An Exercise In Magical Thinking
We are desperate. I mean, the professional managerial class, running the show called capitalism and industrial civilization in a broader sense, is dying to keep the wheels of the bus rolling. Even if they have started to come off. I truly don’t know whether our leadership class is just plain short-sighted and gullible (lacking a basic understanding of chemistry and physics) or simply intellectually dishonest, driven by their pursuit of monetary gains. I know that everyone is trying their best in solving the climate and energy crisis at hand, however instead of engaging in an honest discourse about what is truly sustainable, we get a dash of ‘You need not to worry, we have the situation under control, just give us more money.’ The story I’m going to share today is a case in point.
Recently, an idea about generating green hydrogen caught my attention. It looked good on paper, drilling down a bit, however, revealed quite many features of a green exercise in futility. Even to someone who took elementary level chemistry a bit more seriously than sticking gum under the teacher’s desk, it should be clear that this is a one way street and not a highway to Technutopia.
Here is the deal: you give us aluminum scraps (cans) and we turn them into green hydrogen and green alumina by using our ‘proprietary exothermic reactor’. As a byproduct we also produce heat and green electricity by the megawatts. Sounds scientific and sustainable enough? Sure! So much so, that a joint program run by the governments of Canada and Germany has awarded a $2.2 million grant to it. (OK, I would not consider these two entities among the wisest of all, but still…)
Before we get into the nitty gritty details of why this is not the award winning idea everyone was waiting for, let us first understand the problem this solution proposes an answer for. After it has been realized by the managerial class that renewables alone will simply not be able to produce neither the stable electricity, nor the high heat needed to reproduce themselves, let alone maintaining the rest of this civilization, a scramble begun for a clean, portable, storable and dense energy source.
Lacking better alternatives, the choice fell on Hydrogen, which — newsflash — turned out to be not a resource, but a spectacular way of wasting energy. Again, this was blatantly obvious decades ago already, yet the idea kept crawling back time after time. The fundamental issue is, that unlike coal or oil, hydrogen is not available in its pure and elemental form in nature. You have to invest energy and use scarce metals to separate it from its best buddy, Oxygen, then suffer all the losses (waste heat and escaped Hydrogen molecules) occurring during generation, compression, storage, transportation and use... Only to turn the remaining quantity back into water, hoping that you will get something out in the form of useful work in the end.
This whole process is giving you back roughly one quarter of the energy, compared to what you put into generation at step 1 — without taking into account the vast amount of energy and resources needed to build and maintain such a system. For example if you have got a 100 kWh of electricity from your solar panels in the Sahara, you get roughly 25 kWh back in form of electricity moving your truck from point A to B in Europe. Good luck using that little portion to build out then maintain the whole system, let alone upholding the entire civilization.
Germany and Canada, definitely not the sunniest of all places, thus needed a better solution, preferably closer to home. Sticking with ‘green’ solutions, using hydro, biomass or other ‘renewables’ in general to make hydrogen, would simply tie up too much resources, and as we have seen, would be highly inefficient. As a recent study on green hydrogen pointed out:
Finally, a large amount of electricity would be needed to satisfy the demand for green hydrogen in industry. If green hydrogen provided 16.8 EJ to chemicals and steel only by 2050, this would require total electricity of almost 6.81 PWh/yr (IRENA, 2021b). For comparison, this is close to the world’s entire renewable electricity production in 2020 (7 PWh). The issue, however, is not the total electricity needed, since the global renewable resource potential is in orders of magnitude higher than hydrogen demand, but whether the annual pace of development of renewable electricity will be fast enough to meet the needs of both end-use electrification and the development of a global supply chain in green hydrogen (IRENA, 2020a, 2021b).
Welcome to reality 101. Just because we theoretically have a global renewable resource potential “orders of magnitude higher than hydrogen demand”, it doesn’t mean that we have the means and resources to turn it into useful energy, nor does it mean that this whole effort would have a net benefit as a result. It takes an immense amount of raw materials — which we simply don’t have — to build out and maintain this system: repair and replace panels, turbines, generators, transformers, inverters — or any other kind of technology — at regular intervals, to infinity and beyond. All this on a planet which is already peaking in the production of these key mineral inputs, a planet which is already chuck full of plastics, radioactive, carcinogen and all other sorts of waste, and the ecosystem of which is already dying — with our without climate change.
Hydrogen is thus the wrong answer for the wrong question. One should not be surprised then, that even worse answers are given to the question of ’how do we generate more hydrogen?’ Like the one in the idea above, suggesting the use of another finite resource to ‘solve’ this false problem: aluminum scrap metal. Yes, cans.
And here is the dirty little secret behind this proprietary exothermic reactor idea. It does not produce ready to use clean aluminum bars and sheets besides the much coveted green hydrogen, but alumina: known as aluminum-oxide. This is the raw material for aluminum smelters, which are using electrolysis to get rid of the oxygen and to turn this white powder into clean aluminum bars, slabs and sheets. Yes, the magic lingo ‘exothermic’ means ‘releasing heat’ i.e.: slow burn. In layman’s terms: this ‘proprietary exothermic reactor’ slowly ‘burns’ aluminum in the presence of water, using a chemical reaction which releases Hydrogen and low quality waste heat.
