Recent news articles and press release may lead one to believe that problems of our countries future energy needs may be solved with the advent of a "Hydrogen economy," and that through the proper utilization of Hydrogen America will somehow no longer be dependent on foreign oil. This is not true, the use of Hydrogen will not change our dependence on foreign oil in any way. These false notions that are being spread about Hydrogen actually takes the focus away from the real issue of renewable energy.
Hydrogen is not a fuel source. Hydrogen is at best an inefficient battery. In no way, shape or form will a crash program in the study of how to contain, ship and utilize Hydrogen as a carrier of energy make our need for energy in the future dissipate.
Hydrogen must be produced from an existing media such as water. Hydrogen is a highly reactive element, and cannot be found in its pure form anywhere on the planet. Hydrogen must be extracted, usually from water, with the use of energy. (Water is actually an ash that is produced when Hydrogen is burned in the presence of oxygen.) The amount of energy used to create Hydrogen in a usable form is always greater than the amount of energy that can be utilized from the Hydrogen produced. This is a basic principal of thermodynamics. To make a dollars worth of Hydrogen it is going to cost something like a dollar and a quarter. Because of this, Hydrogen is actually what is called an "energy sink."
Here is an example of what I mean - to use coal to produce Hydrogen to run cars, the energy source (coal) has to be converted into electricity, then into Hydrogen, and then back into electricity in the car. There will be a loss of energy at every step of the process. It is simple physics. Hydrogen has many uses, and may actually proven to be a good carrier for energy produced, but that will only be possible if a cheap alternative form of energy can be found.
Often Hydrogen produced by nuclear energy is mentioned as an alternative. Nuclear energy is indeed a form of renewable energy, but has been proven to have many drawbacks, and it usage at this juncture should be considered very carefully before we commit heavily into using nuclear energy as a fuel source. I find it disingenuous to advertise the use of "clean Hydrogen" if the power source used to create that Hydrogen is nuclear power. This scenario may clean up the air, but the proposed nuclear power plants will leave behind dangerous nuclear waste. No viable solution to the toxic waste produced by nuclear energy has ever been proposed. Nuclear energy is also dangerous in terms of national security and terrorism. Spent fuel rods are a perfect choice for a terrorist that is trying to build a nuclear "dirty" bomb. Nuclear energy is also very expensive. It could never have survived until the present date without huge government subsidies. For now, this is not a workable solution to our problems.
Any question into the area of future energy sources must be examined with two things in mind, existing energy resources, and present research into renewable energy. Existing non-renewable energy resources pretty much fall into three categories, petroleum, natural gas and coal. We probably have enough petroleum and natural gas to last another hundred years or so, and existing coal reserves should last three times as long as that. There are other considerations though, for example it has long been argued that it is not healthy for America to be dependant on foreign oil, so supply is not the only consideration.
Renewable energy breaks down into other categories, such as solar, wind power, geothermal, tidal energy and nuclear power. All of these have advantages and disadvantages, and require further research. But the promise of renewable energy from all of these sources should really be the focus of any research budget, not Hydrogen. It would seem premature to run headlong into the use of Hydrogen when we have not even decided how the Hydrogen will be produced, because Hydrogen is not a fuel source.
Bio fuels are already being produced that are competitively priced with petroleum. It is often overlooked that a car that runs on petroleum or ethanol runs on Hydrogen as well. As a matter of fact, one of the technologies produced by Hydrogen research is the Hydrogen fuel cell, which can actually be run on petroleum or ethanol or other bio-fuels. Running the countries automobiles on pure Hydrogen may very well prove to be excessively costly when compared to the cost of running a Hydrogen fuel cell on ethanol or other bio-fuels. Fuel cells will even run on gasoline.
Fuel cells are far more efficient than the combustion engine, and have no moving parts. Much of the pollution created by combustion engines would be eliminated simply by using a Hydrogen fuel cell, and with far greater gas mileage. Fuel cells are not a new technology, they were actually developed by NASA during the early space programs. This is a technology that already exists, and could be put to use immediately.
A very good alternative to nuclear energy to create pure Hydrogen would be wind power. Wind power is already produced cheaper than nuclear power. One of the drawbacks of wind power is that wind is variable, and thus sometimes there is not enough wind and sometimes there is too much wind for use by a utility to create commercial power for a community. To be used efficiently it must be stored in some way, and Hydrogen may very well prove to be an effective battery. Despite the drawbacks of wind power, the fact that it has already been proven to be cheaper than nuclear should clearly indicate that it is a better solution than nuclear power.
The importance of renewable energy as a viable solution to our country's future energy needs is paramount, Hydrogen is merely a way of carrying energy. It is important that we keep our priorities straight.