During this year’s State of the Union address president George W. Bush set a goal of reducing US consumption of gasoline by 10% over 10 years. 15% of the reduction would come from an increase in the use of biofuels along with a 5% improvement in fuel mileage to come from new CAFE standards for light trucks and cars.
While all of this is good news for long-term security of the country by reducing our dependency on Middle East Oil, it shows a remarkable shift away from President Bush’s former focus on hydrogen fuel as the solution. Hydrogen fuel was a topic in Bush’s 2003 State of the Union Address.
Is hydrogen still a viable alternative fuel?
A possible hydrogen solution is still being investigated, but several hurdles must be overcome before hydrogen can become a primary alternative. While the burning of hydrogen as a fuel is very clean–the only emission is water–it is still very expensive to produce. In fact, hydrogen fuel can be 3 or 4 times more expensive to produce than gasoline.
Hydrogen is mainly produced through an electrolysis process where electrical current is passed through water. The problem is that it takes a lot of electricity to produce hydrogen this way. In addition, fuel is consumed and greenhouse gasses are typically produced in the generation of many forms of electricity, which therefore negates the benefits of producing hydrogen. In order to have a truly beneficial solution, any fuel generating process must be environmentally friendly and cost effective. Long term, the energy needed to produce hydrogen could be derived from wind and solar power, but even those methods are in limited use and not currently very cost effective.
An alternative hydrogen production method is Steam-Methane reformation, which uses natural gas to produce high temperatures that trigger the release of hydrogen. This method is considered to be more cost-effective, but because the process used natural gas, carbon dioxide is generated while producing the hydrogen.
Several other methods for producing hydrogen are being explored and it is very likely that hydrogen fuel may become one of several choices in the future, but will probably not be the only choice. It looks like the new White House plan focuses heavily on biofuels, such as cellulosic ethanol, which is produced from a wide variety of cellulosic biomass waste materials, including agricultural waste, plant wastes from industrial processes and high energy grasses and other crops grown specifically for fuel production. This method produces a higher energy form of ethanol that that which is derived from corn or soybeans.