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Hydrogen Myths

By Jacqueline S. Mitchell
4 pages: | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4

Duotone of Amory Lovins

Amory Lovins
Credit: Rocky Mountain Institute

February 15 , 2005 "A hydrogen economy will mean a world where our pollution problems are solved and where our need for abundant and affordable energy is secure...and where concerns about dwindling resources are a thing of the past," says Spencer Abraham, former Secretary of Energy. If it sounds too good to be true, maybe that's because people have been saying it for the better part of two centuries, since the hydrogen fuel cell was invented in 1830. The technological limitations largely have been overcome, and eight major international oil and car companies consider themselves poised to enter the "Hydrogen Era." What's the hold-up for our Hydrogen Hopes?

Misconceptions about hydrogen among the public, politicians, environmentalists and even scientists still abound, says Amory Lovins, a physicist and CEO of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a non-profit research center that aims to foster efficient, sustainable and just use of resources. These misconceptions hamper innovation, investment and political will and delay the global transition to a hydrogen-based economy.

An award-winning researcher and author, Lovins is working hard to dispel the myths that are bumps on the road to the hydrogen economy. He spoke with FRONTIERS at length about his paper "Twenty Hydrogen Myths." Here's what we learned.

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Myth #1: Hydrogen gas is too volatile.

Blame it on the Hindenburg. In 1937, the airship Hindenburg caught fire during landing, killing one third of its passengers. The disaster was eventually attributed to leaking hydrogen, the buoyant gas that had kept the zeppelin peacefully afloat during its two-day trans-Atlantic crossing.

Photo of Hindenburg explosion

Though historians still debate the cause of the explosion — design flaw, weather anomaly or sabotage — images of the Hindenburg's fiery crash are forever filed under the public's perception of hydrogen. Add to that the development of the hydrogen bomb, and it's no wonder people think hydrogen is too volatile a fuel.

Sixty years after the Hindenburg disaster, however, former NASA engineer Addison Bain published his research exonerating hydrogen as the culprit in the fire. Addison reviewed footage of the airship burning and crashing and deemed it inconsistent with a hydrogen fire, which produces a nearly invisible flame. Bain then proceeded to interview survivors, search German archival records and analyze wreckage and samples of the fabric used in airship's envelope. Testing the fabric samples, Bain found they spontaneously burned up when exposed to an electric field similar to the atmospheric conditions of that fateful night in 1937. The cause? The aluminum compound coating the envelope's cotton fabric.

Photo comparing fuel leaks

This demonstration of fuel leak fires shows the hydrogen leak on the left burning in a contained plume while the gasoline on the right spreads out, eventually engulfing the car.
Credit: Michael R. Swain

Hydrogen gas can burn, of course, and it ignites more easily than natural gas. But hydrogen has several physical properties that actually make it a safer choice than hydrocarbon fuels. For one thing, hydrogen is extremely buoyant — almost 15 times lighter than air — and disperses and mixes with air more quickly than gasoline fumes. Once mixed with air, hydrogen gas tends to burn when ignited, unlike hydrocarbons which tend to explode with incredible violence. Moreover, hydrogen's clear flames actually burn cooler and emit less smoke than hydrocarbon fuels.

Additionally, the extreme lightness of the gas means leaking hydrogen accumulates near the ceiling of a building or storage facility — not along the floor as gasoline or propane would — where people are less likely to be burned. Next page

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4 pages: | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4

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