the differential cost between hydrogen and its fossil competitors is reduced to where it is no longer a powerful obstacle. I believe, however, that significant synergies can reduce hydrogen cost, increasing the pull of proliferating applications while the push of pollution abatement, petrochemical shortages, global warming worries, etc. and their consequent costs (including those of energy security, foreign exchange problems, etc.) is sure to increase. Current niche applications for hydrogen will increase in number as costs go down, and quantitative increase in demand will lead to economies of scale in hydrogen production. This auto-catalytic cost reduction, one hopes, will culminate in hydrogen becoming a major fuel and increasing important chemical feedstock.
The search for significant synergies thus assumes major importance. Fortunately they seem to be real and to involve such major segments of the economy that the vast cost would be both justifiable and supportable, hopefully on a pay-as-you-go basis. Many synergies can be studied, funded in different ways, and implemented in independent parallel efforts on widely differing time scales. They range from here-and-now to pie-in-the-sky scenarios, from those capable of supporting themselves almost from the start to those involving very long range investment. With proper planning these last could perhaps be significantly, if not totally, supported by the self-supporters. Bold imagination and creative vision will surely be needed in many segments of a gigantic long-range enterprise, comparable to, if not exceeding, what occurred in nuclear energy or the computer revolution.
A synergetic example
Consider the following example of a synergetic scenario. Electric utilities, say in the Great Lakes--St. Lawrence Seaway region, in response to public concerns, wish to change over from fossil fuels to renewable primary energy sources (with nuclear energy a default possibility). Suppose solar energy is deemed impractical because of excessive cloud cover, bad weather, cost of real estate, first cost of photovoltaic cells, intermittent sunshine, maintenance, etc., so wind power is considered. Suppose wind power generator manufacturers can provide reliable 25 KW units on a cost-effective basis, and that the utility wants 750 MW. This would requite 30,000 units, and what do we do when the wind isn't blowing? So we consider lining both sides of the St. Lawrence Seaway with wind generators, perhaps with additional units on islands, on stilts, or floating, generating hydrogen whenever there is more wind-power available than needed, using hydrogen fuel-cells to generate electricity when the wind isn't blowing and to meet peak demands.
The utility concludes the cost will be very high, braces itself for battles with rate-determining bodies and decides to wait and see what public opinion, the political climate, tax policies etc. will be when the brownouts get worse.
Meanwhile the fertilizer and liquid hydrogen industries are feeling uncomfortable because they get their hydrogen from stripping methane, thereby generating CO2, a greenhouse gas. They also see the possibility of short supplies of CH4 because it is needed for home heating, for natural-gas-powered autos, buses, etc., and because CH4 is a much cleaner fuel than coal, oil or biomass. They consider a joint effort to find a clean (say electrolytic) source of H2, and find the electric utility receptive to the idea of making it a threesome. They invite Seaway people to their brain-storming sessions and find there is interest in lengthening the shipping season and the hope is expressed that wind power might warm the water enough to make the ice crackable by ordinary ships for a few extra months, and perhaps by ice-breakers throughout the winter. The utility likes that very much as Niagara Falls then wouldn't freeze up and hydro power would be available all year long. Back-of-the envelope calculations suggest it might actually pay to keep the water flowing!
So we consider lining the St. Lawrence seaway with wind generators, generating hydrogen when there is more wind than needed, using fuel-cells to generate electricity when the wind isn't blowing.
Enthusiasm spreads, and local utilities along the Seaway, as well as individual land-owners and farmers ask why they can't put up their own wind-machines and feed into the grid whatever power they can spare whenever they can spare it. Local, federal and Canadian governments all see how attractive the possibility is, and work to expedite the enterprise. The suggestion is made that the icebreaker should be nuclear powered, so that its cooling water can help keep the Seaway open, and its reactor can operate at full power the year round to generate even more hydrogen. A US-Canada Seaway Consortium is formed, the US takes the Savannah out of mothballs to serve as the first ice-breaker (after some minor modifications), Quebec Hydropower becomes a member of the consortium as does a new Bay of Fundy Tidal Power Authority. The structure of the Seaway Consortium is kept open and flexible, so that the number of affiliated wind machines, mostly owned by individuals, soon exceeds 105.
