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Blog item: Hydrogen Fuel Cells? Do You Feel Lucky? Well, Do You?

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5 comments, last: Jun-27-2009   Add a comment   Author:  PT (Jun-17-2009)    Play a Video
Categories: Economic/Financial, Peak Oil/Gas & Energy Demand, Renewable Energy Sources

Hydrogen fuel cell – do you feel lucky? Well, do you?The planned launch of the space shuttle Endeavour was delayed for the second time in four days.  Why?  A hydrogen leak!  In fact, the leak is occurring in the identical physical location that a hydrogen leak occurred four days ago.  Of course, we only have some of the best engineers in the world trying to fix this multi-billion dollar set of equipment, but they can't do it.  Maybe they don't have enough money for the replacement parts?  Hmm.

It is especially strange that after "knowing" where the leak was four days ago, they still can not fix it.  On top of that, another shuttle flight three months ago was also delayed due to a hydrogen leak.  But Yahoo! reports that "Launch officials said they were proud of the way the team hustled over the past four days trying to get Endeavour to the space station, with a new outdoor addition for the Japanese lab."

Am I missing something here? When my shiny new hydrogen-fuel-cell-powered automobile in, say, 2015, needs to refill, will I have four days and a team of the world's best engineers, and a billion dollar budget, to fix my "gas" tank?  Call me a pessimist, but I doubt it.

For me, this problem with the space shuttle is not the real concern.  For launching a massive rocket ship and cargo into outer space, as far as I can tell hydrogen may really be needed!  Batteries will probably not do the job.  But for cars, the story is different.  For example, the initial Tesla car model achieves 225 miles on one charge, has power for zero to sixty mph in 4 seconds, and is already available and useable commercially, although in restricted quantities (Tesla is a startup, after all).

It is clear that batteries as the power source for automobiles, and even for larger vehicles, are ready for prime time.  Granted, it will be nice as battery prices come down and energy densities and overall capabilities continue to improve, as they are every year, but the time for the electric car is here now (and in somewhat limited mileage forms, was here many years ago).

We already have the grids nationally and internationally to distribute electricity and the capacity to recharge cars during evenings, and wherever and whenever cars and their batteries may find themselves.  And at least one new company has an additional bright idea in this arena: provide swapping points at gas stations where a driver can simply trade a nearly discharged battery for a charged battery.  A further benefit using current and improving technologies is that as we go forward, the electric economy can gradually migrate to renewable sources of the electricity being used, whether those sources turn out to be sun (photo-voltaic), wind, waves or other related sources.

There is no infrastructure in place for hydrogen gas manufacture, distribution, and retail.  And even if there was such an infrastructure built up in the future, if we require gas station owners to constantly recharge fuel cells with hydrogen gas, that NASA team is sure going to be busy flying all over the country to help get those highly explosive and invisible gas leaks fixed really quick, so we can all drive without unpleasant fireballs.

I sure hope our current president, and his team of high-achieving energy experts, can see through the hydrogen fuel cell fantasy.  It seems that is the case – Obama's team announced a major drop in fuel cell research funding last month, including a total cancellation of research into fuel cells for vehicle power (other purposes of fuel cells retain some reduced government funding for research).  That means that the United States will not be wasting its money on the hydrogen fuel cell transportation non-option any time soon.  Let's hope it stays that way.


Note: the title for this PlanetThought is derived from the youthful Clint Eastwood film Dirty Harry (1971).  The actual quote there was from Clint Eastwood (Harry Callahan), as he pointed a gun at a prisoner who was thinking of making a run to escape: "You've got to ask yourself one question: 'Do I feel lucky?' Well, do ya punk?".

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Comment by: timxthomson (Jun-27-2009)   Web site
I am afraid that I am pessimistic about the likelihood of politicians having the courage to take timely and effective action! They don't want to upset their voters. Much as I prefer Western democracy to other forms of government, I suspect that the Chinese may end up showing us the way forward!
Comment by:  PT (David Alexander) (Jun-27-2009)   Web site

I agree, Tim. The more one looks at the field of energy policy, the more alarming is the superficial nature of the planning, at least up to this time. This includes biofuel from corn and palm oil, nuclear energy, and continued reliance by the major powers on fossil fuels. None of those has been properly considered by policy makers for their real energy consumption, longevity, and pollution/contamination/cleanup issues. Of course scientists, and a few political figures, have tried to look more closely at this, and hopefully those intellects will be heard as policy continues to be formulated and adjusted.
Comment by: timxthomson (Jun-27-2009)   Web site

When discussing hydrogen fuel cells, few people mention the energy cost of producing hydrogen in the first place. With current technology, it is hardly an energy efficient source of power!
Comment by:  PT (David Alexander) (Jun-23-2009)   Web site

If they can not launch a multi-billion dollar space shuttle due to multiple cases of hydrogen leaks, I have my doubts about creating tens of thousands of service stations safely using hydrogen.
Comment by:  Wavehunter (William Coffin) (Jun-17-2009)   Web site

Good article! For me, the main fear with electric cars is that they will create greater demand for electricity. While some of that may come from renewables, the chances are a lot will come from burning coal, oil and gas, or from nuclear.

There's been some fanfare of late about an open source hydrogen car. The car's financial backer, Sebastian Piƫch, revealed the problem with this remark: "Now that we have the basic vehicle in place with practical technology, the challenge is to begin the development of a fuelling infrastructure to accompany it." In the UK alone, that will mean converting tens of thousands of petrol stations to provide hydrogen. The open source ploy smacks of desperation, not innovation.

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About author/contributor Member: PT (David Alexander) PT (David Alexander)
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Member: PT (David Alexander) My lifelong pursuit, since age 18, has been to live more fully and find wisdom. This has involved studies with Zen masters, Tai Chi masters, and great psychotherapists while achieving my license as a gestalt therapist and psychoanalyst.

Along the way, I became aware of how the planet is under great stress due to the driven nature of human activity on this planet.

I believe that the advancement of human well-being will reduce societies addictive behaviors, and will thus also help preserve the environment and perhaps slow down the effects of global warming and other major threats to the health of human societies.

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