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Community director with Pickens Plan. Hydrogen energy advocate.
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  • Why The Future of Transportation Fuel Is Hydrogen 4 comments
    Jul 10, 2009 3:08 PM



    A recent television ad from Exxon/Mobil introduces the concept of an on-board fuel reformer for vehicles (view the ad here). These devices combine water and oil (or another feedstock) at elevated temperature in the presence of a catalyst to produce Hydrogen fuel for the vehicle. This sounds very complicated but it really isn’t that hard to understand.  I have written explanations of the process before so won’t go into a lengthy description of them again.  

    The main point here is that this is a time tested way to produce clean hydrogen fuel and the one that major oil companies seem to be getting behind. Steam reforming at oil refineries is the way that almost all commercially available hydrogen is produced today. I think that this process will end up as the way that we go with vehicle fuels. It may not be on board reforming but it is the logical choice for several important reasons.

    First off because it keeps traditional fuels like oil and natural gas in the game for the foreseeable future while at the same time bringing all of the new, green fuels into the market without the need for specialized fuel systems for each. Another TV ad from Exxon describes their construction of a hundred million dollar facility which reforms natural gas and water into hydrogen and sequesters the CO2 produced in the process (view ad here).

    Hydrogen is the only fuel which can be produced by essentially the same process from a variety of domestically available feedstock's. These would include oil (petroleum) , vegetable oil, biomass, alcohol, natural gas, and biodiesel. Even sugar and coal become players in the transportation fuel sector in this scenario.  I included the hyperlinks for each feedstock to show that the process is already in existence to reform each into hydrogen fuel.

    The coal industry is already developing this technology to produce hydrogen fuel for power plants. They are building their FutureGen plant now outside Mattoon Illinois. This same process could just as easily produce hydrogen fuel for vehicles which makes the coal reserves of the world into another vehicle fuel resource.

    Second, it also allows us to transition to one fuel (hydrogen) which will be able to be used with currently available technology in any vehicle from passenger cars to heavy trucks and is the necessary fuel for fuel cell vehicles in the near/long term future. I recently asked someone who follows the hydrogen industry how soon fuel cell vehicles could be on the market at a price comparable to internal combustion vehicles and he said that the current estimate is as soon as 2015 assuming mass production of them.

    Third, the transition to hydrogen fuel produced from multiple feedstocks would create a whole new environment of competition within the vehicle fuel sector. All of the hydrogen producers would be competing for market share and this situation could be expected to drive the development of better production technologies as producers are forced to compete with each other to deliver their common product at the lowest cost possible. No longer would a few global corporations be able to set and manipulate the price of transportation fuel because regional and even local producers would be there competing with them.

    Fourth, hydrogen fuel produced from water using energy from clean energy sources such as wind, solar or concentrated solar is the ultimate evolution of this fuel and at that point becomes endlessly renewable and 100% non polluting. In the meantime any hydrogen fuel produced will create less CO2 than is currently created by burning fossil fuels. Petroleum, natural gas and coal have carbon sequestration to dispose of the CO2 they produce and while there may be a lot of argument over the wisdom of using this method of disposal these energy giants have the financial and political muscle to accomplish their goal of using it and to then market their hydrogen fuel as 100% green. I think that it will be readily accepted by the average American consumer because it can be portrayed as both “green” and at the same time will allow them to transition to a new fuel without changing their daily lives or giving up their SUVs.


    Hydrogen produced from renewables such as biomass, alcohol or vegetable oil are already considered carbon neutral and the CO2 they produce will be seen as “acceptable” by the greens. So it will be a transition to a green economy that evolves along a line of less and less pollution as a natural result of the process instead of a forced transition with unpredictable outcomes. It allows the free market to determine the evolution and final outcome of our transportation infrastructure along normal, time tested lines without the huge public investment that is necessary for “forced” manipulations of the market that can never guarantee consumer acceptance. For these reasons it seems obvious that hydrogen, produced from all of these readily available domestic resources will be the only logical choice for the future.

