Friday, November 18, 2005

Hydrogen for China's Cars?

I see in the San Francisco Chronicle that Governor Schwarzenegger included a pitch for renewable energy and hydrogen cars on his recent trade trip to China. He raised some interesting points about energy and the environment, though there are practical limitations on how quickly all this could happen. But as I read this article, it reminded me of the "technology leapfrogging" argument we've frequently heard in information technology and telecoms, and that some have attempted to apply to energy technology. Simply put, could China deploy technologies such as hydrogen fuel cell cars faster than the US, because they are not competing with as much legacy infrastructure? You can't dismiss this argument out of hand.

There are currently at least four major obstacles to the implementation of a hydrogen-based transportation system:

  • Hydrogen requires significant energy inputs in its production, typically exceeding the energy content of the hydrogen by at least 50%. To be competitive, hydrogen would have to be produced from an energy source that is plentiful and low-cost.
  • Distributing hydrogen requires new infrastructure, if it is produced centrally. Because of its tendency to make normal steel brittle, and to escape through all but the tightest seals, hydrogen pipelines would be significantly more expensive than for natural gas.
  • Present methods for storing hydrogen either at high pressure or in liquefied form are very energy-intensive. Liquid hydrogen has a tendency to boil away, and the safety aspects of carrying any gas at 10,000 psi are worrying.
  • Modifying internal combustion engines to run on hydrogen is an inefficient dead end. Hydrogen cars will need cheap, efficient fuel cells, or there won't be many hydrogen cars.

For China to implement hydrogen cars faster than the US, it stands to reason that they would need an edge in overcoming one or more of these obstacles. None of the above problems really plays to China's natural advantage in low-cost manufacturing. If anything, China is at a disadvantage, because it has smaller indigenous sources of energy than the US, and is rapidly growing dependent on expensive imports, to the chagrin of the whole oil-importing world. This puts them in a poor position to waste energy by converting oil and natural gas into hydrogen. And renewable electricity from wind and solar power would be in as much demand for displacing dirty coal plants, as for making clean hydrogen.

The infrastructure step is the only place I see any real possibilities, and the challenge there is that it's unclear where in the supply chain hydrogen should be produced: centrally, locally, or onboard the vehicle. Until you have that figured out, based on production technology and storage advances, you can't invest in mass infrastructure. Meanwhile, Chinese sales of cars using gasoline are growing at rates that we haven't seen here in 50 years, putting tremendous pressure on existing petroleum products infrastructure. They simply can't wait to figure out the hydrogen path, before investing to fuel today's cars.

The most intriguing possibility may actually be the one implicit in Governor Schwarzenegger's trip. If you haven't lived in California, it would be easy to miss the degree to which the state has become an important Pacific Rim country, with strong trans-Pacific trade ties and a GDP larger than that of South Korea, Thailand, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong, combined. A Sino-Californian hydrogen alliance could fill most of the capability gaps I identified above, while providing two enormous early-adopter markets eager for new, clean tech. Perhaps Arnold is onto something.

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