energy crisis of unprecedented proportions, and it is becoming apparent to even the most reluctant observers that the supply of fossil fuels is both finite and rapidly being depleted. Furthermore, many experts suggest that the enormous amounts of fossil fuels used worldwide are contributing to the global warming phenomenon being experienced today. In this environment, the search for effective alternative and renewable energy sources has assumed both new relevance and importance today. According to Elhefnawy (2006), “In short, the oil age may end within a generation given the present economic picture, with potentially dire consequences. The prospects of alternatives to fossil fuels are therefore the key issue, such as the expanded use of nuclear energy or, ideally, renewable energy sources.” (p. 101).1 Besides nuclear energy, some authorities have suggested that wind and solar power as well as biomass production, among others, are such possible alternative energy sources, but a growing number of experts are pointing to hydrogen fuel as the fuel of choice for the future. As Ottinger and Williams (2002) point out, though, there are a number of major obstacles that must be overcome before hydrogen fuel can assume a leading role in helping the United States and other energy-starving countries overcome their current dependence of fossil fuels. According to Ottinger and Williams, “Hydrogen fuel cells require additional research and development to be economically or technically feasible.”2 Moreover, because energy cannot be created (or destroyed), identifying sources of hydrogen that make its manufacture and application cost efficient are also critical issues that must be addressed before hydrogen can reasonably be expected to replace fossil fuels in the future. On the one hand, it would seem easy enough to use hydrogen as a renewable energy source simply based on its abundance. As Hiserodt (2007) points out, “Environmentalists looking for a source of energy to replace fossil fuels and nuclear energy rightly note that over 99.9% of the visible matter in the universe is hydrogen and that our oceans have an inexhaustible supply of hydrogen atoms.”3 In this regard, Fay and Golomb (2002) report that, “Hydrogen has been promoted as an environmentally friendly synthetic fuel that can be used in a fuel cell to generate electrical power at high efficiency while emitting no air pollutants. Two possible sources of hydrogen fuel are the reforming of methane and the electrolysis of water.”4 Both of these foregoing techniques, though, require additional energy to complete their respective processes. For example, reforming methane to create hydrogen requires the combustion of additional methane to provide the heat require for the reformation of the methane into hydrogen.4 As Hiserodt also notes, “Ironically, after using large amounts of energy to free the hydrogen, the resultant hydrogen has a much lower energy content than the natural gas it was freed from.”3 Likewise, the electrolysis of water to produce hydrogen cannot be accomplished by heating alone based on the significant increase in free energy involved.4 According to Fay and Golomb, “Producing electrolytic hydrogen is very energy inefficient when the electricity is generated by burning a fossil fuel, because the heat value of the hydrogen will be less than one-third of the heating value of the fuel burned in the electric power plant.”4 These approaches to producing hydrogen are clearly insufficient and cost-ineffective in terms of the energy trade-offs involved to provide the world with the amount of fuel it will need to replace the existing reliance on fossil fuels, but the payoffs involved in solving these production problems are sufficiently great — and dire — that given enough time and resources, researchers may be able to identify superior production methods that do not require such enormous amounts of energy to produce hydrogen in the future. Time is running out, though, and it would be foolhardy and irresponsible for place all of the world’s renewable energy eggs in one basket, so to speak, as has been the case with fossil fuels in the past.
Elhefnawy, N. (2006). Toward a long-range energy security policy. Parameters, 36(1),
Ottinger, R.L. & Williams, R. (2002). Renewable energy sources for development.
Environmental Law, 32(2), p. 331.
Hiserodt, E. (2007, August 20). The ‘hydrogen economy’: Many environmentalists are pushing hydrogen fuel as an energy source because of hydrogen’s abundance. But though hydrogen is abundant, it is also mainly impractical. The New American, 23(17), 19.
Fay, J.A. & Golomb, D.S. (2002). Energy and the environment. New York: Oxford
University Press, pp. 64, 65.
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