Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

I've written about the Hydrogen Economy before, but I just uploaded a 100MB Quicktime Movie from ECD about hydrogen fuel storage technology and the hydrogen economy. Features Stanford R. Ovshinsky (CEO/founder of ECD) and Bob Stemple (Chairman of ECD and former chairman of GM). ECD invented Nickel Metal Hydride Batteries (NiMH). The basic phenomenon of NiMH is a solid material that can absorb hydrogen. It is quite stable. The battery works by storing and releasing hydrogen inside of a closed container to store and release electrical energy. Similar materials can be used to store hydrogen fuel as well as to convert hydrogen to electricity in the form of a fuel cell.

The problem is fuel cells are still a ways away, storage is difficult and the infrastructure for production and distribution is not in place. ECD's solution, which I think makes the most sense is to use their solid storage system for storage and distribution, make a hybrid vehicle that uses a hydrogen combustion engine and a battery. Long term, we should switch from making hydrogen from fossil fuels and put in place a solar powered electrolysis network. The first phase looks like: fossil fuels->hydrogen->solid storage based distribution->hydrogen combustion->batteries->electricity->power. This will get us started. Eventually it should go to solar->hydrogen->solid storage based distribution->fuel cells->electricity->power.

I used to work for ECD and am still involved with the company so I'm a bit biased. ;-)


Sounds good, but from what I've been told by DOE researchers the efficiency of electrolysis is only about 30%. In addition the cost of solar power is 2 to 4 times the cost of other power sources. If a more efficient electrolysis method could be invented wind power would be an efficient way to produce hydrogen.

My guess is that large scale production of hydrogen will be first produced from natural gas and then by gassification of coal.

In the US the hydrogen economy has become a political excuse to ignore the short term issues that conservation can address.

Eventually we will get there, but there is little recognition that that hydrogen, to first order, is an energy storage mechanism rather than a fuel.

Russell, the cost of amorphous web (roll to roll) solar production is going down drastically. It now only takes approximately 2 years to recoup the cost of manufacture. The cost will continue to decrease. The efficiencies are not that high, but considering how much water we have and how much sun we have, it doesn't matter. Long term, solar will be the way to go. I heard Bill Clinton say something really interesting the other day. He said that he had been urging the Saudi Arabians to invest heavily in Solar. That they could be the energy kings instead of the oil kings. Start from the equator and build out, covering the earth with solar.

I agree that the short term use of hydrogen is definitely a storage mechanism rather than a fuel. In fact, everyone that uses NiMH batteries inside computers and cell phones are actually storing energy in the form of hydrogen absorption.

Steve. I agree it's often used as an excuse. That's why I think it's important to identify what we can do now, vs what is so long term it's just an excuse.

I saw a presentation by Billy Stanbery of Heliovolt ( on much cheaper thin film solar cells they're developing. Their site has a link to this piece on low cost PV.

Peter Schwartz spoke in Austin last week about an urgent need to stop saying clean energy renewables are "a long way off" and work harder to get there. This is because CO² emissions have a demonstrable impact on global climate change. He predicts that we're hastening a warming trend that will eventually flip to an ice age, and the change will be so dramatic and abrupt that it will be catastrophic. Hence the urgency... though in the research I did for the Whole Earth piece I wrote a couple of years ago, I got the impression that we're probably too late. Still, that's no rationale for denial... we should do what we can.

Schwartz advocates an approach to energy similar to the Apollo program: a significant commitment of money and talent to achieve the goal of oil independence and significant reduction of emissions.

Peter Schwartz's perspective is described in his Wired article.

Just think what would be possible if the US spent $80 billion on hydrogen or solar. Or, imagine what would happen if Iraq had one hundred thousand solar panels - one on every roof and building. Would be pretty hard to blow all of these up and stop the flow of energy.