    I originally became involved with the Pickens Plan because I thought that it represented a good starting point for this evolution. Switching heavy trucks to natural gas is a step toward hydrogen in that it puts gaseous fuels into common usage and in addition it is really the only readily available alternative fuel for the freight transportation sector since electric or fuel cell trucks are further off than passenger cars. From that standpoint it is easy to see it as a “bridge” to a hydrogen fuel future and I think it is the only financially viable path to take.

    In fact, according to a representative from a company who produces natural gas fuel systems for cars, a natural gas system can also run on hydrogen fuel with different storage tanks. Besides that Pickens introduced some new aspects into the debate. He pointed out that it is in our best interest to move toward energy independence as a nation from a national security perspective as well as an economic one.






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Comments (4)
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  • I think this is essentially correct. Hydrogen is the future fuel. So far, though, it seems to be politically incorrect, possibly because it is such a disruptor - threat to the fossil fuel industry. Using sun, wind, geothermal and electrolyzers there is a potential for clean green and relatively free energy. Many see that as an economic problem.
    10 Jul 2009, 07:46 PM Reply Like
  • Currently, the U.S. and most of the world is in what would be called the fossil fuel economy. The majority of our power source is from oil, natural gas, coal, and petroleum products. We need energy to keep our world and society running; however, fossil fuel energy also creates problems such as pollution, climate change and imported oil dependence.
    In a pure hydrogen economy, the hydrogen must be derived from renewable sources rather than fossil fuels so that we stop releasing carbon into the atmosphere. The scenario described here is a mixed one where all energy sources coexist to produce a single form of fuel. This mixed system has the benefit of reducing not only pollution, but also greenhouse gas and oil dependence. In addition, we will have a more distributed production network since hydrogen can be produced anywhere that you have electricity and water.
    However, generating enough electricity without using more fossil fuels to produce hydrogen will be a challenge. Another big question, similar to that of the CNG (compressed natural gas) as described in my article- “Investing in the Pickens Plan, One Year Later”, is the transporting, distributing and storing infrastructure. Once both of these questions are answered in an economical way, the mixed hydrogen economy should theoretically be in place.
    12 Jul 2009, 05:48 PM Reply Like
  • Author’s reply » The transition is going to end up being a gradual one and the scenario I presented above is the one that I think market indicators are pointing toward. Infrastructure will be built as consumer demand warrants.


    One thing I like about Boone Pickens idea of transitioning trucks to CNG fuel is that it can start with fleets which refuel at their home terminal every day. This will allow the CNG refueling network to start out being built from company to company.


    If you remember when diesel autos were very rare in the US the only place that their owners could get fuel was at truckstops. Yet they caught on somewhat and, as they did, gas stations started installing diesel pumps. The same will be true with CNG and eventually hydrogen.
    12 Jul 2009, 11:44 PM Reply Like
  • I am a professional fuel cell industry analyst, and agree with your comparatively holistic view of at least a partial transition to a 'hydrogen economy' taken in stages over time. I have a couple of important points to add: although one may be skeptical of Exxon touting on-board reformation of gasoline, on-board reformation of natural gas as pursued by a consortium of Mass-based Nuvera, Nissan and Renault as well as independent German/EU Fraunhoffer Research Institute has been successfully done (still far from economically feasible, etc.). I also look at all fuel cell technologies, particularly Solid Oxide Fuel Cells which can internally reform a variety of much more complex fuels from from bio-ethanol, methanol, AD gas, and even diesel jet fuel. And using a fuel cell rather than a combustion engine is many times cleaner and produces far less CO2 even with sequestration (which is still extremely difficult). But in regard to the FutureGen clean-coal/solid oxide fuel cell muli-megawatt power project, the DoE cut the funding last year, as that like fusion power was deemed to be perhaps thirty years in the future.


    And remember, just the mining of coal is not such a pretty thing.


    Jim Horwitz, Newton, MA
    14 Jul 2009, 09:30 AM Reply Like
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