Credit: Rocky Mountain Institute
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?
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.
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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#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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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