The Hydrogen Age

Around the same time that Smelling Land appeared, a book [1] came out that is a good complement. The first gives the theory. The Hydrogen Age fills in with technical reporting. While Scott does not write like an academic (his is livelier and more accessible), the latter reminds me of National Geographic or Popular Science: also well written, but more journalistic, with sidebars, plenty of colour photos.

And lot of facts, including surprising history. For example, the year 1886 is widely regarded as that of the birth of the automobile. The Hydrogen Age (THA) reports an automobile built by one Nicholas-Joseph Cugnot. They mention 1769 and show a photo. Perhaps it does not count because it ran on steam. So maybe it should be described as "self-propelled mechanical vehicle".

As another example, the year 1864 is widely regarded as that of the birth of the internal combustion engine. It was then that Otto and Lengen produced their first engine. THA reports an internal combustion engine invented by François Isaac de Rivaz. It ran on hydrogen. In 1813 an automobile was fitted with such an engine. The first turbojet engine, by von Ohain in 1936, ran on hydrogen.

THA reports numerous prototypes for passenger car propelled by hydrogen. Fuel storage is the bottleneck. While hydrogen has high energy yield per unit of weight, it is bulky if stored at normal temperatures. To get it down to the usual energy/volume figure, it has to be liquid, which means that it has to be below -252 Celsius at atmospheric pressure. It is a daunting prospect to have vehicles with a fuel tank that is basically an outsize thermos, which is constantly boiling off its contents. That is why it is heartening to read that the boosters of the Space Shuttles contained 528,000 gallons of liquefied gas, more than two thirds by volume in liquid hydrogen.

The large amount of buzz generated by hydrogen for passenger cars can only be explained by an irrational fixation on the transportation mode that has sucked us into a blind alley. The additional infrastructure needed to get away from oil-derived fuels points in the direction of all transportation except the passenger car. It is much more rewarding to switch the fuelling of big jet planes to hydrogen than the dozens of filling stations found in even a small town such as where I live. And if hydrogen fuelling is near-feasible for a passenger car, then it is easily feasible for municipal bus companies or other fleets of vehicles. The fact that a car fuelled with liquid hydrogen is boiling off its fuel at a constant rate points in the direction of vehicles that are in motion most of the time.

What I called "irrational fixation" with the passenger car gets an interesting twist in Chapter 17 of THA "The Internet of Energy". This is about the distributed-energy concept of Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute. A hydrogen-fuelled car driven electrically via a fuel cell is a miniature power plant provided it can be hooked up to the grid during the typically 96% of the time that it is parked. A suitably programmed smart grid can call on parked cars to supply electricity during peak hours. This takes care to some extent of the awkward fact that a car fuelled with liquid hydrogen is boiling off its fuel at a constant rate, independently of whether it is in motion or is parked. Thus THA gives us a glimpse of the architecture for the energy system in David Scott's Smelling Land showing the need for two complementary energy currencies: electricity and hydrogen.


[1] The Hydrogen Age by Geoffrey B. Holland and James J. Provenzano. Gibbs Smith, 2007.