August 01, 2004

The Hydrogen Boon

A good futurist conference should surprise, and I got a major surprise tonight by actually finding myself agreeing with Jeremy Rifkin.

Wait a minute, isn't he the guy with entropy and the anti-biotech crusade? Yep. And I think we would seriously disagree if we had a longer conversation (we certainly didn't agree in the few words we exchanged after the talk). But his talk was about the hydrogen economy, and here I think he might be largely right.

His basic argument is that we are approaching a hydrogen rather than oil based economy and that this will be a Good Thing in many ways. First, he blames the fossil fuel economy of being the cause of the Mid-East crisis, excessive greenhouse warming and global inequality. I would buy maybe one or two of those, but let's not quibble. Second, fossil fuel reserves are running out... someday. Again, the exact decade is debatable, but the overall argument holds: eventually it will become really expensive to use fossil fuels, whether due to depletion, indirect costs through greenhouse effects or political costs by supporting governments like Saudi Arabia, Venezuela or Norway. At the same time renewable energy sources are low-density and variable, and nuclear power is made expensive through cultural means (my view, he didn't go into it). The solution: a distributed hydrogen economy.

The core here is that fuel cells are becoming cheap and efficient, and once they become more widely adopted we can expect further price decreases and efficiency increases - I have no doubt that Ray Kurzweil could show a nice exponential graph of present improvements. Storing energy as hydrogen turns the renewable energy sources into all-day, all-year sources. Hydrogen based cars would not just be clean, but could double as generators for the house or sell power onto the grid if the prize grew favourable. Overall, hydrogen power would fit with the new distributed paradigms of the Internet age, give the world a non-hegemonic energy source, fix the greenhouse effect and maybe even the Mid-East.

I found the core argument fairly convincing.

As I see it, the main stumbling blocks might be:

  • Good hydrogen storage. Hydrogen gas is dangerous, tricky to store and still low density, we need a good storage medium be it inside metal hydrides, borohydride or as methanol.

  • Bootstrapping problems. Nobody wants a hydrogen car today because there isn't a gas station. Presumably this could change as the petrol giants get involved (from their perspective a hydrogen economy isn't necessarily a bad thing; they could still make huge profits from selling oil to the chemical industry as well as using their sales infrastructure to sell hydrogen - if they chose to keep it, as it is not earning that much in itself). One possibility is that the hydrogen economy starts out with fuel cell refills for laptops and electronics, then moves on to refills for portable or stationary home fuel cells and then finally to cars.

  • Centralisation due to legislation, economies of scale or intellectual property. Selling power back to the grid is technically feasible but would require quite a bit of engineering and political support, which is not always forthcoming. Economies of scale might promote huge centralised hydrogen production systems rather than the distributed ones envisioned by Rifkin, supporting the hegemonic powers of the oil economy as they move over to become hydrogen powers. Intellectual property rules might both make fuel cells and hydrogen storage too costly for the third world, or worse, make it tethered to certain producers. Imagine that GM cars only run on GM hydrogen cartridges (and woe to anybody trying to reverse engineer them!).

  • Hydrogen makes a wonderful terrorist toy. This is another possibility that might strangle the hydrogen economy: if it is seen as too enabling for dangerous people, authorities might impose costly security restrictions on hydrogen, centralising it or making it too expensive.

But these problems are not insurmountable, just as the apparent threat from Big Oil and the car industry has not proven insurmountable. In many cases the apparent enemies of hydrogen power are not the true enemies, since they also stand the best chance of being major players (thanks to their infrastructure, experience, engineers etc) of a hydrogen economy. I did think Rifkin was a bit too convinced about the inevitability of hydrogen, but in the long run I can't see any other energy transport economy than hydrogen (unless we count more remote nanotech approaches like ultra-high energy molecules, diamond springs or nanoflywheels). It might not be the political panacea he makes it sound like (no technology comes with a built-in ideology or society), but it appears to make some good distributed systems possible. I also think it might be a good early application area for mesoscale and nanoscale structures, there may be some very neat synergies between the industries here.

One of the problems of making hydrogen from renewables is that you convert ambient energy into electricity and then hydrogen and then back to electricity, losing quite a bit on the way. One approach I guess Rifkin isn't so keen on is to circumvent this altogether by using photosynthetic hydrogen producing bacteria in solar ponds. This idea, developed by Robert Bradbury, is simply to use engineered bacteria (or bacterial mixtures) to convert solar power into methane or hydrogen directly. It has many advantages over electrolysis in that it avoids electric re-conversion, it can replicate making the bacterial soup very cheap, the ponds work well in the tropics and can likely be maintained in the third world more easily than hardtech. It is indeed a very green solution.

Apropos Robert. At the end of the Extro 3 conference Robert held a wonderful lecture. The schedule was by then seriously shot, the room had to be evacuated soon and in the neighbouring meeting room a wedding was taking place complete with insane jingles from what sounded like a hockey organ. Robert started out slow with various trends, then moving onwards to deal with energy (I don't think hydrogen was on his mind then), then to nanotechnology, then to uploading and then to Dyson spheres and what he later dubbed Matrioshka brains. It was wild. The tempo and scope just rose and rose as time got shorter and shorter. In the end the assembled transhumanist rose to a future shocked applause.

The fun thing is that most of the things Robert discussed were mentioned by Ray Kurzweil at his keynote speech tonight (or will be tomorrow; as always there are more slides than minutes to lecture). Taken together Rifkin and Kurzweil show that the wild ideas of transhumanists in 1997 are acceptable for keynote speeches at a futurist conference 2004. I look forward to see at Transvision what will become futurist mainstream by 2011.

