This isn\’t the Holy Grail of emissions reduction, no

Scientists believe they have achieved the ‘holy grail’ of the green economy by designing a hydrogen production plant that can split water with sunlight.

The University of Colorado at Boulder envisages an array of mirrors that would focus sunlight onto a central tower several hundred feet tall.

The tower would heat up to around 1,350 °C – enough to liberate hydrogen from steam with the help of a metal oxide compound.

Reforming steam with an iron/cobalt oxide catalyst to produce hydrogen isn\’t new, no. I think I\’m right in saying that hydrogen is generated in steel furnaces as any residual water passes over the iron oxide that is the ore in fact. Nor is using sunlight to heat water all that amazingly new. Combining the two is interesting but it ain\’t a Holy Grail of anything at all. For this reason:

Commercialisation of such a solar-thermal reactor is only likely to happen when the economic conditions are right, claims Professor Weimer.

‘There would have to be a substantial monetary penalty for putting carbon into the atmosphere, or the price of fossil fuels would have to go way up,’ he added.

It ain\’t economic.

And we\’ve many ways of producing energy, of storing energy (which is what this is, a storage method, not a production method), that are not economic. Even if we look to the hydrogen economy we\’ve got ways of doing this that are not economic. For example, take the electricity from either solar or wind power and electrolyse water to release the H2. That might be better or worse than this method but they\’re both still uneconomic.

What we\’re looking for of course is something that is economic. And what we\’d really like is something that is cheaper, unsubsidised, without a carbon tax, than fossil fuels at which point the entire climate change problem goes away. That would be the Holy Grail….

19 thoughts on “This isn\’t the Holy Grail of emissions reduction, no”

  1. Well this is the problem. The energy in fossil fuels is free. It was stored, for free, millions of years ago, during the Age Of Plants With Really Thick Bark. So your costs are all exploration, extraction and transportation.

    To get hydrogen, on Earth, you actually need to put more energy in than you take out. There isn’t any energy in water. So it’s always going to be a more difficult energy proposition. Hydrogen isn’t an energy source (on Earth), just a storage medium. You may as well use the funlight to drive photovoltaics. Makes no difference. Whatever you do, you’re going to get less energy out than you put in. Because there’s no energy in water.

  2. We do seem to be running at at least one “revolutionary method of producing hydrogen, wonder fuel of the future” story a week, these days. Has anyone tried correlating the incidence with crop circles or UFO sightings?

  3. The problem with hydrogen isn’t producing it. There are endless ways to produce it that are cheap – at least WRT opex (capex maybe not, YMMV etc) – using renewable sources such as solar power, wmd power, unicorn farts, whatever.

    The problem with hydrogen is storing and transporting what you have produced. That, it turns out is a bugger. Hydrogen has an extremely low energy density in gas form and an extremely low liquefaction temperature. Worse H2 molecules are able to get through pretty much any joint and quite a few otherwise solid materials. In the process of escping they tend to make the material they are going through brittle, which leads to craks, which leads to lots of H2 escapaing whihc leads to exciting explosions, fires etc.

    Probably the best (although still problematic) way to store H2 is to combine it with CO (or even plain carbon) and create either methanol/ethanol or methane. The trick is that those chemical reactions aren’t dead simple either and require lots and lots of other expensive equipment such as catalysts, high temperatures, pressures etc.

  4. That is, hydrogen isn’t a fuel at all. On Earth, anyway.

    Or yet, anyway. Give it another thirty years (after the last thirty years we gave it)… 😉

    Till then, we just have to rely on the fact that we have, as you suggest, a dirty great big hydrogen reactor a mere eight or nine light-minutes away, and soak up as much of its output as we can.

  5. After having been pointed to it by an exciteable “green” acquaintance, I’ve been taking a look at “Power-to-Gas” (seems to be being enthusiastically pursued in Germany!)… The process appears to be a variety of electrolysis that takes juice from wind / solar and produces hydrogen at an efficiency of about 70% which is then converted to methane at an efficiency of 60-or-so%. This is then fed into the gas distibution system, where, I assume, it’s to be burned as fuel for CCGT generation at about another 60%. From the back of a fag packet, this gives an overall “system” efficiency of a shade over 25%. Assuming the original generators want to be paid their inflated feed-in prices I reckon that makes the stuff some 8 times more expensive than “normal” generation for onshore wind, 12 times more for offshore and Christ-knows-howmuch for solar PV.

