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Source: Joseph David Cohen, Retired Engineer, GE Aircraft Engines

Posted: May 14, 2004

Manufacturing Hydrogen
For Our Clean Energy Future

Hydrogen will eventually be the fuel of the future. It can replace all the fossil fuels (coal, petroleum, and natural gas) for heat, surface and some types of air transportation, as well as local power production. Its only significant combustion product will be clean, harmless water vapor which eventually drops back to the earth's surface as rainfall. Most harmful pollutants such as smoke and carbon monoxide, toxic gas products that lead to smog and acid rain, and finally persistent greenhouse gases will disappear from the burning process entirely.

As long as there is carbon in the fuel we burn, carbon dioxide (CO2) is produced in the exhaust. Removing the CO2 gas from the exhaust stacks is a monumental task, and is neither mechanically nor economically practical.

The numbers are quite simple.

Coal produces about 300 lbs. of CO2 per million BTUs of thermal energy consumed.
Fuel Oil produces about 175 lbs. of CO2 per million BTUs of thermal energy consumed.
Natural Gas produces about 130 lbs. of CO2 per million BTUs of thermal energy consumed.
Hydrogen produces no CO2, few pollutants, and no waste.

A global switch to hydrogen can help eliminate health problems due to poor air quality. It will reduce or stop acid poisoning of our lakes. It will help slow the phenomenon of global warming. Lastly, it will forever end dependence on foreign crude oil supplies.

Construction of the infrastructure needed for our hydrogen based future will produce lifelong jobs for a huge portion of the world's population.

Hydrogen is readily available. It comes from a renewable and inexhaustible source as a component of water (H2O). Obtaining it is relatively safe and easy. The most straightforward and environmentally friendly method of breaking water into its components of hydrogen and oxygen is by passing an electric current through the liquid. In other words, it requires a source of electrical energy.

Hydrogen cannot be a practical fuel, if fossil fuel combustion is needed to produce the electrical energy necessary to make the hydrogen. Therefore, the energy sources for future hydrogen production will have to come from clean, and endlessly renewable energy resources. A common renewable source is from hydroelectric power generated from rivers with large dams. We, however, do not have enough such resources for large scale hydrogen production. Other fossil fuel free energy could possibly come from wind, solar, ocean wave and tidal sources. Even nuclear and some day possibly thermonuclear sources could be considered. All of these should be planned and implemented only when ecological, safety, and economic considerations make sense.

Another very important possibility will be from naturally available geothermal energy. Heat removed from deep in the ground near thermally active volcanic regions should be exploited. It can be used to produce high pressure, superheated steam. The steam will then drive the turbines and generators needed to produce enormous amounts of electrical energy. That electricity can be fed into the national grid, or, running 24 hours a day, can be used to manufacture hydrogen.

Interestingly, the U.S. has within its borders, the world's largest known geothermal hot spot. It is situated beneath Yellowstone National Park. The park itself is atop of the caldera of the largest super volcano that has ever been discovered anywhere on earth. This huge volcano has been relatively dormant for about 70,000 years, but is still quite thermally active, and in fact the local ground surface is measurably swelling above a huge magma chamber. The surface of the ground has been measured as having risen in height about 750 millimeters (30 inches) over a 50 year period. This surface motion is a possible indication that it will break out and erupt in some distant (or not so distant) future. There is reliable geological evidence to show that the Yellowstone volcano has erupted explosively three times in the distant past at intervals of 600,000 to 800,000 years. Past Yellowstone explosive eruptions are known to have produced a devastating drop of about 5 degrees Celsius in the average climatic temperature on a worldwide scale. A similar such eruption in the future would be predicted to induce a massive global weather catastrophe.

Geologists have traced the history of Yellowstone back nearly 12 million years and they claim that the three large explosive eruptions have occurred at Yellowstone over a 2.1 million year period with a recurrence interval of about 600,000 to 800,000 years. In a report by the US Geological Survey dealing with Yellowstone's volcanic history, USGS scientists say that about 30 different lava flows have erupted after the most recent caldera formation (a crater with a diameter many times that of the volcano vent formed by collapse of the central part of the volcano or by explosions of extraordinary violence). The most recent eruption was about 70,000 years ago. "Volcanic activity began in the Yellowstone National Park region before about 2 million years ago." that report says. Molten rock (magma) rising from deep within the earth produced three cataclysmic eruptions more powerful than any in the world's recorded history."Three caldera-forming eruptions, respectively, were about 2,500, 280, and 1,500 times larger than the May 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens in Washington State. Together, the three catastrophic eruptions expelled enough ash and lava to fill the Grand Canyon. Since the most recent giant caldera forming eruption, 640,000 years ago, at least 30 smaller but still destructive volcanic eruptions have occurred at Yellowstone." the USGS report stated.

