Lovin' Hydrogen

Maverick energy guru Amory Lovins says a profitable, pollution-free hydrogen economy is just over the horizon. It's merely a matter of taming the most powerful gas on the planet

By David Barry, Brad Lemley|Thursday, November 01, 2001
RELATED TAGS: GLOBAL WARMING


The future is simple, says Amory Lovins. The future is nonpolluting, inexhaust-ible, nontoxic, and so basic that even a liberal arts major can understand its chemical structure.

The future is hydrogen: H, one proton, one electron. The first, lightest, and most common element in the universe.

The stuff that turns oil into margarine. The stuff that made the Hindenburg float. The stuff that combines with oxygen to make water and with carbon to make methane. The stuff that sends the space shuttle skyward and could someday power your car, office building, house, cell phone, even your hearing aid.



The stuff that could clean up the planet.

"The path we've mapped out makes sense and makes money," says energy visionary Amory Lovins. His plan for a worldwide hydrogen-based energy system includes using photovoltaic panels, like these atop his home/office, to crack hydrogen from water.
"Think of a world in which cars are whisper quiet, they emit only water vapor, and OPEC is out of business because the price of oil has fallen to five dollars a barrel," says Lovins, in characteristically measured tones. Global warming, smog, California-style blackouts, a whole host of ills will be solved by hydrogen, he says. "We're already on the way."

Maybe. Whether or not hydrogen will become the fuel of choice in the foreseeable future is controversial: There's no shortage of energy pundits who proclaim that Lovins and other boosters grossly underestimate the expense of making hydrogen, not to mention the technical hurdles that must be overcome. These naysayers argue that hydrogen's role in the world's fuel mix is likely to remain marginal for decades. "Amory Lovins is selling snake oil," says Myron Ebell, director of international environmental policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. "There are immense practical barriers."

Still, Lovins believes that hydrogen's virtues, deployed according to his unique plan, make its widespread use in the near future virtually inevitable. Unlike other environmentalists, who claim clean technologies will thrive only with government insistence, Lovins contends that the entire fossil-fuel economy will give way to hydrogen because of simple obsolescence and efficiencies, in much the same way that vinyl records gave way to CDs. His plan for switching to a hydrogen-based economy stresses the money to be made. As he puts it, "the transition can be profitable at every step, starting now." Lovins's role: to nudge corporations and governments along by consulting, spinning off companies, and preaching the virtues of hydrogen to all who will listen. He has advised 15 heads of state, started a hydrogen-powered-car design firm, and is, he says, "spread thinly over 50 countries."

As he speaks, Lovins strolls through the jungle of banana plants and papaya trees that crowd the greenhouse of his home in Snowmass, Colorado. The solar-heated stone structure is also headquarters of the Rocky Mountain Institute, the environmental "think-and-do tank" he and his ex-wife, Hunter Lovins, founded in 1982. An artificial waterfall tumbles, an aquaculture pond ripples, dappled sunlight plays on the granite walls. Outside, the air is hypoxic, dry, and frigid; in here, at 7,100 feet above sea level, we might as well be in Miami. And it all happens without a furnace, just sunshine.

This unusual home/office, like hydrogen fuel and like Lovins himself, exudes an odd combination of improbability, practicality, and promise. Turning 54 this month, Lovins has spent more than 30 years pushing the gospel of energy efficiency as an alternative to energy production—"negawatts are better than megawatts," he likes to say—and in that period he has metamorphosed from an environmental gadfly into an energy elder statesman. Dressed in his typical worn navy blazer, slacks, and sensible shoes, his brown eyes compressed to points behind his thick eyeglasses, he seems confident, calm, reasoned. Hydrogen, one of his latest and most fervent campaigns, is very much of a piece with his life's message: Do more, do it better, do it with less, and the world will be a better place. "Amory's concept of negawatts simply turned around the entire utility industry," says C. E. "Sandy" Thomas, president of H2Gen Innovations Inc. in Arlington, Virginia, a manufacturer of hydrogen generators. "I see him having the same impact on hydrogen and cars that he had on the utilities."

Even Lovins's harshest critics concede he's a smart fellow. Originally an experimental physicist, educated at Harvard and Oxford, he has been awarded seven honorary doctorates as well as a MacArthur genius award. Lovins is an endless font of statistics, abstruse theses, chemistry and physics arcana, wicked wit, and no small degree of hubris. With only mild irony, he designates visionaries like himself as "a higher order of primate."