The price of power and hydrogen go down, niche applications grow (H2-powered airplanes is one of the first, with inroads soon made on trains, ships, and buses) and break-throughs in solar-cell cost and efficiency soon result in solar panels festooning all wind machine towers. This in turn via economics in scale revolutionizes housing, where solar "power roofs" power fuel-cell-driven family cars. The coal mines take on new life, for cheap H2 catalytically converts coal to CH4 which becomes the basis of a new petrochemical industry of organic and nitrogen-organic compounds (the last more than doubling the size of the ammonia industry). The oil industry, down-sizes but invests in coal and hydrogen. This, plus new chemicals and materials based on oil, keeps even small oil companies viable.
The US and Canada become integrated in power and H2, and soon Mexico joins in. Hydrogen becomes an important export. Central and South American join the consortium, Europe and China set up their own, North Africa joins Europe and the grid soon spreads over the rest of Africa. The European and Chinese consortia also grow, meet in Russia and join, Indian, South-East Asia, Australia and Oceania join them, and the Old and New World consortia later join across the polar regions. Pollution, global warming etc. become dim memories, Mother Earth regains her health and everybody lives happily forever after.
How's that for a rosy scenario? The most fantastic part is not scientific or technical. It is that people will do what is in the best interest of all rather than virtually eating each other alive!
There are many other nice scenarios (I omit all nasty ones). For example, one could create islands, maybe floating, of modular construction and indefinitely extendible. We could start out, perhaps, with a nuclear reactor producing hydrogen by electrolysis, and other things (such as NH3) could follow. Multiple flash distillation of hot reactor coolant would be a source of fresh water for a thirsty world (ditto H2 fuel-cell "ash") and the brine would be a source of chemicals and deuterium. The NIMBY effect would be eliminated. The island would process its own waste and either store it or convert it into vitreous ceramic used for underwater structures. It could grow to be a center for farming the sea, for providing nesting sites for sea birds (constructed for convenient guano harvesting), and egg-laying sites for sea-turtles. One can add modules as desired for geophysical studies, mining sea resources, biological, ecological, astronomical, atmospheric, oceanographic and other studies. Wind/solar power modules could be added on indefinitely. The islands could become self-sufficient and great places to live, provide independence of land in the sense that they wouldn't drown if polar ice melts on account of global warming, could become foci of international friendship, and ultimately lead to a means of supporting a large part of our exploding world population. This "Project Noah" obviously is long-range and a good theme for science fiction. But the ocean is pretty much the last terrestrial frontier, both more attractive and more accessible for habitation than space. Though now fanciful, this scenario can be as real as we want to make it.
Make up your own further scenarios! Though it is premature to say the hydrogen energy economy will solve all our problems, it looks too good for the idea to be left gathering dust.
The Objectivity Crisis
[Congressman George E. Brown, Jr., chairs the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. He is one of science's best and most knowledgeable friends in Congress. He has recently written a "Guest Comment" essay for the American Journal of Physics (AJP) (September 1992, 779-781), and a "Policy Forum" essay for Science (9 October 1992, 200-201), giving his views on basic research, the future of science, the role of science in human culture, and the national and global quality of life. Here are excerpts from Congressman Brown's AJP article, published with permission from AJP and Congressman Brown's office. -Editor]
If we look at the world as a whole, it is not at all clear that advances in science and technology have translated into sustainable advances in quality of life for the majority of the human race. Considering all the benefits that have accrued to industrialized society over the past 50 years because of science - and the benefits are innumerable - it is still difficult to draw a correlation between scientific and technological capability on the one hand, and quality of life on the other. If you consider criteria such as infant mortality, life expectancy, literacy rates, equality of opportunity for all citizens, and hours spent in front of a television, the US ranks considerably lower than many nations that are less technologically "advanced," and less economically "prosperous" than we are.
My friend Greg burst into my office the other day shaking his head and asking "What are physicists good for, Hobson? Why would anybody want to hire one? What is special about physics?" He complained that PhD programs prepare graduates who do things that only physicists care about, graduates who settle into other departments where they prepare other students to do the same thing. How can we change this barely self-perpetuating closed system? Even relatively small reforms, such as the Introductory University Physics Project's recommendations for bringing introductory physics into the twentieth century (let alone the twenty-first!), are difficult. The system has great inertia.