At the time of the last large eruption, humans had not yet moved into the American continent. However, the resulting weather effects from ash, dust, and acidic aerosols are known to have reached around the world. It would have affected life and the availability of food everywhere.

If the Yellowstone region was exploited for geothermal energy, we might be able to relieve the building pressure, delay or eliminate the onset of a future eruption, and carry away a huge supply of endlessly available thermal energy. This could hopefully be done without excavating or ruining the park. Such enormous energy resources could hold the key for a global switch to hydrogen. It could possibly produce enough electrical energy to provide the US with total energy independence.

We can look forward to the day when we drive our clean, silent, fuel cell powered car to the neighborhood hydrogen station, and say fill-er-up to the attendant. The hydrogen charge might be delivered in 5 minutes. That capability is a vision which requires a vast new infrastructure, and the collective will to do it.

This is a proposal to tap into and exploit the vast amount of accumulating heat energy beneath Yellowstone National Park and to generate electricity with it for the production of hydrogen. We believe that this Yellowstone proposal alone could be one of our greatest weapons against foreign political instability, because it could provide enough hydrogen to forever end our dependence on foreign crude oil supplies. To advance this proposal to a reality, it will be necessary for Congress and the President to modify existing laws that now prohibit use of the park for such activity.

"The extensive thermal features of Yellowstone National Park are fueled by heat from a large magma chamber beneath the caldera that in turn is fed from a magma reservoir in the Earth's deep interior that collectively forms a hot spot, a significant feature in plate tectonics theory." according to Robert B. Smith, University of Utah Scientist. "In the past few decades, we've measured the ground across the youngest caldera rise nearly three feet and fall by a foot. This active deformation was accompanied by thousands of small earthquakes marking the Park as a living geologic system." as stated by Professor Smith.

The attraction to this proposal is that we know how to do it with conventional equipment. There are no mysteries. We can plan it with complete confidence. We don't need to dam rivers or ocean bays. We don't need to remove anything. We merely sink water circulation pipes very deep into the ground and build a thermal power plant on the surface. There is neither air pollution nor nuclear waste. Nature supplies free thermal energy forever. The following fifteen-point outline demonstrates the advantages of a geothermal system:
1. You don't need fuel to burn.
2. You needn't have to build a dam with its inherent disturbance of the ecosystem.
3. You don't need fissile nuclear fuels, nor waste management.
4. There are neither waste products, nor atmospheric pollution of any kind.
5. It is totally steady: 24 hours per day, 7 days per week.
6. It uses the well-known and commonly used Rankine cycle turbine power system. Most such systems expand high pressure steam.
7. No technical breakthroughs are required. We can build such systems today.
8. The electrical power that is generated can be used for anything, but it can also be employed for the continuous production of hydrogen by water electrolysis.
9. Within our national borders lies the largest known geothermal hot spot in the world. It is under Yellowstone National Park. The government already owns and maintains the property.
10. Geothermal power plants only minimally affect the land they're built upon.
11. The power plants may not necessarily need to be built within the park itself. They could possibly be situated around the park's nearly 200 mile perimeter.
. There is enough available local water in the Yellowstone region to feed electrolysis cells for hydrogen manufacture.
13. Construction costs are likely to be reasonable. Less capital equipment is needed for geothermal power producing systems. There is no fuel to be delivered, stored, managed, or burned. There are no furnaces. There is no fuel waste to be removed such as ash or nuclear waste. There are no exhaust stacks. There are no exhaust scrubbers.
14. We will never produce acid rain, nor smog from these systems.
15. There are no accumulating greenhouse gases expelled from any exhaust stack.

This is God's gift to us. We would be fools not to use it.

Why not Yellowstone?

Interesting question: What happens to the culturally and economically important tourism when Old Faithful and the other geysers may no longer erupt?

That is a question that requires a set of firm priorities.