Can Lovins usher in the hydrogen age? Should he? Some, including Wall Street Journal columnist George Melloan, say Lovins has been at least in part responsible for the energy crisis in California—that the state's allegiance to his negawatt-nirvana vision forestalled construction of new power plants, with disastrous consequences. Lovins denies the charge, contending that in the late 1990s deregulation allowed the state's big power producers to muscle out the little guys. The answer, ultimately, depends not upon Lovins but upon the nature of hydrogen itself. Despite its ubiquity, the hydrogen molecule lies outside our everyday experience. Because it bonds readily to other elements, we don't run into it in its elemental state. Before the hydrogen-based energy economy becomes a reality, we need to know: Is hydrogen plentiful, cheap, safe, and powerful enough to run the world?

Hydrogen-as-fuel is a surprisingly old idea. In Jules Verne's novel The Mysterious Island, published in 1874, a shipwrecked engineer suggests that when fossil fuels run out, "water will one day be employed as fuel, that hydrogen and oxygen which constitute it, used singly or together, will furnish an inexhaustible source of heat and light, of an intensity of which coal is not capable." Verne knew his physics: Pound for pound, hydrogen packs more chemical energy than any other known fuel. Hydrogen also fits the arc of history: From firewood to coal to oil to gasoline to methane, the world's fuels of choice have become increasingly decarbonized. Carbon adds bulk and smoke without adding energy. Hydrogen, the only carbon-free combustible fuel, seems the logical omega point.

Verne's visionary engineer imagined burning the hydrogen, but most modern schemes, including Lovins's, revolve around the fuel cell, a device that combines hydrogen with oxygen to generate electricity. This idea is hoary too: In 1839 Oxford-educated barrister Sir William Robert Grove figured out that if electricity could split water into hydrogen and oxygen—a process known as electrolysis—then combining the atoms would make electricity. Though Grove built a working hydrogen fuel cell, the advent of cheap fossil fuels relegated his invention to the sidelines. There it languished until the 1960s, when NASA began using fuel cells to power space missions. A fuel cell cranked out power at an attractive weight-to-voltage ratio, and the astronauts could drink its principal by-product: pure water.

Fuel cells exist in many incarnations; today the proton exchange membrane (PEM) version is one of the most popular because it is the lightest and easiest to manufacture. The thin proton exchange membrane is coated with a catalyst, usually platinum. When pressurized hydrogen gas (H2) is forced through that catalyst, it is stripped of its two electrons. The membrane allows the hydrogen's protons to flow through but stops the electrons, which zap through an external circuit as electricity. On the other side of the membrane, the protons combine with both oxygen and the electrons that have flowed through the circuit (and powered electrical devices in the process) to form water.

Anything but hydrogen will foul proton exchange membrane fuel cells, so the second crucial technology in hydrogen-energy schemes is a gadget called a reformer, which splits hydrogen from the molecules to which it clings. Most hydrogen is made by "reforming" methane with high-pressure steam; the steam interacts with the methane to separate the hydrogen from the carbon. Reformers can also wring hydrogen from coal, sewage, garbage, and paper-mill waste.

Roomy as an SUV but half the weight, "hypercars" are the future, says Lovins. This fiberglass prototype still needs an engine. Lovins claims that a carbon fiber hypercar powered by hydrogen would absorb more crash energy than a car made of steel and deliver the equivalent of 99 miles per gallon of gasoline.
Making hydrogen is already a large, mature industry, consuming some 5 percent of total methane production, with about 100 billion cubic feet of hydrogen devoted each year to such industrial tasks as refining petroleum and making hydrogenated oil for food. "There are already a lot of real experts out there who understand making, handling, and storing hydrogen safely," says Lovins.

So if hydrogen is so great, why do autos—the grand prize in any alternative-fuel scheme—still use gasoline? It's classic catch-22 economics, says Lovins: No one will set up a nationwide hydrogen production and distribution infrastructure until there are cars that demand it. But no one will build hydrogen-powered cars in bulk until they can get a sure source of hydrogen.

"Many people think you need a $100 billion hydrogen production and distribution infrastructure before you can sell the first hydrogen-powered car. That argument stopped a lot of people from thinking about it. I started at the other end of the problem," Lovins says, munching sushi from his superefficient freezer (typical of his über-frugal tendencies, he has microwaved it so briefly that the California rolls are still partially frozen). "How do we create demand?" How, in other words, could it make economic sense to build thousands of hydrogen-powered cars before even one corner gas station is ready to offer a hydrogen fill-up?

