The American West at Risk: Science, Myths, and Politics of Land Abuse and Recovery

By Howard G. Wilshire; Jane E. Nielson et al. | Go to book overview

Appendix 10
“Democratizing” Energy:
Hydrogen Fuel Cells

For the first time in human history, we have within our grasp a ubiqui-
tous form of energy, what proponents call “forever fuel
.”

Jeremy Rifkin, The Hydrogen Economy

Burning hydrogen in fuel cells briefly seemed the solution to environmental pollution from vehicles’ fossil fuel emissions (see chapter 12) and the ideal replacement for declining petroleum supplies (see appendix 9). In 2002, the U.S. government abandoned research on high-mileage gasoline-conserving vehicles to embrace fuel cell research for running future vehicles.1 Hydrogen is not a primary energy source like oil, however, but an energy carrier, like electricity. Hydrogen gas (H2) is used to run fuel cells. It is the most common element in the universe, but relatively rare on Earth’s surface because it is extremely light in weight and easily escapes into space.2 So H2 must be generated from hydrogen-bearing compounds such as water and organic hydrocarbons, including coal, petroleum, natural gas, wood, and grain. Unfortunately, the processes for extracting hydrogen are both energy inefficient and polluting.3Hydrogen can be liberated from its compounds in three main ways, all requiring substantial energy input:4
Heat and catalysts extract (reform) hydrogen from the hydrocarbons listed above.
Electricity splits water molecules (electrolysis).
A variety of experimental processes include sunlight, plasma discharges, and microorganisms, or splitting water with heat from very-high-temperature reactors.

None of these options will lessen the nation’s dependence on imported fossil fuels.

Current annual U.S. hydrogen production is nine million tons.5 The United States currently produces 97% of it by reforming natural gas or gasifying coal,6 both fossil fuels. We would need more than 12 times that amount—110 million tons of hydrogen per year—just to run today’s U.S. gasoline-burning fleet of light trucks and cars. Seawater could provide an essentially limitless hydrogen supply,

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