Friday, June 20, 2014

Hydrogen from Nuclear Power Plants

Subtitle: It Works but Nobody Could Afford It

Recently I attended a technical presentation on the future of hydrogen as a fuel.  The fuel would be for transportation and for power generation.   The venue, date, and presenter will remain anonymous in this post. 

The presenter was quite knowledgeable, an excellent speaker, had very nice graphics and charts and tables in his presentation, and made many excellent points.  A few points caused me to raise my eyebrows, however.  It is those dubious points that are the subject of this post (for dubious, translate that as flat-out wrong).  

The presenter started with hydrogen-fueled cars using fuel cells.  A commenter sitting near me stated: "Great!  California will have hydrogen cars spewing out the single most powerful greenhouse gas, water vapor."  The desert air will have humidity increased and localized warming (not global) will occur.    In fact, humid air requires greater air conditioning energy to not only cool the air but to condense the water vapor out of the air.  The power grid load will increase.  

The first point was that hydrogen will be produced by using nuclear power at $20 per MWh, via electrolysis of water.    However, nuclear power cannot be made for $20 per MWh (this is the same as 2 cents per kWh).  Even if the incremental cost of nuclear power were 2 cents, one must find a nuclear plant that can increase its load so that the increase runs the hydrogen electrolyzers.  The fact is that nuclear plants run as baseload.  Therefore, any additional load on the grid will be from the incremental power provider, which most likely will be a natural gas-fired plant.  At night, during off-peak hours, the power price is approximately 5 to 7 cents.  In the day, during on-peak hours, the power price is anywhere from 15 to 50 cents per kWh.  

The second point was that hydrogen will be the logical fuel when a carbon market brings the price of carbon dioxide emissions to $100 per metric tonne.  The presenter stated that this must be done to prevent global warming as the IPCC has warned us about.   With man-made global warming existing only in the output of faulty computer models and not in reality, this is quite a problem for the hydrogen industry to face.  

The third point was that hydrogen as a fuel for cars is much safer than gasoline.  The presenter showed a graphic of a fuel-cell car with a hydrogen flame shooting vertically out of the trunk.  This was compared to a gasoline-powered car with the entire car engulfed in flames.  He also stated (correctly) that a hydrogen flame is invisible in daytime, and barely visible at night.   What he did not state is that a car can be in any position after a collision, on its side, crumpled, and the hydrogen flame can be firing out for many feet in any direction.   That alone will increase automobile insurance rate far beyond what the average driver can afford.   Fuel cell cars will not ever be common for this reason.  Earlier advocates make the point that the hydrogen fuel tank cannot explode, cannot be ruptured, and has fail-safe valves to seal the hydrogen inside in a collision.   Such claims are pure conjecture.  The tangled mass of metal in a high-speed collision could and would puncture any tank.  

The fourth point was that hydrogen is safe in use.  Those of us who have worked with hydrogen for any time know that is false.  Hydrogen has properties that result in it leaking from almost any piping system, and invading the spaces between atoms in the metallic crystal structure.  Hydrogen embrittlement results.   The metal cracks and leaks even more.  When hydrogen leaks, it needs no spark to start burning.  It auto-ignites.  

The fifth point was hydrogen can be liquefied and used as aircraft fuel.  Considering first the safety considerations, loading liquid hydrogen is done by NASA on its rockets as one of the most dangerous aspects of a launch.   It may be possible someday to safely load liquid hydrogen onto an aircraft for fuel, but that day is a long way off. 

The sixth point was that hydrogen is far more efficient on a well-to-wheels basis compared to gasoline, speaking of vehicle transportation.   This is a common statement by hydrogen advocates, but is false.  An engineering analysis must include the inefficiency of the water electrolyzer, drying the wet hydrogen, compressing the hydrogen, using the hydrogen to produce power in the fuel cell, the high temperature of the fuel cell, then inefficiency of the electric motor to produce shaft power for the wheels.  

The audience was too polite to bring up these points at the presentation, but a few of us made eye contact and shrugged as these points were made.   

Hydrogen as transportation fuel is not economic, nor is it safe for the reasons stated above. 

As a power plant fuel, hydrogen has potential.  Where coal is first gasified then the impurities are removed to leave only hydrogen, that hydrogen can be burned in a power plant to produce electricity.  Such a plant is under construction in Mississippi at this time.  Another plant that gasifies a mixture of coal and petroleum coke has been designed for central California.  That plant is seeking funding for construction. 

However, if the economics of hydrogen for transportation fuel depend on obtaining electricity at 2 cents per kWh from a nuclear power plant, it will never be economic.  

Roger E. Sowell, Esq. 
Marina del Rey, California


Anonymous said...

"With man-made global warming existing only in the output of faulty computer models and not in reality,"

Please cite sources to support this.

Roger Sowell said...

"Anonymous" asked for citations for the assertion I made that "With man-made global warming existing only in the output of faulty computer models and not in reality."

For citations, Mr. Mous can peruse the IPCC publications themselves, where the discrepancy is noted and discussed - rather unconvincingly.

see e.g.

Key sentence: "This difference between simulated and observed [recent global temperature] trends could be caused by some combination of (a) internal climate variability, (b) missing or incorrect radiative forcing, and (c) model response error."

IPCC's catch-22 is if they attribute the pause to natural variability, they then must concede that any warming from 1970-1998 could also be due to natural variability.

If they admit it is due to b) or c) above, then faulty modeling is obvious.

Quite an admission by IPCC. They really have themselves in a box.