The Climate Case for Hydrogen
- March 26, 2015
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The Christian Science Monitor recently reported, To stop climate change, flat CO2 emissions aren’t enough.
“For the first time in 40 years, the global economy grew while carbon dioxide emissions stalled. But experts warn that this won’t be enough to curb climate change.”
Quoting Thomas Peterson, principal scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA), “There are factors other than CO2 governing surface temperature and therefore global warming.” These include cloud cover, the amount of heat absorbed by the ocean, El Niño events and more.
Don Wuebbles, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, points out, “If emissions remain constant, the concentrations [of greenhouse gases] will still increase in the atmosphere for a long time. The climate response that we’re seeing in the atmosphere now is largely due to emissions that happened 20 years ago.”
In an interview with Live Science, Dr Peterson said. “We need to take CO2 down below where emissions are today by quite a bit in order just to stabilize at a particular concentration.”
So how do we obtain the energy we need, which few can legitimately contest have made the lives of those with access far better, while still addressing the other issues such as cloud cover, ocean heat absorption, El Niño events, while at the same time taking down atmospheric CO2 levels by more than quite a bit?
Elon Musk claims hydrogen fuel cell technology as a means of powering cars is “extremely silly” but the folly is overlooking the only means of energy production that addresses the uncertainties presented by Dr. Peterson.
Mr. Musk claims fuel cells are half as efficient as batteries but that is hardly relevant when every watt of energy produced to electrolyze sea water gives you a 2000 percent warming benefit whereas 87.3% of the electricity produced to charge batteries comes from fossil fuels and the rest from renewable sources that won’t stop climate change.
Hydrogen is the most common element in the universe. Mr. Musk is right that it is an energy-storage mechanism; not a source of energy but then turbines that produce electricity are mainly driven by heat derived from burning some other fuel that in itself is at best a 33% efficient process.
Although it is common, hydrogen does not exist discreetly in nature. It must be separated from another element before it can be converted back to electricity in a fuel cell, which is effectively the electrolysis process in reverse. This separation is energy intensive and the most common method of production involves steam reformation of natural gas. This produces CO2 as a byproduct so the entire process has the potential to be doubly detrimental to the environment, which reinforces Musk’s “silly” claim.
Electricity however can be produced in a manner that sequesters warming heat in the deep ocean. The more energy produced the more the ocean and the atmosphere is cooled but since this energy is produced remote from existing markets it must be converted to an energy-storage mechanism like hydrogen.
When this hydrogen is produced with the supergreen technique developed by the Lawrence Livermore team lead by Greg Rau carbon dioxide is captured from the atmospheric and an alkaline stream is produced that reduces the acidity of the oceans, which is increasing as more and more carbon dioxide is dissolved, with the acidity being detrimental to marine life.
Peter Braun of Digital Trends points out fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) have one other environmental advantage over electric vehicles or (EVs), they are less energy intensive thanks to the reduced need for battery capacity. And that “EVs have large hidden energy costs in production — especially the toxic and costly nature of lithium refining and battery production, whereas fuel cell cars, like Toyota’s Mirai, are able to use cheaper, less environmentally problematic nickel hydride batteries.
He concludes his remarks by stating hydrogen fuel-cell advocates have done themselves and the technology a disservice by claiming that it is a silver bullet that will provide the world with pollution-free transportation.
Although hydrogen is not a silver bullet as it is principally produced it is my contention it can be when created with heat pipe OTEC and supergreen electrolysis and that it is in the interest of the makers of FCVs and the planet for the car company’s to support the development of these technologies.
There is one rider to this testimonial as well as previous articles produced by this writer on this subject and that is cloud cover issue suggested by Dr. Peterson and addressed in the recent paper Atmospheric consequences of disruption of the ocean thermocline by researchers from the Department of Global Ecology, Carnegie Institution for Science at Stanford University.
The abstract states, “Technologies utilizing vertical ocean pipes have been proposed as a means to avoid global warming, either by providing a source of clean energy, increasing ocean carbon uptake, or storing thermal energy in the deep ocean. However, increased vertical transport of water has the capacity to drastically alter the ocean thermocline.”
Rather than addressing the premise of storing thermal energy in the deep ocean however as this author has repeatedly proposed, the study focuses on massive upwelling of cold water to the extent near surface temperatures of world’s ocean initially are reduced by close to 9oC, which then cools the atmosphere to the extent cloud cover is reduced with a commensurate rise in temperature of from 8.6–8.8°C by 2069.
Although one of the authors has acknowledged in an email that the direct applicability of the study to OTEC is suspect, when the conclusion of the abstract is “Prolonged application of ocean pipe technologies, rather than avoiding global warming, could exacerbate long-term warming of the climate system” it can hardly be considered an endorsement.
The entire premise of the study however, which at first glance seems to consider water movements 5,500,000 greater than would be physically possible, will be addressed in a subsequent post.
Photo Credit: Climate Change and Hydrogen/shutterstock