Hydrogen – the fuel of the future?

In my lifetime, there have been several senior executives or administrators that have made statements that were intended to give a glimpse of the future. In all cases, the statements seemed bold at the time, and on reflection today, the results have been interesting.

Some of these are…

  1. Electricity will soon be too cheap to meter.” This statement, made in 1954, by the chairman of the US Atomic Energy Commission was presumably based on the assumption that electricity prices, driven by a rapid proliferation of nuclear electricity generation would fall to very low levels. While that has not happened, electricity prices remain a real bargain, and the availability of more renewable energy may be creating downward pressure on prices today.
  2. In about 1970, the CEO of Digital Equipment Corp (DEC) claimed that there would never be any need for a computer in any home. For background, DEC at that time was the second largest manufacturer of computers after IBM.  The company disappeared a few years later, and of course, most homes now have computer chips inside appliances, and home computers are often considered to be essential.
  3. In about 1990, Bill Gates was quoted, saying that we needed to be prepared for a world where communications would be available at almost no cost.  At the time, I recall having to pay about $2 for a 3-minute phone call to talk to my mother less than 500 miles away.  I laughed at the concept, but the use of fibre-optic technology resulted in a rapid and dramatic increase in availability and a collapse in the costs of communications.  The wide-spread use of the internet is perhaps the most significant result.  We now routinely use “Zoom” or “Teams” for video conferences, a process that cost more than $1,000 per hour in 1990.  This technology has delivered enormous changes in all our lives – in a timeframe that most of us can remember well.
  4. One the biggest “missed opportunities” that came between between predictions and reality was a study done for AT&T in 1985 on a new device called a cellular phone. At the time, the study suggested that the market in 15 years would remain small, and AT&T chose not to invest heavily in the technology.  The actual use of cell phones in 2000 was more than 10,000% larger than the study predicted.

Each of the predictions has had impacts. In particular, the statement by the DEC CEO.  His company no longer exists, and most people don’t even remember who DEC was.

Perhaps, most interesting however, was the prediction in 1954 hinting at a future based on nuclear energy.

Many years later, I attended a presentation by one of the founders of Ballard, the Vancouver based fuel cell company.  His presentation described a future hydrogen economy that would deliver clean and plentiful energy.  At the end of the presentation, I asked where the hydrogen was going to come from.  His response was simple and direct. “One day, we will recognize the essential need to embrace nuclear electricity generation, and with that will come the new clean energy economy based on hydrogen.”  I have wondered many times since, if the fuel cell development was sparked by the Atomic Energy Commission speech on electricity being “too cheap to meter.”

Fuel Cell technology has consumed large amounts of capital and the developments have produced some impressive systems and products.  There is a powerful lobby by companies that have invested heavily in this concept.  But with current electricity prices, is this concept sustainable, or is it likely to be pushed aside by alternate concepts?

Powering personal vehicles has been a big draw for the fuel cell industry.  At the same time, battery prices have fallen dramatically, and that battle, it appears, may have been won for the moment by Battery Electric Vehicles (BEV).

BEVs have two significant advantages for automotive use.  The fuel cost is low and the efficiency is high. The BEV, based on a previous post, is an ideal recycling machine, as each time the car is stopped, kinetic energy of motion is returned to the battery.  This approach increases efficiency significantly.  A fuel cell vehicle suffers from an overall efficiency gap.  The BEV takes electricity and charges a battery.  The return efficiency for this storage is 90% or better. The fuel cell vehicle takes electricity and uses it to create hydrogen from water.  That process is about 75% efficient. The hydrogen is then stored in the vehicle and a fuel cell uses it to make clean electricity, at an efficiency of about 40%.  The efficiency may be higher if the heat produced can be captured and used.  The overall efficiency without heat capture is about 30%, and when compared to the BEV at 90% for this process, the fuel cell may not be competitive.  To capture the recycling component of the BEV, the fuel cell vehicles now add a battery to provide short term power needed, and to recycle energy when decelerating or stopping.

There are, however, some advantages of fuel cell technology in transportation.  The on-board equipment in a vehicle is far lighter than a battery system.  Also, hydrogen can be generated at a filling site during off peak electricity times and stored to be quickly delivered to the vehicle when needed.  There has been considerable interest in using this technology for long haul trucking, and applications where charging times are a productivity issue.

I once examined the weight of a battery system required to power a large truck for 500 miles, and by my calculations, the battery was so heavy, that the capacity of the truck would be limited to delivering a few bags of feathers.  This issue has apparently been addressed, as Tesla claims that their truck will haul heavy loads for more than 500 miles.

Technology is in a state of rapid change, and there are some real decisions that may make our future follow very different paths.

Is there a renaissance coming for nuclear electricity?  Will the future, predicted by the Atomic Energy Commission and the founder of Ballard, become reality through Small Modular Reactors or Fusion based energy?  Are battery systems key to our future?  Both areas are subjects of great interest and research. At present battery technology appears to have a lead but will that continue?   Given that we must stop or dramatically reduce the burning of fossil fuels, the current energy sources are more than 80% based on fossil fuels, and the renewable sources provide less than 5%.  Can a transition be made in a cost-effective way that will meet needs in less than 30 years?  Can renewables meet the challenge ahead – or is there going to be a need for another source of energy, perhaps cheaper than what we have today?  The results of current research, and the choices made will almost certainly have a huge impact on the methods used to deliver and use energy.

We live in interesting times.

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