In a world ruled by physics, however, there is no such thing as a free lunch. Every conversion takes its own toll, usually in the form of waste heat. Want to turn pure aluminum back into aluminum-oxide and use the energy from the process to separate hydrogen from oxygen? Sure, you can do that, but be prepared to pay your taxes to the god of entropy in the form of waste heat. Alternatively, should you want to turn aluminum-oxide into pure aluminum again, you would also have to pay the same amount of energy you got from the other direction, plus another round for the waste heat that comes with electrolysis. Upon completing one cycle (pure aluminum to aluminum-oxide and then back to pure aluminum at a smelter) you would end up with nothing, but losing a lot of energy in the form of waste heat and transportation (fuels) without any surplus energy. Pure aluminum thus acts as a mere energy storage (or a sink) in this process.
It follows then, that the energy you get out of this magic reactor would be only as clean as the electricity which went into the smelter making those cans you wish to recycle in the first place. If it was generated by coal fired power plants, than you just made the problem worse. On the other hand, if you were intended to turn this process into a circle, endlessly recycling aluminum and hydrogen, you would be actually attempting to make a perpetual motion machine with a Rube-Goldberg level of complexity. In reality, you would be forced to feed in extra energy into the process just to maintain this cycle without getting anything useful out of it. But then, why the fuss?
Why not to take used cans directly into a factory where they would be remelted at a fraction of the energy cost of electrolysis, and then made into new products? And why not to generate hydrogen directly from ‘green energy’ without the waste heat problem? Because we fear it would take away too much ‘green’ electricity from other uses? No. The losses during the hydrogen cycle would quickly expose the whole renewable deal — which is already made possible to maintain by government subsidies only — as a loss-making exercise. Remember, energy is the economy, and in our case with renewables and hydrogen, it increasingly looks like that surplus energy cannot be extracted economically… Let alone enough to build and maintain an entire civilization. (By the way the same is true for fossil fuel production too nowadays, hence much of our growth problems.)
I guess you see why this idea is a classic Technutopian scam. It acts as a source of clean energy, but at a closer look it turns out to be a middle-man: a waste generating process, aimed at stealing a paper thin slice from the pie painted green and which has the word Hopium written on it with fine letters.
Last but not least, let’s zoom out a little, and see whether hydrogen will at least help us in tackling climate change, if it was so helpless in saving us from the energy cliff ahead. Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but its leakage is actually exacerbating global warming. And since it is the Houdini of elements (the smallest molecule in the universe) it can escape almost any container, not to mention the many chances it get during transferring between vessels, pipeline joints, pumps, etc.
Though hydrogen molecules (H2) does not directly trap heat, it has an indirect global warming effect by extending the lifetime of other GHGs. Certain GHGs such as methane, ozone, and water vapor are gradually neutralized by reacting with hydroxide radicals (OH) in the atmosphere. When H2 reaches the atmosphere, however, the H2 molecule reacts with OH instead, depleting atmospheric OH levels and delaying the neutralization of the GHGs, which effectively increases the lifetime of these GHGs (Derwent et al. 2020). Hydrogen molecules last only a few years in the atmosphere, so they exert a substantial near-term warming effect. A recent preprint study modeling continuous emissions of H2 estimated that over a 10-year period hydrogen has an approximately 100 times stronger warming effect than carbon dioxide (CO2) (Ocko and Hamburg 2022).
‘Ok… If it leaks, then lets burn it! The sooner the better! The economic gravy train must not stop: we need green industries, green steel, green painted green!’ Well, no good news here either: burning H2 for high heat processes like steel making, comes with a high nitrogen oxide (NOx) pollution besides many technical issues far from being trivial:
Critical challenges to using hydrogen for high-temperature heat include changes in heat transfer characteristics and flue gas composition, including higher nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions. Furthermore, fossil gas equipment must be modified to operate on hydrogen because of different combustion characteristics. As of today, hydrogen uses in industry for high-temperature heat are still at the prototype stage for some technologies like steam boilers.
NOx is a set of potent greenhouse gases, with a warming potential 280–310 times of regular CO2. Such emissions — combined with escaped Hydrogen’s tendency to lengthen methane’s atmospheric lifetime — on a relatively small scale are almost irrelevant causes of global warming. Should we be able to scale burning hydrogen up to current fossil fuel combustion levels though, we would be facing yet another global warming issue.
Hydrogen is neither an energy source, nor does it save us from climate change. This so called ‘solution’ is actually a source of another round of ‘problems’ — in other words: part of the same predicament. Which is, that we have burnt the best of our energy and used up the easiest to get metals and natural resources in a previously unprecedented economic boom, launching ourselves into a state of massive overshoot. Consequently we have unleashed climate change together with the sixth mass extinction. What’s our response then? Becoming moderate, and learn how to live with less? (Something which soon will become a necessity, not a choice by the way…) No, we throw good money after bad hyping techno-scams, and care not if they make sense or not.
Until next time,