False Hydrogen Economy

I clearly remember a SciAm piece from last year or the year before that made this same point. Unfortunately, I could not find said piece. However, I have been pestering anyone who would listen since I read it in order to raise awareness of the points that this PhysOrg pieces also makes. I am definitely glad to see more folks pointing out the overt problems with hydrogen.

I don’t know about the “electron economy”, though. It conceptually makes sense, in terms of reducing the stated energy conversions. I just don’t know enough to say whether such a goal is feasible. And I worry that by proffering such a similar sounding, almost as catchy alternative, that such a model would stifle innovation as effectively as current so-called sustainable initiatives are doing.

At least in the US, I hear a lot about hydrogen fuel cells (though less so recently) and corn derived ethanol fuels. The “go yellow to go green” stuff frustrates me for similar reasons as the “hydrogen” economy. If you research, you’ll see that there are other agricultural sources for bio-fuels that net much more favorable energy ratios, like switch grass and poplar. The latter was talked about in science news recently after the poplar genome was more or less fully sequenced. Speculation abounds about GM variants that might yield quicker harvests with even more favorable energy conversion ratios.

Regardless, the push for “hydrogen” and “corn-a-hol” are more political than scientific or technical, in my view. And that drives me crazy. Worse, the politicizing of these two ideas, I think, stacks the deck against a possible open market that would better encourage all of the various alternatives. Consumers have been pretty well informed about environmental impact and if you credit the reporting of sales on hybrid and pure electric vehicles, green is very sellable. Do we have to narrow the field to just those that are politically expedient?

So the “electron economy” bugs me more because its just too damned easy to swap from the more political alternatives of hydrogen and corn-a-hol with very little thought or friction. I’m sure the idea has merits but I would much rather we invest in a more diversified energy base so as to be more resistant, on the whole, to problems with any one source. Unless the field is leveled, though, I am skeptical about the markets ability to innovated and, perhaps more importantly, sell a wide variety of alternative. I know infrastructure is part of the problem, especially for portable energy needs, like transportation, but still, I think the danger of an energy monoculture merits a bit more reflection before buying into glib and ultimately infeasible solutions.

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