While I overwhelmingly favor a move toward renewable energy sources and away from the current unustainable fossil fuel addiction, practical problems abound.
Let's start with the some facts:
[1] Cracking water by electrolysis takes > energy than it produces.
[2] Hydrogen gas is unusually difficult to store or transport, in part because the atoms of hydrogen can (and do) diffuse through solid metal. Also, hydrogen liquid tends to spontaneously flip from ortho to para and this creates pressure builup over time.
[3] The energy requirements for producing enough hydrogen to fuel America's current cars are estimate to equal or slightly exceed the total current product of electricity.
[4] The major issue facing the prospective hydrogen economy involves generating power on a large scale, not fueling cars. Cars could be fueld by ethanol, a wholly renewable resource. But youc an't run a power plant that powers a city on ethanol. Most power plants today use natural gas due to emissions controls, and employ huge turbines. It's not obvious how to replace that kind of mega-infrastructure with banks of batteries (a fuel cell is essentially a glorified battery).
[5] The basic problem: compare the mass of a fuel cell required to produce the same amount of energy as a given volume of gasoline. You'll find that about 10 grams of gasoline generate roughly as energy as a 25 kilogram fuel cell. That's a problem any way you slice it.

Ultimately we might be better off thinking about magnetohydrodynamic power generated from solar heating, or from geothermal heat, than from a putative hydrogen economy.
Magnetohydrodynamic power (henceforth MHD) could be easily scaled up to very large industrial levels without much exotic engineering. You are essentially talking about heating a solid material up until it becomes a plasma and generating electricity by running the plasma through a magnetic field. Solar offers extremely high temperatures in the right climate, and the electricity, once generated, can be transmitted along conventional transmission lines to anywhere it's needed. Room temp superconductors have developed greatly in the last few years and this would help increase the efficiency of MHD quite a bit.
Problems with transporting hydrogen gas to industrial-size turbines seem considerable. As mentioned, hydrogen tends to diffuse right through solid metal, so piping hydrogen gas around isn't as simple as piping the long-chain hydrocarbons of LNG.
Getting rid of the middleman in the electric generation process seems to offer a lot more benefits than substituting one type of boiler fuel (hydrogen gas) for another (natural gas from oil wells). The middleman in this case is the turbine. Huge inefficiencies get introduced by burning the fuel, then more inefficiencies by using the resulting heat to run a turbine which in turn rotates a dynamo. The back emf issues in the dynamo alone chop efficiency considerably.
If we could generate electricity directly from something like the Peltier Effect run in reverse, or MHD, or directly from amorphous solar into an inverter to convert it to AC, we'd be way ahead of the game.
I think we need to start thinking longer-term and start doing a lot more with a lot less, as Bucky Fuller remarked. We need to get rid of the inefficiency-inducing Victorian moving metal parts in our power generating system. We'd also be lot better off if we could move as quickly as possible first to hybrid cars, then to nearly all-electric cars. All-electric or entirely hydrogen fuel-cell- powered cars will probably be practical for people who live in most parts of the U.S. Anyone who has ever stomped on an accelerator to get a car over the Grapevine out of L.A. knows that an all-electric car couldn't possibly make that grade with anything to spare.
Simple things like drastically streamlining cars could greatly reduce energy requirements. Buck Fuller's streamlined teardrop car of the 1940s used a motorcycle engine, yet outpaced contemprary V-8s. Ditto the highly streamlined vehicles in the annual solar race.
Homes could and should be made more energy-efficient with convective cooling. Double-walled homes with pinholes at top and bottom have been built and offer natural convective cooling in the summer and considerable warmth in the winter. Straw-bale homes offer immense energy efficiencies and we should be promoting those low-tech solutions instead of blowing up foreign countries like Iraq to help feed our heroin-like oil addiction.

I agree that we need to focus on what clean technology is available today. I think that hydrogen internal combustion engines are a good alternative. I found a site that claims to have several different clean hydrogen solutions. They also have hydrogen car conversions. Sounds great to me.

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Joi Ito on the hydrogen economy is something I need to read/watch later: Long term, we should switch from making hydrogen from fossil fuels and put in place a solar powered electrolysis network. The first phase looks like: fossil fuels->hydrogen->solid... Read More

i'll be the first to admit this is way outside my realm, but since i've read and seen a few things about the "hydrogen economy" lately, i thought i'd apply a few braincells and bring this up so it could... Read More