Hydrogen Power: Another Solution to the Energy Crunch

Of all the proposed solutions to the energy crisis, hydrogen power is among the most promising.

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Roger Billings aboard a tractor he converted to run on hydrogen power.


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In "Lance Crombie - Spokesperson for the Alcohol-fuel Movement" and "The Alcohol Fuel Solution," we told you about alcohol and its potential as a fuel. Well, we sure haven't lost our enthusiasm for this excellent renewable resource, but we're also excited about another source of energy—hydrogen—which many folks feel is the fuel of the future.  

Recently, MOTHER EARTH NEWS sent a staffer and a photographer out to Provo, Utah to talk to Roger Billings, head of the Billings Energy Corporation. Between manufacturing computer systems and doing hydrogen research, Mr. Billings is quite a busy gentleman. Nevertheless, he took the time to discuss the various aspects of hydrogen power with us, including its production and use as a fuel. The points he brought up were interesting enough, but the equipment he demonstrated was even more impressive: it provided us with proof that hydrogen power isn't just yesterday's dream, but today's reality!  

Petroleum—though far from an ideal source of fuel—is essentially the energy that our society runs on. But, with the planet's supply of "black gold" dwindling, alternative sources of energy must be developed. One of the most likely candidates for a substitute fuel is hydrogen.

Although this light gas is one of the most abundant elements on earth (plentiful in water and in both fossil and nonfossil matter), it's rarely found in a natural free state. Therefore, the fuel must be isolated (which until recently involved a costly manufacturing process), and the very economics of that separation—plus the storage problems that hydrogen presents—made the gas impractical as a fuel in the past.

In the last decade, however, there have been many advances in the hydrogen field, and—thanks to researchers like Mr. Billings—this fuel is very near to becoming a practical energy source.

Why Hydrogen?

Obviously, hydrogen isn't the only solution to our "power" problems, but it does happen to be one of the better ones. Since the gas is present in almost all matter, our supply is virtually inexhaustible. In addition, hydrogen is lightweight, non-toxic, and highly efficient as a fuel (it has a high heat value of about 62,400 Btu's per pound, as opposed to petroleum oil with 19,000 and natural gas with 22,500) and it can be substituted for most fuels being used today. Even better, this plentiful energy source is entirely nonpolluting (the only by-product produced by burning hydrogen is water vapor, if the combustion temperatures are controlled) and leaves no residue.

Costs Are Competitive

There are two ways of manufacturing hydrogen: One is electrolysis, in which water is separated by an electric current into its two basic elements (hydrogen and oxygen), and the second is a process called reforming, which uses high-temperature steam to liberate the hydrogen from coal, natural gas, or solid wastes.

On a small scale, the electrolysis method is more cost-effective ... especially since the Billings corporation has been perfecting a homestead package that will allow individuals to virtually "make their own." But in production quantities (unless inexpensive hydroelectric power is available) the reforming process is far cheaper—so much so, in fact, that the cost of one "gallon" of hydrogen (2.25 pounds of hydrogen supply the energy equivalent of one gallon of gasoline) is about 25¢!

Hydrogen is also economical for heating purposes. Whereas natural gas figures out to a cost of about $2.44 per million Btu's at today's prices, hydrogen comes to only $2.00 for every million Btu's worth of energy. If hydrogen production were carried out on a large-scale basis, the costs could be reduced by as much as 30% even if conventional energy sources were used to "free" the gas.

And that brings up another point: Hydrogen can be produced by a number of means that don't depend on conventional fossil fuels. Solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal, tidal, and ocean-thermal energy are currently being investigated as power sources, and solar energy is actually being used to release the gas from a storage state in the Billings operation.

How It Works 

Since full-scale hydrogen production is still a few years off (although the Billings firm is now working on coal-to-gas conversion plants), it would be better to look at the small-scale electrolysis package that Billings presently markets. This $15,000 kit consists of [1] the electrolyzer, which produces hydrogen gas by "filtering" water with a special membrane that allows the hydrogen to pass through the material, leaving the oxygen behind, and [2] the hydride-filled hydrogen storage tank, which can safely hold the gas for an indefinite period of time.

Until recently, hydrogen storage has been expensive, somewhat dangerous, and inefficient. But the Billings research labs have perfected the use of an iron/titanium hydride which—when granulated and placed in a pressure tank—soaks up hydrogen like a sponge. This "chemical container" not only allows the vessel to hold up to four times as much of the gas (under the same pressure) as it would without the hydrides, but also assures that the fuel can be stored safely. In fact, during recent tests, armor-piercing incendiary bullets were shot through the gas-filled containers with nothing more than a small flame (which quickly extinguished itself) as a result.

The gas within the storage tank can be released by heat: either from the sun or from the hydrogen itself as it combusts, depending on the application. And there are quite a few possible uses, including home heating, cooking, engine fuel, and even electric power generation. Roger Billings admits that the potential is nearly endless and feels safe in saying, "Any energy application that requires the burning of hydrocarbon fuels can be converted to hydrogen. At least I haven't seen one yet that couldn't." And Roger should know, since not only is he running the family car and a small garden tractor on the gas, but he's set up a homestead that's entirely hydrogen powered , just to show that it does indeed work.

Hydrogen's Future 

Enough technology exists right now to allow us to become a hydrogen-powered society provided that we had ample reserves of the gas. But—while plans are being made to produce the gas in quantity —the Billings Energy Corporation is just as busy converting existing equipment to use hydrogen. This adaptation can be as simple as installing a steel wool catalyst (covered with a stainless steel screen) on the burner of a stove. The automotive conversions are a bit more complicated, but again, Billings has the problems licked. In fact, he is presently marketing a dual-fuel Dodge Omni (hydrogen-or gasoline-powered)—complete with the hydrogen-producing package—for about $30,000. Although high, the price will come down as more units are sold.

Looking to the future, the Billings Energy Corporation has drawn up a 10-year plan that's now on its way to becoming a reality. The initial goal is to have the 4,000-person community of Forest City, Iowa fully converted to hydrogen power (including autos, buses, and municipal vehicles) within the next five years. If that project goes as planned (and there's no reason it shouldn't), Billings next aims to convert a city the approximate size of Denver, Colorado to hydrogen fuel. The Billings firm has already taken part in an experimental program that tested hydrogen-powered buses in the cities of Provo and Riverside, Utah, with encouraging results.

Needless to say, we're only beginning to take advantage of the potential of hydrogen fuels. In a few years—or perhaps even sooner—we might all [1] reduce our dependence on imported oil, [2] eliminate our surplus of solid waste, and [3] be breathing cleaner air, all in one fell swoop!