Contributed by Samuel Furfari © 2023
Professor of energy geopolitics
On February 4, a century ago, the idea of producing green hydrogen was proposed. The billions of euros poured in by the European Union cannot change the science, which for 100 years has prevented it from being produced. Producing hydrogen with wind is windy.
In 1865 the British William Stanley Jevons in ‘The Coal Question’ was concerned because the success of the steam engine perfected by James Watt which consumed less energy would promote its multiplication and thus cause a growing demand for coal, which would lead to the depletion of British coal reserves (the so-called Jevons paradox).
A century of quest to produce hydrogen from wind
Fifty-eight years later, on February 4, 1923, John Haldane, a British geneticist and biologist, gave a speech at the Heretics Society, a club of intellectuals at the University of Cambridge, entitled ’Daedalus or, Science and the Future ” . In its paper, Haldane, without however naming Jevons’s theory, refused to accept that the announcement of the exhaustion depletion of the coal mines in Great Britain could lead to the collapse of the industrial civilisation. Although a biologist, he wanted to propose ideas that would today be named energy policy in order to counter the announced catastrophe to which it seems that everyone had succumbed. Does this remind you of anything?
He imagined the creation of a network of wind turbines to produce electricity that would generate hydrogen by the electrolysis of water. It was the first concrete proposal for a process based on the combination of renewable energies and hydrogen. A century later, it is fascinating to observe that the problems had already been well identified by Haldane, because the intrinsic difficulties of the hydrogen sector are well known and long predate both the oil crises of the 1970s and the framework of the fight against climate change.
Haldane the enthusiastic realist
Haldane believed that hydropower was not a valid substitute for coal because of its low potential in the UK, seasonal fluctuation and sporadic distribution. He better envisaged the exploitation of wind, which is inexhaustible, although he already described it as intermittent energy. He thought that the question of electricity in England could be solved by harnessing the wind by covering the country “ with rows of metallic wind turbines driving electric motors which, in turn, will supply a very high-voltage current to large power grids. Like the Germans of today who must manage their excess electricity in too windy weather, the Cambridge professor was therefore looking for a way to store their energy “ in a form as practical as coal or oil. If a windmill in his garden could produce a quintal of coal daily, our coal mines would be closed tomorrow.” He thought that storage might be able to be done using cheap storage batteries “which will allow us to transform intermittent wind energy into continuous electrical energy”. Does this remind you of anything?
But Haldane was more convinced by storage in the form of hydrogen than in batteries. He proposed to install water electrolytic plants to produce hydrogen and oxygen, which when “liquefied would be stored in vast vacuum-jacketed tanks, probably buried in the ground”. He is also the designer of oxycombustion, which has become fashionable again for a time around 2010 so that the CO2 generated by the combustion of fossil fuels is not diluted in the nitrogen in the air and thus the capture of CO2 would be easier to store it. A pioneer, Haldane knew that Sir William Grove had invented the fuel cell in 1838 and thought of using it to generate electricity from hydrogen. It was too early, because it took until 1932 that Francis Thomas Bacon built the first hydrogen fuel cell. Does this remind you of anything?
Haldane was also aware of the challenge of hydrogen’s energy density, huge in the liquid state and low in the gaseous state. He therefore thought about storing it in tanks so that he could use it in an appropriate form. He ends the presentation of his futuristic vision of hydrogen by recalling “ that no smoke or ashes will be produced ”. That is what we are being sold today as an advantage.
Hydrogen, the energy of the future
A century ago there was no social media, but ideas were circulating. The Nazis studied the futuristic concept of Haldane. The book “Technology and Economy in the Third Reich” by Dr. Franz Lawaczeck published in 1933 presents the concept of hydrogen production from wind energy, but dismisses it, because burning hydrogen is a chemical, industrial and economic nonsense. In 1933, the price of utopian hydrogen, which was not yet called green, was prohibitive compared to that produced industrially with coal, the fossil fuel that was the raw material of chemistry. Then as now, burning hydrogen is like burning a Louis Vuitton handbag to get warm.
From the extraordinary development of nuclear power in the 1960s, the European Commission undertook research under the Euratom Treaty at its new Joint Research Center at Ispra (Italy). The European official Cesare Marchetti, brilliant founder of modern hydrogen research, quickly understood with some elementary calculations that electrolysis consumes far too much energy to dissociate the water molecule. This way is a dead end. Lawaczeck even explains that high-temperature electrolysis, which is now presented as a possible way to overcome the disadvantages of this method of dissociating water, is just as illusory.
Climate change has not suddenly made engineers smart; it is even insulting to pretend that today’s engineers are clever that the past ones. The laws of physics and chemistry are immutable. The billions spent by the European Commission to produce green hydrogen will not change them and they are money thrown to the wind. John Haldane’s cool ideas are still cool after a century, so hydrogen will remain the energy of the future.
For further details, see Samuel Furfari’s book « The Hydrogen Illusion. »:
- DAEDALUS gold Science and the Future, A paper read to the Heretics, Cambridge, on February 4th, 1923 by J. B. S. Haldane, Transcribed by Cosma Rohilla Shalizi, Berkeley, California, 10 April 1993, http://bactra.org/Daedalus.html
- Lawaczeck Franz, Technik und Wirtschaft im Dritten Reich, 1933, https://archive.org/details/B-001-001-049/page/n93/mode/2up