A recent television ad from Exxon/Mobil introduces the concept of an on-board fuel reformer for vehicles (view the ad here). These devices combine water and oil (or another feedstock) at elevated temperature in the presence of a catalyst to produce Hydrogen fuel for the vehicle. This sounds very complicated but it really isn’t that hard to understand. I have written explanations of the process before so won’t go into a lengthy description of them again. The diagram below explains the process and even though the illustration uses heat from a nuclear energy plant that isn’t a necessary component since energy from other sources like wind, oil or concentrated solar thermal could work just as well.
The main point here is that this is a time tested way to produce clean hydrogen fuel and the one that major oil companies seem to be getting behind. Steam reforming at oil refineries is the way that almost all commercially available hydrogen is produced today. I think that this process will end up as the way that we go with vehicle fuels. It may not be on board reforming but it is the logical choice for several important reasons.
First off because it keeps traditional fuels like oil and natural gas in the game for the foreseeable future while at the same time bringing all of the new, green fuels into the market without the need for specialized fuel systems for each. Another TV ad from Exxon describes their construction of a hundred million dollar facility which reforms natural gas and water into hydrogen and sequesters the CO2 produced in the process (view ad here).
It is a the only fuel which can be produced by essentially the same process from a variety of domestically available feedstock's. These would include oil (petroleum) , vegetable oil, biomass, alcohol, natural gas, and biodiesel. Even sugar and coal become players in the transportation fuel sector in this scenario. I included the hyperlinks for each feedstock to show that the process is already in existence to reform each into hydrogen fuel.
The coal industry is already developing this technology to produce hydrogen fuel for power plants. They are building their FutureGen plant now outside Mattoon Illinois. This same process could just as easily produce hydrogen fuel for vehicles which makes the coal reserves of the world into another vehicle fuel resource.
Second, it also allows us to transition to one fuel (hydrogen) which will be able to be used with currently available technology in any vehicle from passenger cars to heavy trucks and is the necessary fuel for fuel cell vehicles in the near/long term future. I recently asked someone who follows the hydrogen industry how soon fuel cell vehicles could be on the market at a price comparable to internal combustion vehicles and he said that the current estimate is as soon as 2015 assuming mass production of them.
Third, the transition to hydrogen fuel produced from multiple feedstocks would create a whole new environment of competition within the vehicle fuel sector. All of the hydrogen producers would be competing for market share and this situation could be expected to drive the development of better production technologies as producers are forced to compete with each other to deliver their common product at the lowest cost possible. No longer would a few global corporations be able to set and manipulate the price of transportation fuel because regional and even local producers would be there competing with them.
Fourth, hydrogen fuel produced from water using energy from clean energy sources such as wind, solar or concentrated solar is the ultimate evolution of this fuel and at that point becomes endlessly renewable and 100% non polluting. In the meantime any hydrogen fuel produced will create less CO2 than is currently created by burning fossil fuels. Petroleum, natural gas and coal have carbon sequestration to dispose of the CO2 they produce and while there may be a lot of argument over the wisdom of using this method of disposal these energy giants have the financial and political muscle to accomplish their goal of using it and to then market their hydrogen fuel as 100% green. I think that it will be readily accepted by the average American consumer because it can be portrayed as both “green” and at the same time will allow them to transition to a new fuel without changing their daily lives or giving up their SUVs.
Hydrogen produced from renewables such as biomass, alcohol or vegetable oil are already considered carbon neutral and so the CO2 they produce in creating H2 will be seen as “acceptable” by the greens. So it will be a transition to a green economy that evolves along a line of less and less pollution as a natural result of the process instead of a forced transition with unpredictable outcomes. For these reasons it seems obvious that hydrogen, produced from all of these readily available domestic resources will be the only logical choice for the future.
I originally became involved with the Pickens Plan because I thought that it represented a good starting point for this evolution. Switching heavy trucks to natural gas is a step toward hydrogen in that it puts gaseous fuels into common usage and in addition it is really the only readily available alternative fuel for the freight transportation sector since electric or fuel cell trucks are further off than passenger cars. From that standpoint it is easy to see it as a “bridge” to a hydrogen fuel future and I think it is the only financially viable path to take.
In fact, according to a representative from a company who produces natural gas fuel systems for cars, a natural gas system can also run on hydrogen fuel with different storage tanks. Besides that Pickens introduced some new aspects into the debate. He pointed out that it is in our best interest to move toward energy independence as a nation from a national security perspective as well as an economic one. For all of these reasons I think that hydrogen will indeed become our next transportation fuel of choice.