Without greater investment into solar and hydrogen energies, we are held hostage to rising oil prices. Alternative energies such as solar and hydrogen fuel cells offer tremendous potential to provide energy independence and energy security. The dependence of the U.S. upon imported foreign oil raises inflation, weakens our currency, exacerbates the trade deficit, and forces consumers to pay higher prices for home heating and transportation. With oil exceeding $80 a barrel in late September 2007, the only beneficiaries are countries exporting oil and oil conglomerates. I guess when countries such as Dubai, after accumulating a large trade surplus based on inflated oil prices, decides to diversify away from oil and buy a non-voting stake in the NASDAQ market, it’s a wake-up call.
To better understand the potential of alternative energy, we should try to understand two basic concepts of energy: Specific Energy and Energy Density. Without digressing into chemistry 101, (Molecular Weight Calculator) the specific energy of a fuel relates the inherent energy of the fuel relative to its weight. Typically, specific energy is measured in kilo-joules (kj) per gram. A joule is a measure of kinetic energy – one joule is the amount of energy needed to move two kilograms at a velocity of one meter per second. Or a kilo-joule equals one kilowatt-second meaning one kilowatt-hour (KWH) equals to 3,600 kilo-joules. Your local electric utility bills you by the KWH, which according to the US Department of Energy Average Retail Price of Electricity in 2007 is approximately $0.11 per KWH.
Table 1 Specific Energy and Energy Density
The specific energy of a fuel tells us how much energy can be derived from a measured amount fuel by weight. By ranking each fuel by its specific energy, one can determine how efficient each fuel is. Specific energy and fuel density are often proportional to the ratio of carbon and hydrogen atoms in the fuel. A reference to the specific energy and energy values of most fuels can be found at Hydrogen Properties
Figure 1 Specific Energy
Figure 1 illustrates how fuels compare according to their specific energy. As we can see, hydrogen, because it’s extremely light, has the highest specific energy in comparison to hydrocarbon fuels.
This however, is not the full story because volume or energy storage requirement becomes a significant factor for gaseous fuels. Specific energy is important to analyze fuel efficiency by weight, but for hydrogen that must be pressurized and cooled to bring to a liquid state, the energy density become more relevant to fuel efficiency.
Figure 2 Energy Density: KWH per Gallon
Figure 2 illustrates how fuels compare according to their energy density, that is, energy relative the container size. As we can see from figure 2, hydrogen, because it is so light, requires 15.9 times the container volume to provide the energy of diesel or oil. In comparison to diesel, ethanol requires 1.6x the container size for the same amount of energy.
The container size becomes a significant detriment for housing hydrogen. Energy density is usually measured in kilo-joules per cubic meter (kj/m3). As kilo-joules are readily translated into KWH by multiplying by the number of seconds in an hour (3,600) and the College of the Deserts’ computation into gallons, we are converting the data into KWH per gallon for those of us in the U.S.
Hydrogen fares poorly relative to energy density. However, technology offers an approach to enhance the benefits of hydrogen with fuel cells. Fuel cell enable hydrogen molecules to interact with oxygen through a membrane that allows transmission in only one direction to convert H2 into an electric current to power your automobile. Fuel Cell Basics Fuel cells often capture the hydrogen electron from hydrocarbon fuel such as methane allow convention fuels to generate hydrogen for electric generation.
In a hydrogen-based economy, solar energy can provide electric to generate hydrogen through electrolysis and vice versa. Jeremy Rifkin’s The Hydrogen Economy eloquently illustrated the hydrogen economy where fuel cell act as mini power plants and the electric network resembles the Internet where cars plug into an electrical grid supplemented by solar cells at your home and work. Electric power generation moves from large utility generation to a distributed generation – everyone plugged in can generate power to the grid. The key benefit of hydrogen is that it democratizes the energy economy bringing power to all countries in the world.
An interesting technical analysis of hydrogen energy is provided by Ulf Bossel and Baldur Eliasson Energy and the Hydrogen Economy The bottom line is that solar and hydrogen energies offer tremendous potential to low long-term fuel costs and improve our environment and climate. More research is required to lower costs and improve feasibility.