Monday, December 21, 2020

The Hydrogen Hoax: Confessions of a Former Hydrogenist

The "hydrogen economy" is like a zombie: no matter how many times it is slain, it keeps coming at you. Like a Hollywood zombie movie, hydrogen seems to exert a tremendous fascination because it is being sold to people as a way to keep doing everything we have been doing without any need for sacrifices or for changing our ways. Unfortunately, reality is not a movie, and the reverse is also true. Hydrogen is a pie in the sky that delays the real innovation that would make it possible to phase out fossil fuels from the world's energy mix.  (image source)


This is a re-worked and updated version of a post that I published in 2007, in Italian, during one more of the periodic returns of the "hydrogen economy," a fashionable idea that leads nowhere. For more technical information on the hydrogen scam, see the exhaustive treatment by Antonio Turiel in three posts on his blog "Crash Oil", in Spanish, "The Hydrogen Fever" One, two, and Three, all written by "Beamspot."

Confessions of a Former Hydrogenist

I think it was in 2004 when an Italian company based in Tuscany developed a hydrogen car and organized a presentation for the president of the Tuscan regional government. I was invited to attend as the local fuel cell expert. 

So, I showed up in the courtyard of the Tuscan government building where a truck had unloaded the car. It turned out to be a modified Fiat Multipla that you may know as having been awarded the 2014 prize for the ugliest car ever made. Of course, that was not the problem. It was that it was not a fuel cell car. It was just an ordinary car fitted with two compressed hydrogen cylinders under the body. The hydrogen went directly into the internal combustion engine.   
Before the President appeared, I had a chance to drive that car. I managed to make a full tour of the courtyard of the building, but it was like riding an asthmatic horse. The technician of the company told me that, yes, the regulation of the carburetor was not so easy. I could only agree on that. 
When the President showed up, he clearly had no idea of what was going on and what he was supposed to do. He sat at the wheel, drove the car for a few meters in heavy bumps, then he gave up and just sat there in order to be photographed by the journalists. The day after, the local newspapers showed the photos of the president driving the "hydrogen car," a prodigy of the Tuscan inventive.  Then the car disappeared forever into the dustbin of history, together with the long list of hydrogen-powered prototypes that were made, shown, and scrapped over the years.
1980, when I arrived in Berkeley, in California, to do a post-doc stage at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. At that time, the worst of the first oil crisis was over but the shock was still felt, and everywhere in the US and in the world it was a flourishing of research projects dedicated to new forms of energy.

In Berkeley, I worked for two years on fuel cells; the technology that was to be used to transform hydrogen into electricity and that was - and still is - essential to the concept of "hydrogen-based economy" (The idea was already well known in the 1980s, Rifkin didn't invent anything with his 2002 book). It was an interesting field, even fascinating, but very difficult. We were studying the "core" of the device, the catalyst. How it worked and what could be done to improve its performance. I think we did some good research work, although we found nothing revolutionary.

With the end of my contract at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab approaching, I started looking for a job. I remember that I was told that there was someone in Canada who had set up a company dedicated to developing fuel cells. I vaguely thought about sending them a resume but, eventually, I didn't. For what I was told, that company was little more than a garage staffed with a few enthusiasts. Not the kind of thing that promised a bright future for a researcher. 

It was a mistake on my part. Later on, the company grew and its leader, Geoffrey Ballard, became famous. They improved a fuel cell design that had been developed earlier on by NASA and the result was a major advance. It made possible the first fuel-cell bus in the world (1993). That led to Ballard being nominated "hero of the planet" in 1999. 

In the 1990s it occurred to me several times that if in 1982 I had sent that resume to Ballard, maybe I could have been one of the developers of what seemed to be the revolution of the century. The polymer membrane fuel cell (PEMFC) was the device that would have made possible the hydrogen-based economy: clean prosperity for everyone. I would have made a lot of money, too!

But, as it has often happened to me in my life, I found myself in the wrong place and out of sync with the rest of the world. In 1982, when I was looking for a job, the oil crisis seemed to be over and oil prices had fallen sharply. The interest in alternative energies was waning and, with the foresight typical of human beings, research programs on energy were being abandoned. There was little room, as a result, for a fuel cell expert. The best I could find in the US was an offer to work in a research center in Montana. It did not attract me so much and, in the end, I decided to return to my university, in Italy. There, I tried to set up a research program on fuel cells, but nobody was interested (again, the typical foresight of human beings). So after a few years, I moved to different subjects.

In the meantime, the interest in new forms of energy waxed and waned with the vagaries of oil prices. In 1991, the first gulf war was already an alarm bell, but the 9/11 attacks of 2001 made it clear to everyone that the supply of crude oil to the West was not guaranteed. Perhaps as a consequence, in 2002 there came Jeremy Rifkin's book "The Hydrogen Based Economy." Promoted by a high-profile campaign, it was a huge success and the idea became rapidly popular. It was understood as the way to solve all energy problems in a single sweep: not only hydrogen was clean and renewable, but it required no changes in people's lifestyle or habits. It was just a question of filling up your car's tank with something that was not gasoline, all the rest would remain unchanged. It was in perfect agreement with what George W. Bush had said, "The American lifestyle is not up for negotiation."

