Friday, February 19, 2021

Hydrogen fuel cells

This post is along the lines of "give a zealot enough rope..."

I keep hammering on my token, Progressive friend about the problems with intermittency of solar and wind-power.

He assures me that those problems were solved in the 1960s(!).  He claims that debugged, validated hydrogen fuel cells are ready to rock-and-roll, that excess electricity at the solar farm or wind farm can be turned into hydrogen and piped via existing pipelines to people's homes.

According to my friend, a Hydrogen Fuel Cell the size of a toaster oven can supply all the electricity needed by a house. A HFC enough electricity for a school and so-on and so-forth.

When pressed, he says he is too busy to dig up the research and the academic papers, but he has personally talked to generals in the military and titans-of-industry who agree that it is so.

If you were looking for a tree you would look in a forest. If you were looking for a fish you would look in a stream or the ocean.

If you were looking for a pilot (or production) HFC economy you would look in countries with developed technology, abundant sunshine, hostile neighbors and no petroleum reserves and no hydro or geothermal resources.

Candidates that come to mind are Israel, Pakistan (hey, they have the nuke), India, South Africa (they had the technical chops at one time), Australia, the leeward side of the big Island of Hawaii, California.

If HFC is plug-and-play technology, one would expect to see some running at least at the university level.


  1. Noticed a very large and very recent uptick on how Hydrogen will solve all of our energy woes.

    I do not know at all but my --guess-- is that this is being astroturfed by the natural gas people. Right now, they are selling a lot of product but the "activists" do not want CO2 production.

    Actually, the "activists" want to cripple our economy so they can claim that Capitalism doesn't work and it is time to implement Communism but the environment is their pathway as nobody in their right mind would own up to wanting the real reason.

    Anyway, Natural gas is mostly Methane - carbon and four hydrogens. There is a process called Steam Reformation which can extract the hydrogen fairly cheaply.

    The devil is in the details - hydrogen is nasty stuff to try to store, to send through a pipeline, etc... It makes most metals very brittle. It is explosive over a very wide range so the smallest leaks are dangerous.

    Old-school tech guru Don Lancaster has some good writeups:
    Be sure to scroll down and click on the links to his PDF articles. A lot of good data there.

  2. I would suggest that lighting farts would be a better source of heat. It would result in equal heat from equal work and promote legume production by local farmers and eliminate the need for extensive pipelines and infrastructure. And of course seasonal heating demand could be easily adjusted with simple dietary adjustments. And small pocket sized wind generators would not pose a threat to eagles and other wildlife.---ken

  3. A toaster sized fuel cell might provide enough power to run a Fiat 500. Hydrogen IS a viable alternative to gas/diesel but the infrastructure required to use it will cost a fortune. Plus Hydrogen, while very common is almost ALWAYS attached to another atom and breaking that bond requires more energy then you get "burning" Hydrogen. That's ok I you use solar, wind or nuclear to provide the energy to electrolyse water to get Hydrogen. But almost all Hydrogen is gotten from electricity derived from fossil a LOSS of energy.

  4. E-Foy makes a Fuel cell running on Methanol. I am looking into one for my boat. It is for keeping the house batteries charged. It is bigger than a toaster, but still quite small and compact.

  5. Hydrogen atoms are so small they can leak thru glass. See the problem now?

  6. You cannot create or destroy energy. All you can do is convert one form of energy to another form.
    The question is "where do you get the energy to convert? Solar, wind and nuclear are cost efficient possibilities. Fossil fuel is not a cost effective source for cracking hydrogen atoms from another molecule.
    No infrastructure currently supports a hydrogen energy source on a large scale. It just ain't there. Furthermore, as it was pointed out, hydrogen atoms are very small. They're actually there smallest atom in existence that we know of.
    Fuel cells will go mainstream when somebody devil's 'dirty' fuel cells. That is, a fuel cell that will run on a hydrocarbon. When people can drive up to the pump and fill their fuel cell reservoir with diesel, kerosene, gasoline, natural gas or propane then fuel cells will become a mainstream energy source.

  7. Portland, OR is powered in part by methane fuel cells using CH4 from the sewage treatment plant. Has been for over a decade IIRC. The roadblock, or at least one of them, is the anti-petroleum idiots. Almost 20 years ago, someone had prototype FCs that could use gasoline. Kero required a catalytic converter before being run through, and there were issues with Sulfur.
    So the basics are there, just gotta take away the subsidies from wind.

  8. It appears that the only "hydrogen" about, is your acquaintance "gaslighting" you.

    If he *HAS* spoken to "generals and titans of industry", and, indeed, it is "ready to rock and roll", THAT means there is bioth a distribution pipeline, so to speak, for the devices. (asserting facts that are not in evidence), AS WELL AS systems to distribute feedstock, which others have spoken to, above.

    I call bullshit.

    1. Calling bullshit is my inclination too, but journalistic integrity and all that.

      Fuel cells were used by NASA back in the sixties. NASA and *economically* viable rarely intersect.

      Regarding Generals and Titans-of-Industry: I get more cynical as I get older. Promotion within the military is cutthroat. It is up or out.

      It is human to over-promise what you are selling if it means getting fired if the sucker doesn't buy. Nobody ever got promoted milking the cows and keeping the fences up. It is like getting a Ph.D. You have to push the boundaries (even when they are unsustainable because the last guy pushed them there.)

      While I might roll my eyes when he quotes "generals", the real reason I don't give it much credence is not because I doubt that he had those conversations but I have no insight into how the general benefits from pitching those stories.

  9. The trouble with HFC's is the fuel storage. To store enough BTUs of hydrogen in a small enough volume requires extremely high pressures, and as noted earlier, Hydrogen gas being a very very small molecule is able to diffuse through almost anything. The issue is energy density. Basically the safety problems encountered by the Hindenburg have never been overcome for common usage. The only places that use hydrogen in any quantity do so sporadically and have spent enormous amounts of money to address safety issues which your common civilian user could not afford. Think NASA. I assure you thaey don't have large quantities of liquid H2 just sitting around.

    From the DOE website ...

    Hydrogen can be stored in a variety of ways, but for hydrogen to be a competitive fuel for vehicles, the hydrogen vehicle must be able to travel a comparable distance to conventional hydrocarbon-fueled vehicles.

    Hydrogen can be physically stored as either a gas or a liquid. Storage as a gas typically requires high-pressure tanks (5000–10,000 psi tank pressure). Storage of hydrogen as a liquid requires cryogenic temperatures because the boiling point of hydrogen at one atmosphere pressure is -252.8°C.

    Not the stuff of every-day usage.

    1. One alternative is to combine it with another element like carbon or nitrogen and then decompose it when needed. The downside is that anhydrous ammonia is considered toxic and the extra steps consume energy.

      There is no free lunch.

    2. Every extra intermediate step cost money in equipment and energy, and the associated safety risks they entail.

      Lots of things are technically feasible, but commercially irrelevant. They only times they make sense is when obvious cheaper and safer alternatives are not available.

    3. Not to mention, if you have it combined with carbon ... that's called hydrocarbons and is what we do now starting at natural gas, and working your way up to Bunker C. And you can skip the HFC and go directly to an ICE.
      Combine with nitrogen, and you have ammonia. Highly toxic, as you point out, as well as flammable. They used to use it as a refrigerant, and quit as soon as fluorocarbons became available.

  10. As you can see, green energy is a religion....

  11. Hydrogen migrates through damn near ANY containment vessel and goes BOOM really easy... I'll pass.

  12. With a fuel tank at 10,000 psi, there will be two BOOMS in rapid succession.