The Hydrogen Utopia

Ever since Sir Thomas More wrote his Utopia, the term has meant a society of such perfection that it can be found only in man's imagination.  In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when utopian movements were popular, secular utopian communities sprang up based on an ideological conception of man as basically good, cooperative, and altruistic (concerned with the welfare of others), needing only a favorable setting to unlock these virtues.  All of these secular utopian movements failed, either because of inner contradictions and impracticability - or because of conflict with the external society.

One of today's utopian contradictions is the paradigm that hydrogen is the answer to our automobile pollution problem.  Some utopian paradigms even proclaim that converting to a hydrogen burning society is the answer to our national energy problem!   Unfortunately, those lobbying for a hydrogen powered world are trapped in the child's imagination of Sir Thomas More's Utopian world.

In part the utopian idea of hydrogen arose as a result of the vast amount of hydrogen we manufacture by the steam-reforming of methane, e.g. natural gas.  Yes the technology exists and has for some time.  However, the hydrogen being produced is critical to processing today's crude oil supplies. Without it, we could not even begin to supply the necessary volumes of petrochemical feed stocks, aviation fuels, jet turbine fuel, motor gasoline, diesel, motor oils, greases, etc.   Therefore, the entire world's economy is currently at the mercy of the available supplies of crude oil and natural gas.  If either becomes scarce, the economy will collapse as a result of manufacturing capability becoming useless. 

For clarification, hydrogen is an abundant component in the molecules of both water and natural gas - and when this hydrogen is extracted and allowed to react with the oxygen in the air (combust), the result is the production of water vapor.  Therefore, in utopian theory, hydrogen appears to be an abundant, clean burning energy source suitable for powering any utopian society.  The fault in their logic is the fact that the production of hydrogen requires a tremendous input of heat (energy).  In fact, the production process requires more energy than the resulting hydrogen product contains.Yet when this low energy hydrogen is used to "upgrade" today's poor quality crude oils, the combination is synergistic, e.g. the hydrogen transforms the low energy components in the crude into viable, high energy components.  Without the hydrogen upgrade, only a few of these components would be usable in today's modern world.  

As a result, the need for hydrogen will increase and it will continue to be one of the most sought after manufacturing commodities in existence.  And while the utopian vision sees it as the motor fuel of the future, the reality is that any attempt to change over to hydrogen as our predominant motor fuel will only exacerbate our current energy and pollution problems, e.g. it will move the source of the pollution from the hydrogen burners (cars, buses, etc.) to the hydrogen producers; it will unnecessarily consume large amounts of our nonrenewable natural gas; and it will greatly reduce the availability of a commodity critically needed for meeting our current transportation and manufacturing needs. 

Many energy professionals believe hydrogen as a motor fuel to be a foolish notion of narrow vision do-gooders.  Some even equate with the insanity of hunting sperm whales to near extinction for the "lamp oil" in their skull cavities.  "Unfortunately, the voices of sanity are often drowned out by the louder voices of those who, though they know nothing, consider themselves entitled to dictate how others should live."