The Grand Unifying Theory of Hydrogen Fuel Cells

I’m a big geek.  Always have been, probably always will be.  I love a good gadget.  I also like the general idea that the technology that succeeds is the better one.  The fax machine replaced the bicycle messenger because it is faster and cheaper.  The jet airplane replaced the turboprop because it is faster, safer and better value to the client and owner alike.  In the case of my work, the NLE computer based edit suites replaced the giant tape machines that you used to be able to fill a truck with because they are cheaper, more flexible, faster, easier to learn, use, care for and replace when needs be.  News vans gave way to news Smart Cars.  Edit rooms gave way to edit laptops.  Newspapers are giving way to websites.   It’s the natural way of things.

So why does everyone think that somehow we need to take a giant step backward in car technology to make the leap from oil to the next big thing?  The idea of going from gas and diesel powered cars that are fast, convenient and fun to battery powered cars that are none of those things is completely insane.  If everyone actually owned electric cars, we would have to use so much energy to build the infrastructure we would need (not to mention to power such an infrastructure and all its new cars) we may as well set on all the polar bears with flame throwers and hold Bangladesh underwater by its hair until it stops kicking.  The electric car is a short term, quixotic pipe dream and a brilliant marketing gimmick.  It works as a locomotive in the same was that clown shoes keep your feet dry.  They just aren’t practical.

What is practical is hydrogen.  Practical, but sadly still a ways off.  There are a host of problems.  Let me try to address these with my grand unifying theory.

Let’s start with the cars themselves.  Hydrogen fuel cell cars work by using Hydrogen fuel (stored in a tank) to make electricity by cleverly combining it with Oxygen in the atmosphere, thus creating a charge of electricity on the spot capable of driving the electric motor in the car.  The fuel cell is fine actually, and will only get better.  That isn’t the problem.  Likewise, the electric motor it powers is brilliant as is, and is getting better (just have a look at the new Dyson.)  The fuel itself is safe.  Much safer than petroleum in fact because if you get into a crash and the fuel leaks, instead of spilling all over the road where it could both catch fire and cause other cars and people to catch fire, it just goes up into the sky and dissolves harmlessly (as it is the most plentiful element in the universe there’s no threat of it tearing up the Ozone Layer.)  No, it doesn’t explode like the Hindenburg unless like the Hindenburg you spring a massive leak and fly into a static discharge the power of a bolt of lightning.

The real problem with the cars themselves is the gas tank- er- hydrogen gas tank because it will leak a little bit every day.  This is because Hydrogen atoms are very small.  So small in fact, that they find ways out of just about every container devised for them.  That means when you fly away from Maryland for a nice trip to Italy, you will come home to a car with little or no fuel in it.  This may be fixed soon though.  The new tanks will use solid state technology rather than standard compression systems.  This also means the tanks need not be shaped like normal gas tanks, nor need they be as heavy as normal gas tanks.  The gas could be stored in “energy sponges” located all over the vehicle to balance it for handling in ways you can’t store liquid gasoline as you normally might.  The third door on your hot hatchback could be a fuel canister, as could the floor of the car, or the roof.  Need more weight on the back wheels?  The car could transfer the fuel from the front to the rear to balance the car for better handling on the fly.  This also means that in a crash, you may not lose all your fuel if a fuel tank is ruptured because like compartments on a submarine, they can be walled off.  Fender bender?  Still at 90% capacity.

This leaves the problem of liquefying the hydrogen so you can pour it into the car.  The power to cool the hydrogen to -423°F (the necessary temperature to turn it to liquid so you can pour it into the car) could come from the byproduct of a fuel cell itself: water.  To explain this, let me start at the beginning of how you can make hydrogen fuel almost everywhere.

As I wrote above, Hydrogen is the most plentiful element in the universe.  It is also one of the two products of subjecting water to electrolysis, the other being Oxygen.   Electrolysis may sound like something you get when you’re tired of shaving your bathing suit region, but it’s actually how you can break up a substance like water (H2O) into its component parts: two Hydrogen atoms and one Oxygen atom.  Basically, you need to have a tank of water made up of two connected chambers leading to two towers.  In one chamber you have a positive lead (anode) and the other a negative lead (cathode.)  If the term “cathode” sounds familiar, it should.  The cathode is the “C” in “CRT Television”.  CRT stands for Cathode Ray Tube.  The Cathode Ray in question was the beam of electrons shot from the back of the TV set to the phosphorous pixels on the screen.  The reason for the glass on the screen was to absorb the stray electrons so you weren’t being shot in the face by a beta emitter and getting cancer of the face.

Anyway, you have these two chambers with the two leads electrocuting the water.  The hydrogen (the positively charged part of the water molecule) will attract to the negative lead and as it turns to gas, rising in the tower over the negative lead and into a capture container.  The opposite is true for the oxygen (the negatively charged part of the water molecule) because opposite charges attract, so it would go to the positively charged tower and could be collected and stored for other uses as well.  The idea is the charge of the leads is stronger than the bonds of the molecule, thus pulling it apart.  For this you need a good amount of power if you have a big tank of water, but sadly in the case of doing this with water it means you’re stuck with about 50% efficiency at best.  So how do you fix it?  And when you are ready to store the hydrogen, you have to liquify it and store it, which means you’ll start having it escape a little at a time.  How do you deal with that, John Galt?  Oh, wait!  Technology has a solution.