The answer, says Lovins, is buildings. Buildings use 65 percent of America's total electricity. Imagine, he says, a high-tech, computer-dependent operation that typically might fork over $1 million annually to keep standby generators humming to ensure constant power. Far better, says Lovins, for that plant to install an on-site methane reformer and a fuel cell.

With an on-site reformer merrily extracting hydrogen from methane, Lovins predicts company employees would become customers for the first fuel-cell-powered vehicles. "Private cars are parked 96 percent of the time," he says. "If we lease hydrogen fuel-cell cars first to the people who work in or around buildings where fuel cells have been installed, then when you drive to work, you can plug a supply hose into your car to feed it hydrogen from the building's reformer." The car would use that hydrogen while it sits in the garage to generate electricity for sale. "You plug your car into the electric grid," Lovins says. "While you sit at your desk, your second biggest household asset has just become a profit center, making enough electricity to return to you a third of the cost of owning the car."

Once a critical mass of hydrogen-powered cars cruises the roads, Lovins expects gas stations to install their own methane reformers and hydrogen pumps. That, in turn, will force us to revamp the national natural gas pipeline system to handle hydrogen as well as methane. (Natural gas is mostly methane with a foul smell added to it to help detect gas leaks.) Hydrogen tends to embrittle typical methane pipes, but those that are relined or built from scratch to accommodate hydrogen can transport it safely. Ultimately, Lovins believes, most homes will have a hydrogen-powered fuel cell in the cellar, heating, cooling, and producing power.

But Lovins emphasizes this scenario won't unfold by simply trying to stick fuel cells into today's heavy SUVs, which he likes to call brontomobiles. For hydrogen-powered cars to make sense, he says, their gas tanks must be sufficiently small to allow room for people and groceries to fit inside and travel reasonable distances—at least 300 miles. That requires making cars vastly lighter and more slippery, or aerodynamic, than today's models. For 10 years Lovins has promoted what he calls hypercars—ultralight, ultrastreamlined vehicles that can achieve highway speeds "with the same amount of power it takes to run an SUV's air conditioner."

In 1999, Lovins's Rocky Mountain Institute spun off Hypercar Inc., an eight-employee firm that is designing a vehicle made of lightweight carbon fiber, a stronger version of the material used to make tennis rackets and skis. At half the weight of a comparably sized vehicle such as the Lexus RX300 SUV, the car could not only travel 330 miles on 7.5 pounds of compressed hydrogen but also meet federal standards to protect occupants in a head-on collision at 30 miles per hour with a steel-bodied SUV moving at the same speed. In a garage attached to an investor's home in Aspen sits the first hypercar prototype, dubbed Revolution. It is beautiful, surprisingly large, aggressively streamlined, but just a shell made of fiberglass. An engineering team in England has finished a computer design for the car, and the real thing could go into production by 2005, says Lovins.

Whether it will is an entirely different question.

It's just smoke and mirrors," says Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, whose stated aim is to be "an effective and powerful force for economic freedom." According to detractors such as Ebell, Lovins tends to twist economic and physical reality in his ardor to save the planet. Hydrogen, they say, has one huge, basic flaw: It's an energy storage medium, not an energy source. Like a battery, more energy must be expended in its production than can be provided by its use, so while hydrogen is clean and efficient at the point of use, it just pushes the pollution and waste upstream to the point of production. "Hydrogen is the most abundant element on Earth, but free hydrogen just isn't around," says Jim Perry, president and CEO of fuel-cell maker Global Thermoelectric. Perry's company makes solid-oxide fuel (SOF) cells, a variety that can run on pure methane. "Our analysis convinces me that our technology has a better shot at being economical. With hydrogen, you have huge losses in production and distribution. The economics just aren't there."

"What Amory does not come clean about is that you have to get the hydrogen from somewhere," concurs Ebell, who remains a skeptic. "He thinks you can have a sort of free lunch, that you can get more energy out of it than you put into it. Frankly, I think he just makes this stuff up."

Lovins concedes that there are costs associated with making hydrogen but contends that "fuel-cell cars could use hydrogen at least 2.5 to 3.5 times more efficiently than today's cars use gasoline." In Lovins's analysis, this means that hydroelectric dams could make big profits by using off-peak power to crack hydrogen from water. "Those utilities could get five to seven times more for hydrogen than they can charge for electricity, which makes the economics attractive," he says. "In Europe and Japan, where taxed gasoline prices are commonly three to four times U.S. levels, this argument is even more compelling."