Greg is a successful quantum optics experimentalist. He loves physics. He is one of our department's best teachers. Despite having every reason to feel good about the future of physics, he doesn't. He is not an isolated case. Judging from recent surveys conducted by Leon Lederman and others, evidence of low morale in the entire scientific community has been building steadily lately. ]
The malaise is all around us. Despite my department's strong research program, we have trouble keeping up enrollments, and finding enough good English-speaking graduate students to fill our teaching assistantships. The superconducting super collider, perhaps symbolic of physics research, was nearly derailed by Congress. The National Science Foundation is backing out of basic research and into market-directed research and education. High school physics enrollments remain stuck at 20%. The American Physical Society finds it hard to hold together even a single yearly general meeting. Leon Lederman writes of "Science: the end of the frontier?"
Another friend and colleague opines that in a few more years physics will be, like ancient Latin and Greek, a dead language. The uses of physics will never die, for they are profitable. But true physics, "natural philosophy," the search for natural truth and understanding, is ill, perhaps mortally.
We can name a lot of reasons for this: the end of the cold war, world competition, the economy, industrial belt-tightening, Congressional belt-tightening, and so forth. But these don't go to the philosophical center of the problem. It isn't easy to see the center, but we all need to search for it and suggest solutions. Physics hangs in the balance. Indeed the "endless frontier" of science hangs in the balance, for physics is at the cutting edge of a malaise that extends to other sciences.
Somewhere near the center lie such ancient sins as ego, narrow-mindedness, and self-centeredness.
An editorial in Science (6 March 1992) proclaims "It is the conviction of scientists that more basic research will profit not only the globe, but also the specific countries in which it is carried out. The former is essentially obvious." In light of the science-related problems that exist today, beginning with overpopulation, I'm not even certain that scientists still agree that this is obvious. And it is clear that many thoughtful non-scientists seriously doubt that the marginal effect of more basic research is beneficial. The hubris of the quoted statement is common among scientists. It reflects an egotistical failure to listen and take seriously other non-scientific points of view.
Just as science has walled itself off from the world at large, so each science, each academic department, and even each specialty within physics (quantum optics, for instance), has walled itself off from each other. We have become, literally, narrow-minded. It is a problem inherent in science. Around the time of Galileo, scientists discovered the advantages of specialization. We have found such rewards in "analysis," in studying the individual pieces of the puzzle, that we have forgotten what the pieces are pieces of. We study the pieces themselves, without cultural context, without social context, without history, often even without scientific context, and our pieces become irrelevant to the public and sometimes, if we ask ourselves honestly what it all means, to ourselves.
At the end of a 12-year "me first" epoch, it is not surprising that universities, physicists, and the physics profession, have tried to get from physics what they could for themselves. But the self-centeredness of physics, and science, begin much earlier, probably right after World War II when universities discovered the benefits, to themselves, of research. Prestige, and out-of-state tax dollars, came from research. Unsurprisingly, physicists and physics followed the trend. Teaching and public service were out, pure research was in. The pull of defense and other dollars opened wider the split represented by the official division of the university physics community into a research association and a teaching association an unwholesome kind of specialization in which teachers remain satisfied with rusting lectures that are stuck in the Newtonian era and mired in gadgets and trivial details, while researchers seem not to notice that non-physicists neither care about nor understand their research projects. There was, and is, an attitude that the physics profession should put their energies, and other people's money, into fundamental questions of physics simply because, like Mount Everest, they are there. But many other things are "there" too, and they are things the rest of humankind cares more about: overpopulation, for example.
Congressman George Brown, Chair of the House science and technology committee and one of science's best friends in Congress, has recently written on these matters. Excerpts from one of his articles are reprinted above. His strong words are worthy of our attention.
Science is changing, because the world is changing. US physics is catching the front end of these changes, as they affect science. It is not easy to see what the issues really are, but it is clear that the questions must be approached on a deeper level than "How much money can we get for basic research?" or "How can we convince the public that they need the SSC?" We might ask, instead: What is basic research really good for globally, what kinds of basic research are good for that purpose, and how can we measurably confirm that prediction? And: Is humankind likely to need the information likely to come from the SSC anytime soon, or could we as well wait and let a future generation discover this information?
The answers are even murkier than the questions. It would help if physicists were more interested in the physics outside their own specialty, if APS and AAPT were united in a single organization, if physicists focused more on teaching and on non-scientists, if physicists were more sensitive to large cultural trends, and if physicists took societal questions seriously as part of their professional lives. But it is easier to suggest such answers than to carry them out. For example, university physicists who focus more on teaching do so at a cost in pay and prestige, because that is the way we have set up the system. That dilemma illustrates the problem. And such dilemmas are what caused Greg to burst into my office the other day.