Posted by Anders at August 1, 2004 07:36 AM

With regards to the terrorist threat, it seems that it would be advantageous to have a widely distributed power system. The blackout in the USA in August 2003 showed how vulnerable any country is to an attack on the power grid.

If everyone had a fuel-cell powered car that could be plugged into the house to 1) power the house and 2) feed the power grid; and if communities could have small facilities to generate hydrogen from agricultural by-products; then it would be much more difficult to bring down the entire energy grid.

Posted by: The Corpus Callosum at August 2, 2004 03:54 AM

I havn't done any numbers, but biodiesel could probably be a big player too.

It is CO2 neutral, it can be made now, and modern diesel cars can run on it directly. The distributuion system is there too.

Heck you can even make your own.

The agricultural support is being lowered worldwide so farmers will probably be looking for new crops to grow.

I currently see a lot of movement in the direction that makes bio diesel feasible.

Posted by: Max M at August 2, 2004 11:27 AM

The problem with biodiesel is that it might not be suitable for smaller applications than cars. The beauty of a hydrogen economy would be that you could use the fuel to power laptops and other small applications through fuel cells as well as entire buildings; we want fuel cells since so much equipment need electric power rather than the thermomechanical power of combustion. To my knowledge one cannot do this efficiently with biodiesel, but I might be wrong.

More seriously, biodiesel is not a good way of storing energy produced by fluctuating energy sources like wind, tidal or solar power (in the typical proposal that power is used to electrolyze water into hydrogen fuel that can be stored; biodiesel must be produced from vegetable fats).

Posted by: Anders at August 3, 2004 03:23 AM

One thing that hasn't been addressed, however is that Hydrogen is a fuel but it is not an energy source.

When we use fossil fuels to power things, we get more energy out of it than it took to get a hold of these fossil fuels. The same is not the case for Hydrogen. Indeed, all our current technologies for harvesting hyrdrogen incur a rather signifigant energy deficit and that's before we even deal with the problems you've mentioned.

If these biotech ideas you've mentioned are viable - that is they can convert solar to hydrogen, on large enough scales to be potentially useful and at a price which is economically competitive with oil, then perhaps I might regard a hydrogen economy as being potentially feasible.

But until then, I see it as just being technoutopianism.

Posted by: Korgmeister at August 3, 2004 08:07 AM

Yes, the hydrogen economy needs to get the energy from somewhere. Far too many think we don't need nuclear power because we have electricity :-)

To get the nice distributive effect Rifkin talks about one doesn't need to use hydrogen. Any way of storing, distributing and collecting locally available energy at a good efficiency could allow the stuff he talks about. But if the main energy sources are concentrated and controlled like nuclear has become (see Freeman Dyson's discussion of why and why it was not necessary in _Imagined Worlds_) the energy system likely has less democratic benefits (it would still be superior to the present, of course - we have real trouble storing generated energy).

One of the most interesting observations I encountered at WFS was the major change in energy usage patterns that began in the 70's. The oil crisis triggered a significant move towards greater efficiency and the energy production per capita actually began to decline. See for a picture (that site tries to claim it proves we will all die in a big energy crash soon, but if you plot GDP and other indicators of human welfare against the production you will see instead a tremendous growth - we are simply more efficient). Another interesting plot is at
with explanation at
that shows the predicted development of energy efficiency vs GDP.

One cannot get energy through conservation, but as systems get more efficient we need less dramatic energy sources to run them. With plastic electronics one could integrate solar collector in the cover of all the ubiquitious "smart" devices (like the animated cartoons on the milk carton and its little website showing the freshness history of the carton), with hydrogen power (or something similar) one could make use of all those renewable sources that would be pointless in a traditional lossy power grid.

Posted by: Anders at August 4, 2004 01:25 AM

(This is a tangent, I'm not trying to evade the argument or nitpick. I was just reminded of those infuriating cereal boxes on 'Minority Report'.)

Please for the love of all that is holy tell me we're not going to have animated milk cartons that monitor their own freshness.

I mean, I study marketing and all, but frankly a milk carton that talks to me seems an awful waste of resources when I can just pop it open and give it a sniff. Also, I think I'm not the only one who would find it just plain annoying.

Those graphs were interesting, although I find the use of logarythmic scales confusing.
It's interesting to see Pacific nations are very energy efficient on a GDP basis. Australia would be one of those. I'm going to have fun taking that little graph and shoving it in the faces of the Kyoto Suicide Pact apologists who harp on about how Australia is terribly pollutive on a per-capita basis.

Posted by: Korgmeister at August 7, 2004 09:27 AM

I personally think freshness detection is going to be big. It is useful, especially for goods that are harder to detect whether they are decomposing or not (like spicy conditments). And animation makes for great advertisment and entertainment - first the cereal boxes, then the milk cartons. People are of course going to go nuts over it. So either manufacturers add an "off switch" command to blank the box, or people will start knitting covers for them so one can eat breakfast in peace.

Logarithmic scales are useful, but can be used to mislead. Looking at something which increases very fast on a linear scale tends to make changes very invisible - first nothing happens, then bang a fast rise. Logging things makes the rate of change visible, but tends to make fluctuations harder to see. I think quite a bit of the robustness of the "laws" people see in these graphs are just due to shrinking of the deviations.

Posted by: Anders at August 11, 2004 01:15 PM