Ultimately, reforming methane into hydrogen will be just a "bridge," says Lovins, to a pollution-free, renewable-based-energy future. The endgame, in Lovins's view, will be using solar cells or wind farms to electrolyze water. These intermittent power producers would be able to store the energy they gather on sunny or windy days as hydrogen and use it to power both automobiles and fuel cells in buildings as well as to feed the electric grid.

But the profitability of such an arrangement is far from a sure thing. Ebell doubts that any all-hydrogen scheme can unfold without massive government regulation, not to mention far more private investment and much more time than Lovins predicts. Vaclav Smil, a professor and global-energy analyst at the University of Manitoba, says, "The problem with Amory has always been the same: having some good and desirable proposals but believing they can be too easily accomplished."

At the Rocky Mountain Institute, Amory and Hunter Lovins look to a carbon-free energy future. "Joe Q. Public wants reliable, affordable, environmentally benign power," says Hunter Lovins. "We now have a system delivering none of that." The pair divorced in 1999, but she is still the CEO of strategy at RMI.
Lovins says the cost would be relatively modest, citing a study by Directed Technologies Inc., which states that converting 18,000 gas stations to hydrogen nationwide could cost about $4.1 billion. "It is absolutely possible," says Sandy Thomas, an author of the study, "and it can be done profitably. We calculate a 10 percent return on investment at every step." (Ten percent is the standard industry threshold for deciding whether to invest.)

Ebell also mentions safety concerns. "What will happen if, in the first year of distributed hydrogen generation, an entire building blows up? The scale of investment to make sure this stuff is safe is pretty high."

"Unlike spilled gasoline, escaped hydrogen likes nothing better than to dissipate—it's very buoyant and diffuses rapidly," says Lovins. "It does ignite easily, but this requires a fourfold richer mixture in air than gasoline fumes do, or an 18-fold richer mixture, plus an unusual geometry, to detonate." Moreover, says Lovins, "a hydrogen fire can't burn you unless you are practically inside it, in contrast with burning gasoline and other hydrocarbons," which emit "searing heat that can cause critical burns at a distance."

John Stannard, president and CEO of Fuel Cell Technologies in Kingston, Ontario, contends that fuel cells are indeed coming but that the solid-oxide version will lead the charge over hydrogen-dependent proton exchange membranes for the foreseeable future. Of the roughly 200 fuel cells now cranking away worldwide, he points out, nearly all are stationary models capable of handling a mix of fuels, not just hydrogen, which gives crucial flexibility in a world of shifting fuel prices. "These make economic sense right now—they are far more reliable than diesel generators for remote applications such as radar sites, cellular towers, and the like," Stannard says. But solid-oxide fuel cells, which are heavy and run at temperatures as high as 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit, tend to be impractical for vehicles because they require longer warm-up times. "Cars might be the last place you'll find solid-oxide fuel cells," Stannard predicts.

Stannard also wonders whether the public will come around on the hydrogen safety issue. Like virtually everyone in the field, he believes hydrogen is inherently safer than gasoline, but scientific fact isn't always sufficient to sway the average consumer. "In the 1980s, we built a pair of hydrogen-powered buses," he says. "People began referring to them as 'Hindenbuses.' That kind of comment does not help."

If such obstacles are real, why are DaimlerChrysler, Ford, General Motors, Toyota, Nissan, Honda, and Mazda running fuel-cell research programs? "If you are a prudent car company, facing regulatory pressure from the government, you are going to hedge your bets," says Stannard.

The brilliant mountain sunlight climbs the granite walls and mellows into dusk. Hunter Lovins rides into the front yard on her horse and comes inside. The couple divorced in 1999, but they remain professional collaborators—and an odd pair. Hunter calls herself a cowboy and looks the part in a 10-gallon hat, jeans, and boots. Lovins, checking e-mail on his titanium-clad notebook computer, is still the cloistered academic, retaining a troglodyte pallor despite the region's relentless sunshine.

Both Amory and Hunter Lovins see a hydrogen economy as possible and desirable. But even if the shift were to take place, the result might not be to their liking. As any student of economics knows, when some desirable object or behavior can be had more cheaply, people get or do more of it. If, despite doubts, hydrogen-powered hypercars become the automobile of choice, a vast irony looms. Hunter Lovins faces it squarely.

