Gas supply crunch in us moderates hope for hydrogen

Bob Tippee

Amid all the recent talk in Washington, DC, about natural gas, did anyone notice crust forming around the other fuel of the future?

That, of course, would be hydrogen.

In his state-of-the-union speech last January, US President George W. Bush proposed $1.2 billion in research funding "so that America can lead the world in developing clean, hydrogen-powered automobiles."

Much of that research will have to address a big—some say insurmountable—problem with hydrogen, which is that it doesn't float freely about nature eager for marriage with oxygen in a fuel cell or combustion chamber.

In fact, it floats around nature already married and to be made useful must be divorced from oxygen or carbon.

The expensive separation is from oxygen via electrolysis of water. The less-expensive separation is from carbon via steam reforming, most commonly of methane.

That's methane, as in natural gas, which has drawn attention lately for being available in deficient quantity relative to US demand.

That's current and expected demand as opposed to the much greater demand that would prevail if hydrogen from steam reforming of methane actually became the carrier of significant amounts of energy for transportation.

The Natural Petroleum Council brought attention to the gas problem, already evident in elevated prices, on Sept. 25 when it released a new report pointing to "a fundamental shift in the supply and demand balance."

With production in traditional US and Canadian basins unable to rise and demand unlikely to fall, it said, "North America is moving to a period in its history in which it will no longer be self-reliant in meeting its growing natural gas needs."

For this reason, NPC attached to its recommendations for boosting gas supply a call for moderation of consumption. Absent a major technical advance able to slash electrolysis costs, which is nowhere on the horizon, an effort to rush hydrogen into the market for vehicle fuel thus contradicts NPC's conservation appeal.

Funding hydrogen research at some level makes good sense. Expecting hydrogen to contribute meaningfully to energy supply anytime soon—like throwing money at misplaced hope—does not.

(Author's e-mail:

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