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Bangkok Post (Thailand): Hydrogen my world

Published: Jan 19, 2007

Hydrogen is the way to a cleaner world and a viable alternative that will help “repay” the clean air we are borrowing from future generations.

Shell Hydrogen LLC expects more than 750 million vehicles to be powered by hydrogen by 2050. Pana Ratanabanangkoon, its business development manager, is leading the company’s efforts to develop a hydrogen infrastructure in the state of California which is one of the most progressive places for hydrogen and alternative energy in the United States.

He shares his insights on the merits of hydrogen economy and what it means to the future of Thailand and at large Planet Earth.

Hopefully leaders with vision will take time out from their busy schedule to ponder its utility.

– What makes hydrogen an energy source?

Hydrogen is the simplest and most plentiful element in the universe which readily combines with other elements, such as oxygen and carbon, to produce or become a source of fuel. Once isolated, it is the ultimate source of clean energy.

Hydrogen seems the obvious alternative to hydrocarbon fuels, such as petrol. It has many potential uses, is safe to manufacture and environmentally friendly.

Hydrogen is the fuel of the future for it addresses the key challenges the world faces today; energy security, air pollution and climate change.

– How is it produced?

Hydrogen can be produced from a diverse mix of resources such as natural gas, coal, biofuel, air and geothermal sources. It allows every country to tap its natural resources to produce hydrogen, and not just rely on a single source of fuel that entail high transportation costs.

Hydrogen produced from natural gas, coal and biofuel can be done in tandem with carbon dioxide capture and underground sequestration to limit emissions. Hydrogen is also produced via electrolysis where electricity is used to split water (H2O) molecules into hydrogen and oxygen, using clean renewable power driven by solar, wind, tidal wave or geothermal energy. Electrolysis has zero emission.

– How long will we be able to use hydrogen?

The long-term objective is to economically produce hydrogen using renewable sources of power existing naturally – wind, solar, geothermal, tidal wave and biofuel. They exist in infinite quantity.

– How does hydrogen work in a car?

Hydrogen gas from storage tanks is fed to a fuel-cell unit which then generates electricity. This electricity is used to power motors that propel the car. There is no emission from the car – just water droplets discharged via a tail pipe. It’s so pure that you can even drink it.

– What about oxygen and excess water vapour?

Benzine-powered cars today already emit water vapour when running.

– Cost of hydrogen at a refuelling station?

Our hydrogen retail station in Washington DC, the first integrated petrol and hydrogen retail station in North America, sells hydrogen at twice the cost of Shell’s best-selling premium petrol to illustrate our long-term cost target.

Hydrogen fuel-cell cars are twice as efficient as gasoline-powered cars so the cost/km or mile is the same. Produced in large-scale, hydrogen from natural gas reforming or coal gasification (both process extracts hydrogen at its sources) can be very competitive with petrol.

In the longer term, hydrogen from renewable power such as wind and solar energy is also expected be competitive. The cost to build a hydrogen station is high because we are still in the early phase of development, but the cost will reduce over time.

– Is it safe?

Hydrogen is safe, although any fuel must be treated with respect. Safety is No. 1 priority for Shell, and we are focused on leveraging our extensive experience in hydrogen production and handling through other expert sources to ensure supplies are delivered and transferred safely.

Regarding the Hindenburg tragedy early last century, the chemical composition of paint on the airship’s exterior was the cause, not hydrogen.

– Water has hydrogen, why don’t I just put it in my fuel tank?

That would be great, right? Some day perhaps. Electrolysis or splitting water to make hydrogen and oxygen will require electricity. It is not a practical solution from a cost and design point of view to have this process onboard the car. It is better to have a centralised facility to produce hydrogen that then distributes hydrogen to the consumers. Future technologies will allow hydrogen to be produced in homes from natural gas or roof top solar cells.

– What do you mean by hydrogen economy?

The hydrogen economy is a fundamentally different world where the gas is available to everybody. Countries will not be dependant on a single source of fuel any more.

Hydrogen will be produced in a clean and cost-effective manner from a variety of sources like renewable energy, water and fossil fuels. Advanced technologies are being used to ensure that any carbon released in the process does not escape into the atmosphere. Hydrogen is delivered and stored routinely and safely. Hydrogen-powered fuel-cells and engines are as common as the gasoline and diesel engines of the late 20th century – they power our cars, trucks, buses and other vehicles, as well as our homes, offices and factories.

– What kind of infrastructure are we talking about?

Hydrogen has been used in industrial setting for several decades. At Shell, we have been manufacturing hydrogen for 40 years, we have been distributing, transporting and retailing fuels for the past 100 years. Hydrogen requires the same infrastructure we have today, just different technology.

– How will you convince the Thai government about hydrogen?

I will probably ask the government to continue to diversify energy supply. Energy demand globally will continue to increase and the issue of climate change will certainly affect all of us individually.

The government is on the right path looking at alternative fuels such as CNG and biofuel. But longer-term energy solutions to reduce Thailand’s dependency on foreign fuel import as well as addressing the pollution problem are needed. These considerations should include stronger policy and incentives for renewable energy such as solar, wind, biofuel and hydrogen.

– Thailand has problems with supply of raw materials (ethanol for gasohol, cancer-causing methane residue in biodiesel production, not enough land to cultivate palm oil and the list goes on). Is hydrogen too much too soon to even consider?

Any serious initiatives in clean and renewable fuel will help. Hydrogen can be in the mix with biofuels, CNG and solar. Although the hydrogen commercial timeline is considered to be in the next 10-20 years, it’s never too late to start planning.

– Automakers obviously will wait for a proper hydrogen infrastructure. Shell will wait for automakers to commit with hydrogen car production. So when and where does it start?

Shell Hydrogen is actually working closely with automakers to ensure that hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle roll out is coordinated with infrastructure roll-out. This will avoid the chicken or egg dilemma often seen in alternative fuel roll-out.

Also, Shell will work with the government to ensure that barriers to building the infrastructure such as public awareness, permits and incentives are addressed early on.

– Benefits of hydrogen applications

and how it compares to other alternative

energy sources?

Because hydrogen can be produced from multiple sources – natural gas, coal, petroleum coke, biofuels, wind, solar – it allows each country or region of the country to utilise resources available within the area rather than relying on only foreign oil imports.

If taken in the Thai context, Thailand could produce hydrogen from a variety of natural resources available in different regions – coal and geothermal resources in the north, solar energy in the northeast, natural gas in the central region and wind power or biofuel in the south.

– What’s the worst case scenario on the global environment if consumers and world governments turn a blind side to hydrogen?

The world will continue to face rising energy demand. Especially with China and India doubling or tripling energy consumption per capita in the coming decades, the need to diversify is critical to the sustainability of all countries.

Also, with the global warming spawned by greenhouse gases, we are seeing wild fluctuations in weather patterns and climatic conditions around the world. Every now and then we hear of record high/ low temperatures in some corner of the globe, and higher incidence of natural disasters. We need to address these issues urgently and plan far in advance. Hydrogen could be the solution to all these problems.

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