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A case for chemelectricity

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by guest blogger Stan Thompson

Many of us who saw the hydrogen transition coming over two decades ago are frustrated by writers today who feel obliged to apologize for the vast amount of hydrogen that goes into fertilizer and petrochemicals.  Many of these folks probably feel they have to mention it because so many have done so previously…without realizing that its minor role in the H2 transition is analogous to the get-started use of wood in the earliest steam locomotives and steamboats—before coal could be systemized.

But hydrogen technology’s future is so much more.

Hydrogen is rather like matter and energy. They’re mutually related (E=MC2) and their equivalence can be reliably calculated. But matter and energy are not functionally identical—just as hydrogen-as-matter and hydrogen-as-energy are not.

The fertilizer apologists have not quite figured this out.

As matter, hydrogen is mostly mined (extracted) in carbon-based molecular form for separation and use as a fuel or a reagent input to a chemical process. Where the left-over carbon winds up is a problem. This is what’s on the writer’s mind when he or she feels compelled to mention that “97% of H2 comes from natural gas.”

The perfectly good word, “electrochemistry,” frequently refers to hydrogen as matter acted upon by electricity. But, for the most important purposes—the emerging ones that drive climate concern and national economies—hydrogen is less matter than a kind of electricity. In Boolean terms, it more properly belongs in the set containing “alternating” and “direct” current than in the set containing natural gas or petroleum fuels.

Hydrogen’s “meaning” is energy, not matter.

From the perspective of this model, electrolyzers and fuel cells belong in the same “set” as electromagnetic transformers. Transformers convert electricity to different voltages and amperages according to need. Electrolyzers and fuel cells convert it to and from “atoms”—again, according to need.  Like storage batteries, electrolyzers enable energy to be accumulated for later use. But, unlike batteries, stored hydrogen can power a wide range of mobility “apps” like quadcopters, trains or cruise ships.

That’s changing the world.

One analogy for hydrogen is that it’s like an electrical capacitor which can store DC, conduct AC, or do both at once.

Back in the mid-1990s, the first time I came across a reference to the hydrogen economy concept was before Jeremy Rifkin had made it familiar.  It was a real eureka moment; compare the capital and maintenance costs of high-tension lines on pylons with a simple buried pipe that doubles as a reservoir! The possibilities were endless.

Journalists and corporate communications writers hate neologisms, newly minted words. If they don’t know what the word means, their readers might not either.

But not all new concepts can be readily painted from the existing pallet of words. Limited concept innovation is the collateral damage when neologisms are ruled out. Climate and the global economy should outweigh style.

Search “hydrail” and many of the most important instances of hydrogen rail technology don’t show up (though about 20,000 do). They’ve been “written” out of existence for literary reasons. But in the time of Google, Yahoo and Bing, imprecise meaning or use of a string of words used to convey one meaning become problematic.  Searchability was why “hydrail” got coined in 2003.

Today precise expression and research may call for a complementary word for “electrochemistry”… one focused on the electrons-not-atoms aspects of hydrogen.  Perhaps “chemelectricity” (not to be confused with the brand name, “Chemelectric“) might do.

When you’ve been enamored of the energy carrier model of hydrogen for a quarter century, it’s easy to become impatient with folks who see hydrogen as “an alternative fuel” or cost-compare its production economics with those of methane and gasoline as if that had meaning. But let’s be patient with materialists who think of hydrogen as an alternative fuel gas or feel obliged to compare its production costs with those of methane, or octane, or apologize for its fertilizer and petrochemical connections.

From a centimeter away, Michelangelo’s David or Pieta just look like polished rocks.


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