Even though I had not been working on fuel cells in Italy, Rifkin's success caused me to be shining of reflected light. It turned out that I was one of the few researchers in Italy having some hands-on experience with fuel cells. I was invited to speak at conferences and public presentations and some people even started calling me "Professor Hydrogen."(!)

I must admit that, in the beginning, I spoke as if I believed in the idea of the hydrogen-based economy, and maybe I did. But, gradually, I started having serious doubts. I even had a chance to meet Rifkin in person in 2006 at a conference that I had organized in Tuscany. His talk was all hype and no substance. When he was asked technical questions, all he could answer was something like "have faith," and then he would change subject.

As I started being more and more bothered by the hype on hydrogen, soon I saw what the real problem was. Back in the 1980s, in Berkeley, we already knew that the critical feature of fuel cells of the kind that can work near room temperature (called PEM, polymer electrode membrane cells) is the need for a catalyst at the electrodes. Without a catalyst, the cell just doesn't work at room temperature and the only catalyst that can make the cell work is platinum. 

Of course, platinum is expensive, but that's not the main problem, as I discovered when I started getting involved in studies on mineral depletion. If you were to replace the current vehicles with fuel cells, there would be no way to produce enough platinum from mines (for details, you can see this 2014 article of mine). Indeed, the two years I had spent at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab were dedicated to finding ways to use less platinum, or something else in place of platinum. It wasn't just me working on it, it was a whole research group, one of the several engaged on the subject.

There are several tricks you can play to reduce the platinum loading in fuel cells. You can use small particles and exploit their large surface/volume ratio. But small particles are highly active, they move, react with each other to form larger particles, and, eventually, your electrode no longer works. Of course, there are tricks to stabilize small particles: one of the things I worked on was platinum alloys. At times, some of these alloys seemed to work little miracles. But the problem was that the miracle worked only for a while, then something happened, the alloy "de-alloyed" and the catalyst didn't work anymore. Not the right kind of behavior for something that you expect to work on a commercial vehicle for at least ten years. 

Today, the problem has not been solved. I looked at a recent review on this subject and I saw that people are still struggling with the same problems I had when I worked as a young postdoc in Berkeley: reducing the platinum loading on the electrode by using alloys. I am sure that good progress has been made in nearly 40 years, but technological progress is subjected to diminishing returns, just like many human activities. You can move forward, but the farther you go, the more expensive it becomes -- to say nothing of the reliability problems of highly sophisticated technologies that deal with dispersed nanoparticles. And no way has been found, so far, to replace platinum with some other metal in low temperature fuel cells. Without a substitute for platinum, the hydrogen-based economy remains a pie in the sky. 

Note also that the platinum supply is just one of the problems plaguing the idea of the "hydrogen economy." There are many others: storage, safety, durability, efficiency, energy return, and probably more. No surprise that I stopped believing in the idea. I became a "former hydrogenist," one of those people who had approached the hydrogen idea with plenty of hopes, but who soon became disillusioned.

That doesn't mean there don't exist niche markets for hydrogen as an energy storage technology, but fuel cells are still mainly used for prototypes or toys. There is one commercial hydrogen car, the Toyota Mirai, an expensive and exotic car in a world where lithium batteries provide the same performance at a much lower cost. Hydrogen powered planes are a possibility, but there are none flying today, likely because they are an engineering nightmare. Perhaps a good use for hydrogen could be powering marine vessels, although fuel cells may be too expensive for this purpose. As energy storage systems, coupling electrolysis and fuel cell systems may do the job, but they are more expensive than batteries and their efficiency is also much smaller.

So, what's left of the grand idea of a "Hydrogen Based Economy," the promise of a world both prosperous and clean? Very little, it seems to me. Nevertheless, nowadays, the idea seems to be enjoying a renaissance, at least in terms of the surrounding hype, this time with the label of "blue hydrogen."  This is hydrogen that should be created from fossil fuels, while the carbon generated in the process should be captured and stored underground. Clearly, it is just a trick to make it possible for the fossil fuel industry to keep going for a while longer. 

And why "blue" hydrogen? Ah.... well, that's the miracle of our times: propaganda. Just as we can have "colored revolutions" it seems that we can invent "colored technologies." We have also "green hydrogen" and "grey hydrogen" and the latest fad seems to be "green kerosene." Karl Rove had understood it so well when  he said that "nowadays we create our own reality." It is so powerful that it can turn hydrogen blue and you can read here how this miracle was performed. But it will be harder to create platinum that is just not there. In the meantime, the hydrogen zombie keeps marching on!


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)