    Doesn’t strike me as a very good idea, unless you’re into the eugenics of killing off OAPs every winter.

  6. There is no ‘climate change problem’.

    The problem is the people who say there is but have no proof… and know it.

  7. When you consider the hysterical knicker-twisting lunacy of the greens on shale and nuclear – ‘OMG! We’re all going to die, be poisoned, burnt, whatever’, it’s hard to imagine them accepting cars containing hydrogen, even if there was a free way to produce it.

  8. To all wanting a hydrogen powered future all I will say is “Hindenburg”. It just needs one event like it and suddenly the whole industry will crash and burn [sorry].

  9. It’s unlikely we will run out of commercially exploitable hydrocarbons for the next couple of centuries, Peak Oilers will still be predicting imminent doom in 100 years time.

  10. “at which point the entire climate change problem goes away”

    I bet it wouldn’t.

    Because the Greens would find some reason why we shouldn’t exploit this technology, if it were ever discovered.

    The reason being that it’s all about political power and bossing us about; climate change is just the current excuse.

  11. geneticallymodified

    The author forgets that fossil fuels were once an emerging market which required significant government investment and protection get off the ground. So renewals can hardly be criticised for needing the same.

    Having the right market conditions in place and government investment in Germany has led them to add the equivalent of over 20 nuclear power stations worth of solar power capacity in just 6 years. Last I looked we would need at least £3bn public investment or subsidy to get nuclear power stations built in this country so it’s not like they come for free.

    Like any new revolutionary and capital intensive technology, significant government investment is required to create the right conditions for growth.

    The sad thing is because we lack real strategic foresight in this country, places like China are racing ahead as leaders in the green technologies which will be the next major area of technology led economic growth on a par with the Internet (also a government funded technology in the early days)

  12. “Germany has led them to add the equivalent of over 20 nuclear power stations worth of solar power capacity in just 6 years.”

    chapter and verse for this please, GM

    (yes I know it’s late and the sun isn’t shining)

  13. geneticallymodified


    The book I first read it in was Mariano Mazzucatos excellent book, ‘The Entrepreneurial State’. She didn’t reference the claim though so I did a quick Google for it. I think an average nuclear power station is about 1 GW and I think the following article referenced the growth of solar capacity in Germany but I can’t tell as I’ve run out of my free articles on the FT this month.

    Shadows fall over German solar energy –

    I really would recommend Mariana’s book. It shows how the process of deep revolutionary technological advancement is best achieved through a robust link between government and the private sector. Venture capital is only good at jumping on the bandwagon once the government has got something going and done the basic research and it’s starting to look commercially viable. But all the really big revolutions start with long yet investment from government over decades. Venture capital needs a return in 5 years or less so it can’t do it on its own.

    For example the Internet and computers came originally from government funded research but now thanks to government and private sector innovators building on the early public development of transistors and computers speaking to each other we are in the middle of a great new technological age with all the economic and productivity benefits this brings.

    Green technology is the same – a future technology with the power to transform society and generate massive economic growth. But due to our laissez-fair short sightedness were out of the race.

  14. geneticallymodified

    Ps this is not to say that Tim might not be right about fusion being a waste of time. But investigating it is perhaps not a waste of money.

    people didn’t set out one day to create the Internet they just wanted some commuters to be able to talk to each other. Teflon was a by product of the space race. Peniccilin was an accident.

    New research and investment in new technologies is inherently risky because scientists are searching for unknown unknowns and therefore requires that there will be some failures and some guesswork.

    My point is only that dismissing something just because it is currently more costly or less feasible than coal is the wrong way to approach it

  15. @genetically, its a wonder how the USSR is not the shiny beacon it should be now, what with all those lovely state directed investments.

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