Hydrogen Wars: Episode II

Hydrogen as a direct transportation fuel is everywhere being described as 'not realistic'; or, 'not something we can depend on for many years'. This news has to provide some chuckles to those who are familiar with hydrogen markets. Petroluem refineries use vast quantities of hydrogen to strip out sulfur, to "crack" long chain hydrocarbons and benzene ring molecules (which need to broken because of benzene's status as a known human carcinogen), and generally increase the clean performance characteristics of gasoline. There's a looming shortage of hydrogen at refineries; and, with anticipated increased demand for low sulfur fuel, the hydrogen shortage will worsen, requiring more investment to boost hydrogen production. Refinery consumed hydrogen may be made from natural gas, methanol, or other hydrocarbon sources. Much more of these, and possibly uranium for nuclear energy, will be consumed for hydrogen and ultimately for petroleum refining's sake. Details below the fold.With some major oil producing regions unable to up their production of "sweet" crude oil, the demand for hydrogen at refineries will follow increased dependence on lower grade "sour" crude. Even China is looking ahead and investing in extraction of Alberta "tar sand" oil. There's enough "sour" crude in those sands to make it compete with Saudi Arabia in terms of sheer volume of oil that could be produced if the refiners can get their hands on enough hydrogen. Some of that necessary refinery-consumed hydrogen could well be coming, either directly or indirectly, from Alerta Canada-produced natural gas (they also export much natural gas to the US via pipeline).

Apply the basic Law of Supply and Demand, add a dash of conspiratorial thinking, and the popular imagination can easily conclude that rapidly expanding the pure hydrogen-fueled proportion of the domestic car fleet would drive up the price of hydrogen. That would mean hydrogen making equipment and feedstock getting diverted to a non-refining market, reducing the variable margin projections for refiners who are planning expansions. Hence, the imagined need to downplay the hydrogen economy talk 'before it gets out of hand'. Consiracy or reality, it's a pertinent question for TreeHuggers and Hummer drivers alike?

According to a recent US Department of Energy position paper which argues for a transition to nuclear powered electrolysis as a hydogen source for refineries, the following projection was reported: "The hydrogen production capacity of world refineries is 1.15 × 10*10 std ft3/d, with a U.S. refinery hydrogen production capacity of 3.56 × 10*9 std ft3/d. If that H2 was burned as it was produced, the rate of energy release for the world’s refineries would be 46 GW(t) (see attribution at end of post)".

World refining capacity currently consumes enough pure hydrogen, albeit mostly fossil fuel derived, to liberate 46 Gigawatts worth of power per day. For perspective, a single existing nuclear power generator typically operates in the 600 - 900 Megawatt output range. Forty Six (46) Gigawatts of equivalent hydrogen-stored energy compares with the output of numerous nuclear power plants.

'Hydrogen is not viable!' 'We'll have to wait years and years for this to become practical.' Maybe it's just an urban legend: a meme that Google-echos through cyberspace, ending up in dozens of mainstream media stories? Or not.

So...aside from having an adverse economic impact on refining businesses, what happens if the hydrogen that would be needed for meeting added refinery demands were instead fed to automotive fuel cells, or even to direct hydrogen burning ICE engine cars, letting the Alberta Tar Sands reserves go undeveloped, for example? TreeHugger thinks that it's readers can intuit the answer.

A similar logic can be applied to hydrogen going to meet existing refinery demands. TreeHugger leaves that one alone for later post: Episode I we'll call it.

How might 'future hydrogen', borrowed from refineries-on-paper-only be stored for distribution to H2-fueling stations instead of being sent to refinery processes?. For that solution there are plenty of research paths underway. The promise of these options might be touched on in Episode III.

A particularly interesting approach to H2 storage functionality is pictured below. See if you can guess what is being represented in the diagram. (Hint: nothing to do with a star).

Stay tuned to TreeHugger for Hydrogen Wars: Episode III and possibly I.

Charles W. Forsberg and K. Lee Peddicord1 2
Oak Ridge National Laboratory1 *
P.O. Box 2008
Oak Ridge, Tennessee 37831-6179
Tel: (865) 574-6783
dge National Laboratory, managed by UT-Battelle, LLC, for the U.S. Department of Energyunder contract DE-AC05-00OR22725.


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