First of all, obtain the water from a river, like the Mississippi, the Hudson, or even the Nile.  Or for that matter, an ocean- which has a tide.  You can set up underwater turbines and or wind mills and or solar panels to generate electricity that you then use in part to electrify the water as described above and in part to run the rest of the processes needed for this (pumping, cooling, etc.)  Still, the process of electrolysis loses a lot of its power in heat.  How can you not waste that Mr. “Quixotic Pipe Dream”?  Well, Porsche and Toyota have brakes that turn heat into electricity.  The Eddy Current Brake does just this, and there are new magnetic alloys (Multiferroics) that do it better and that technology will only improve.  This could potentially make the process of electrolysis 90-100% efficient by applying it to the water tank in a novel way.  Then of course you have a ton of Oxygen you’ve been collecting from the electrolysis which you could oh, I don’t know, burn in order to have the necessary power.  With (maybe) a little help from the power grid such local plants could easily liquefy the fuel for storage and distribution.

So with the exception of the desert, Hydrogen seems to be the way forward everywhere.  It’s a good technology that will get better.  It’s safer than gas and diesel, more practical and efficient than plug ins (have I ever ranted at you about how crap the battery in my iPod is?  Try scaling that disappointment up to the size of a $50,000 investment and smoke it.  12 hour batter life my ass!  I’m lucky if it lasts a couple hours!)  It’s actually 0% emissions (if your plug in gets power from a coal plant, it makes Bangladeshis very sad.)  The technology to make it better and deliver the infrastructure is cheap and comes from other things that already exist so the investment in taking it worldwide won’t cost an arm and a leg (it’d be like developing the calzone from the pizza.)

But there’s a bonus.  A big bonus and I haven’t even mentioned it yet.

Think of how we obtain oil or uranium.  Some countries have it.  Some don’t.  When one of those places won’t share, there’s a war.  The whole African campaign of WW2 was about oil, as have been countless wars since.  Oil has funded awful forces of evil for decades, from Al Queda to The Dallas Cowboys.  The reason for this is simple: whoever plants their flag on the oil wins all.  Once you have the oil, which is a rare and dwindling commodity, you have everything you need.  You can ask for what you like.  You can own the means of distribution and monopolize the industry.  This gives you terrible power.  Without the oil companies doling out the gas, the world would cease to function.  If they all decided to raise the price of gas, the US would be in deep shit.  And just in case you are about to make a free market argument about oil, let me tell you in brief how the oil industry works.

First, every company does the same stuff to get the oil.  Find it, kiss the ass of the landowner or politician who can rid you of the landowner and dig it up.  Put the crude oil in a big boat and float it to a refinery, like the ones in the Gulf of Mexico.  When you deliver it to the refinery, they determine how much of each petroleum product can be made from it once it’s been through the stills: how much gasoline, kerosene, lubricant, etc.  Then, magically, it arrives that moment wherever you need it.  How?  No sleight of hand here.  It’s simple.  Oil is fungible.  It’s the same no matter where it comes from.  There’s no “premium oil”.  Oil is oil.  So it gets turned into the same stuff no matter where it came from or where it is going.  The refinery has tubes snaking all over the country that are filled with petroleum products.  Several million gallons of gas here, some diesel there, some lube over there and so on.  The areas where they mix is called, appropriately, “Mix” and is sold to the military and other industries with machines that can run on it.  The rest is constantly circulating through the world in a web of tubes like a giant circulatory system.  When the gas comes out in New Jersey, a truck loads up and drives a few miles to the gas station to refill its tanks.

So when you deliver your oil to the refinery they check that you want the gasoline in Maine and the diesel in Florida, they earmark the gas and diesel already in the pipeline for your use, as they prep your oil for the next guy to show up with an oil tanker.  Then on the end where the truck comes along, each oil company from Exxon to BP adds their own snake oil to pretend their gas is different from the next guy’s, put it in a shiny package and sell it to you a drib and drab at a time hoping beyond hope you won’t figure out that their additives do less for your car than simply maintaining good tire pressure.

The reason the free market can’t really fix this is simple: there are too few players in this game already and it takes tremendous resources to get in.  You’d have an easier time getting a thirty first major league baseball team sanctioned.  Because of this, oil companies, in collusion with their benefactors (the people who own the ground under which is oil) hoard their profits and beg for government handouts at the same time, all the while keeping their industry a closed circuit.  The truth is, this only makes sense, because their business is about to disappear.

Already there are emerging technologies for making plastic from chicken feathers and biolubricants made from renewable resources.  That adds up to less and less need for oil, once we have another energy transportation medium.  The problem isn’t the need for energy.  That’s good.  That means we’re being more productive and forcing this conversation.  The problem isn’t that we use a substance that we have to pour into cars and engines to get energy.  The problem is simple: oil makes dangerous byproducts and it is running out.  Simple.  Hydrogen is the answer.

So when local hydrogen cracking becomes the norm there will no longer be a need for huge petrol powers.  No more gas giants.  The need for the wealth necessary for such an infrastructure will no longer exist because there will be no more infrastructure of such scale.  Local companies will have just as much access as big ones and for the first time in a long time there will be competition.   Better still, there will be no more oil wars.  There will be no more oil spills.  Instead, the cheapest and most plentiful substances will be processed in a clean, inexpensive and environmentally sound manner to produce the safe, convenient fuel the world will need to move past petroleum and the cynical marketing tool that is the battery powered electric car.

Save the world with water.  That’s the way forward.  My 2¢.


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