While we personally doubt that man can make that big a dent on the thermal potential of a magma chamber that covers 2000-2500 square miles of the earth's surface; that is just an opinion.

If it actually came down to Old Faithful vs. a clean, smog free, smoke free, and greenhouse gas free atmosphere, I'm afraid that Old Faithful would have to go. The economics would favor that also by many billions of dollars annually vs. the relative drop in the bucket now taken from the park operation.

In our opinion, the potential future power output of the Yellowstone hot spot is somewhere in the 25-50 GW ballpark, limited only by the availability of surface water for hydrogen manufacture and cooling. This could possibly be done by properly spacing the power plants around Yellowstone's available 200 mile perimeter.

That level of output would produce 1-2 million pounds of hydrogen per hour. The predicted hydrogen flow would then replace the thermal energy equivalent of 10-20 million gallons of gasoline per day, or double that if one compares hydrogen fuel cell efficiencies to that of available internal combustion engines (typically 2:1).

It is not too much of a stretch to predict something on the order of 10 billion gallons of gasoline saved per year.

At about 5 pounds of carbon per gallon of gasoline, this transforms to approximately 90 million tons of CO2 eliminated annually from exhaust emissions. That is energy independence, and a clean future!

Also Yellowstone isn't the only hot spot in the US or in the world. It is merely the biggest by far.

We haven't yet talked about the cash flow and cost associated with a Yellowstone type project and hydrogen or how it would compare to gasoline at today's prices. Somebody is bound to ask the question of dollars. Accountants and auditors often can't think any other way. Suggesting that the Yellowstone output could be in the range of 25 - 50 GW (gigawatts meaning billion watts), we can say it another way. One hour of operation produces 25 to 50 million kilowatt hours of electrical energy output. The government's own figures place the cost of geothermally produced electricity at 4.5 to 7 cents per kilowatt hour at today's dollar values. This pays back all investment costs in a very few years. Using the higher figure of 7 cents ($0.07), we obtain $1.75 million to $3.50 million per hour's worth of electrical energy. This we know will produce a range of 1 million to 2 million pounds of hydrogen per hour respectively from the facilities. That production rate corresponds to $1.75 per pound of hydrogen before shipment. That is the energy equivalent of about $3.50 per gallon of equivalent gasoline.

This would be marked up to the consumer depending on the cost of distribution. Currently gasoline adds up to one dollar per gallon in cost and taxes from the crude oil value to the consumer. So we might expect the possibility of $4.50 per gallon of equivalent gasoline or equivalently about $2.25 per pound of hydrogen.

While this may sound expensive, it is not outrageous. If one considers that fuel cells are more than twice as efficient as today's automobile engines, we see our cost per mile of car operation as increasing by only about 50%. It is as if we were operating today's cars with $2.25 per gallon of gasoline in place of the $1.50 that we pay right now. If we were to use the lower figure of 4.5 cents per kilowatt hour, the projected mileage costs come out about the same as today's operating costs. The learning curve might actually help this result to be realized.

If we consider the huge cost increases expected with gasoline as petroleum becomes very scarce by mid century, we can be reasonably confident that we can succeed in switching to a hydrogen economy before the world suffers an economic disaster. Not considered here is the plethora of economic benefits of the huge number of jobs created building the hydrogen infrastructure, and the economic multiplier effect of those jobs on the world's economy.

In case the reader hasn't already figured this out, the annual output value of Yellowstone in dollars could be in the $10 billion to $30 billion range provided the power estimate range of 25 to 50 GW and price estimate range of 4.5 cents to 7 cents per kilowatt hour are correct. This idea can be extended to all the world's volcanic regions.

For geothermal power information, go to the following web site: http://geothermal.marin.org/GEOpresentation/

by Joseph David Cohen
Mass. PE 30246
26 Cornell Road
Danvers, MA 01923-2563
(978) 774-7407

The opinions presented here do not necessarily represent the opinions of the editors of HydrogenHighway.

 Attention Educators

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 Our Mission:

• Excite the imagination of the American and world-wide public to envision a future in which the majority of our energy needs are provided by a clean, renewable resource.

• To encourage the support and development of hydrogen fuel cell technology and the infrastructure needed to create a hydrogen-based economy.

•To hasten consumer acceptance of these new technologies because they will result in a better future for us all.

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