"Frankly, this is going to be a fun car to drive," she says. "It will be a kick. The more people like it, the more they will drive." If the hydrogen economy takes off, people might simply dream up more and more things to do with this relatively benign power until they stress the system to the limit all over again.

That scenario is, a long way down the road. For the hydrogen economy to become a victim of its own success, it must first succeed. Amid charges and countercharges, one fact is clear: The transition to hydrogen will not be nearly as simple as the molecule itself.



The Hindenburg Revisited

Everyone knows that the Hindenburg burned and crashed because it was full of hydrogen. According to Addison Bain, everyone is wrong.

On May 6, 1937, dirigible LZ 129—popularly known as the Hindenburg—burst into flames over Lakehurst, New Jersey, killing 35 of the 97 people aboard. German and American investigators publicly concluded that the hydrogen that provided the craft's lift caused the disaster. Today hydrogen-fuel advocates point to the Hindenburg as the biggest obstacle to acceptance of their schemes. "A whole generation grew up with that newsreel image of the flaming Hindenburg etched on their memories," says Amory Lovins.

Bain, formerly NASA's hydrogen program manager, has spent a decade unraveling the Hindenburg disaster. He contends the craft's five-coat paint job was the culprit. The compounds saturating the cotton-cloth exterior were extremely combustible: a layer of iron oxide covered with four coats of cellulose butyrate acetate mixed with powdered aluminum. "The fuel of solid rockets, such as that used in the shuttle's boosters, has a very similar composition," says Bain. "The Hindenburg was literally painted with rocket fuel."

Bain's theory: In the stormy atmosphere, static charges built up on the ship's aluminum frame and its cloth covering. When crew members dropped the landing ropes, which were tied to the frame, the ropes got wet and were transformed into a conduit for the charge on the frame. The charge surged to the ground, which created an enormous differential between the charges on the frame and the cloth covering. As a result of that differential, the electrons flowing within the cloth cover grew so excited that they caused the aluminum powder to react with other chemicals in the paint, causing a fire. That fire moved violently across the craft's skin, spreading to the 16 hydrogen-gas-filled cells that packed the ship's interior.

Had the fire started with hydrogen, says Bain, "you would have seen a plume of fire ejected from the craft that was nearly colorless." Hydrogen fire emits light mainly in the ultraviolet spectrum, which makes it nearly invisible in daylight, but witnesses described the flames as "highly colorized."

While German authorities insisted officially that hydrogen was the culprit, Bain's analysis of sample material from its sister airship, the Graf Zeppelin II, built at the time of the Hindenburg accident, indicates that they suspected the real cause. The builders added a fireproofing agent called calcium sulfamate to the paint mixture on the Graf Zeppelin II and replaced aluminum with heavier but less-combustible bronze. Bain believes German investigators suppressed the true story out of embarrassment over having used such a hazardous substance to coat the ill-fated Hindenburg.
— B. L.


You can find a thorough, easy-to-follow explanation of fuel cells on the How Stuff Works Web site (www.howstuffworks.com/fuel-cell.htm).

For more information on the Hypercar, check out the Rocky Mountain Institute's transportation site (www.rmi.org/ sitepages/pid386.php).

Read about the Department of Energy's take on hydrogen as fuel: www.eren.doe.gov/consumerinfo/ refbriefs/a109.html.

A recent New York Times article explores some of the other environmentally friendly automobiles already on the market ("Cleaner Cars Are Here, If You Can Find Them," Micheline Maynard, September 9, 2001; www.nytimes.com/2001/ 09/09/business/ yourmoney/09FUEL.html).

Learn more about the Hindenburg by visiting the Web site PBS created to accompany its "Secrets of the Dead" episode about the explosion: www.pbs.org/wnet/ secrets/html/ e3-menu.html.

Directed Technologies, a development and consulting firm, has mapped what it contends is a profitable path to a hydrogen-powered world: www.directedtechnologies.com.The National Hydrogen Association maintains an omnibus site covering all things hydrogen at www.hydrogenus.com.

Millennium Cell has developed what it promotes as a safe method of transporting and storing hydrogen using boron electrochemistry: www.millenniumcell.com.

See www.eyeforfuelcells.com for an overview of the emerging fuel-cell industry.

At www.fuelcells.org, operated by the independent nonprofit group Fuel Cells 2000, you'll find a wealth of relatively jargon-free explanations of fuel-cell technology.


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