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The Climate Case for Hydrogen

hydrogen and clouds and climate change

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?

The answer was suggested here. Produce carbon-negative hydrogen that neutralizes ocean acidity with ocean thermal energy conversion that increases ocean heat uptake as described here, here and here.

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

Jim Baird's picture

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Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on March 27, 2015

Jim, I think you have reasonable basic principles. But I think you would benefit by learning more how biology works.

There is a big difference between hydrogen gas (H2) and hydrogen in common chemicals like water. The platinum electrolysis and explosion problems and containment problems of hydrogen gas are difficult. Carbohydrates like starch and cellulose have better hydrogen energy capabilities.

The thermodynamics of small “heat” differences will never come close to the thermodynamic capabilities due to the sun radiating photons to our earth. It is silly not to focus energy development hopes on this reality. Photovoltaic semiconductors try exploit this difference by electron excitation to various “conduction bands,”  with statistical differences between semiconductor types providing some voltage and current. Biology, however, is entirely a hydrogen ion, or proton, driven photo-excitation system. Some call hydrogen ion donors=acids, acceptors=bases, and we can do chemistry.

The physical nature of hydrogen bonds are quite unique, and nature exploits them fully. Proteins, including enzymes, are precisely configured hydrogen bond circuits. “Heat” is a measure of proton activity, the excitation probability is dependent on infra-red frequency density. Proton transfer, like in fuel cells, is a quantum mechanical event, entirely different from the “ball and stick” chemistry we get introduced to.

We will need to develop some science skills to learn what nature is doing. Nuclear energy is not a policy, it is a science; same with hydrogen energy. The sooner we can ignore the burn biomass to boil water and turn a turbine generator energy foolishness, the better.

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on March 27, 2015

Jim, please don’t accuse me of a superior intellect. An undying fascination and curiosity maybe.

Pure water has a higher energy than salt water. As you know better than most, that heated ocean surface water should be evaporating to create rain. Thus, net planetary cooling (work) is done when rain is moved to land. Likely, we have several problems at hand.

I once worked at a big old movie theater that sprayed water mist into the air with a blower to evaporate water. That old air conditioner could cool the old cave in minutes. Physics hasn’t changed, something with the ocean’s ability to evaporate has.

Hops Gegangen's picture
Hops Gegangen on March 28, 2015


Speaking of chemistry, how does the OTEC equipment deal with the salt water? I assume most of the equipment is made of steel, and being in or near salt water will cause the steel to oxidize (rust) unless you have an on-going investment in painting.

I’ve always been concerned about the amount of steel required for this plan — and making steel emits a lot of CO2. It seems we would need not just the initial steel, but replacement over time.

Meanwhile, modern industry has already used most of the readily accessible high-quality iron ore. There is a lot of low-quality ore in Australia, which gets sent to China, where they burn a lot of coal to refine it.

Maybe to maximize the impact of a given amount of steel, we should put nuclear power plants on ships and have them do nothing but drive the pumps for the heat exchange. 

One geo-engineering scheme is to pump a spray of sea water into the air to form clouds. If we blow the cold sea water into the air, it would cool the air and form clouds.



Grace Adams's picture
Grace Adams on June 3, 2015

So use OTEC to make enough electricity to split some seawater into hydrogen (which will happily float up whatever pipe you give it to float up), oxygen which you let go, Chlorine (which you also let go), and sodium which reacts with CO2 dissolved in seawater to form sodium bicarbonate. At the high end of the pipe, put a hydrogen fuel cell to get both potable water and electric power from the hydrogen. How can you raise enough money to do this with the immediate benefissiaries being less developed nations to which it must be given because they have no money to pay for it, and the fossil fuel giants very much resenting the competition for their wares–and they don’t care who they kill with all their greenhouse gas emissions.  Do you really believe there is anyone both liberal enough and rich enough to contribute money to this cause?

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