Fuel-Cells: Beware the Snake-Air Salesman

By Automotive Staff | January 12, 2007
How many times have you heard, “The only emission is water vapor.” Or, “This would eliminate our dependency on foreign oil.” Promises of a bright hydrogen-fueled future await us all, if we are to believe the proponents of such a future. The air will be clear, and the roar of the internal-combustion engine will be replaced by the whine of electric motors powered by hydrogen-using fuel cells.Not so fast, warns author, IT consultant, and sustainable-development proponent Darryl McMahoon, in his new book, The Emperor’s New Hydrogen Economy. McMahoon’s theory is that, although we can make a hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle right now (albeit not very cost effectively), getting the infrastructure in place to support a large number of hydrogen-powered cars would take decades. Also, the expense involved, not to mention the R&D in just getting there, may render the ultimate goal futile. For one thing, hydrogen is not a primary source of energy. We can burn wood, burn oil and its derivatives, burn natural gas, stick a windmill up and harness the power of the wind, or even make a solar panel and capture energy from the sun. In all cases, some energy is expended, whether it’s chopping down trees or pumping the oil or producing the solar cells. But with hydrogen, the expenses involved in extracting it from the other materials in which it’s embedded may prove too costly for widespread commercial use. Yes, you can extract it, but if the method of extracting it costs more than the fuel itself, what’s the point? Also, you’d be using up other fuels in the process, such as natural gas or electricity produced by burning fossil fuels. McMahoon looks at proponents of the hydrogen economy, such as California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, as people chasing a pipe dream. And McMahoon dismisses as media stunts the displaying of vehicles such as GM’s hydrogen Hummer that Schwarzenegger said was going to replace his regular Hummer. According to the author, it was a GM prototype; it was transported to the site, because it only had an 80 km (50 mile) range; and it used a hydrogen-fueled combustion engine, not a fuel cell (which means that there were still pollutants being emitted, though far fewer than with a gasoline engine).
So for McMahoon, it was a sound-and-fury publicity stunt, signifying nothing. A blast of hot air, much like hydrogen itself. But although the author thinks that the “hydrogen economy” is a paper tiger, he is a strong proponent of sustainable development, and thinks that everyone should do their part to live in an eco-friendly way. (Fuel economy tips that he recommends can be found at The Hydrogen Economy.) Via Montreal Gazette
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not necessarily. one could argue tapping into non-fossil, non-nuclear sources such as hydro, air, and biodiesel to generate the power to create the hydrogen fuel supplies.