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An Open Letter to BusinessWeek on Hydrogen

January 20, 2005

Mr. Stephen B. Shepard

Dear Sir:

In order to keep up with issues and events of interest to business people, I have been a BusinessWeek reader for over 30 years. Most of your magazine's articles have been informative, interesting and reasonably accurate. My only complaint is that from time to time, BusinessWeek has failed to maintain a policy of consistent editorial quality control. Two or more articles in the same issue, or in subsequent issues, reveal conflicting information and opinion. It is as though BusinessWeek wants to take all sides of a subject. The reader is left to figure out the truth.

Lately, however, BusinessWeek has apparently succumbed to siren of lazy journalism. Articles reflect a lemming like adulation of pop culture and politically correct thinking. Truth is fashioned from opinion rather than fact.

Such is the case with your unfortunate infomercial on hydrogen (Science and Technology, Hydrogen Cars Are Almost Here, But There are still serious problems to solve, such as: Where will drivers fuel up? BusinessWeek, January 24, 2005 pp. 56). This article reflects the contemporary pop culture mantra that pollution free hydrogen fuels will save the environment, a belief that ignores the pollution penalty of hydrogen production, distribution and consumption. It also obscures hydrogen's primary disadvantage: hydrogen is an energy intensive alternative to motor fuels derived from oil.

Here is why.

Fire and Explosion

Your article claims that hydrogen is less dangerous than gasoline. In a limited sense, this is true.

Like gasoline and diesel fuel, hydrogen is highly volatile. Because of its very low boiling point (-252.77 degrees C.), and low density (.0899 grams/liter), it will dissipate very rapidly in an upward direction if released as a gas into the atmosphere or spilled as a liquid onto the ground. This very high rate of upward dissipation compares favorably with the slow dispersal rate of gasoline vapors which tend to fall and collect near the ground. Furthermore, gasoline can ignite at a concentration of 1 percent. By contrast, hydrogen needs a concentration level of roughly 4 percent before it will ignite. Since it has such a high dispersion coefficient, hydrogen dissipates rapidly and it is thus almost impossible for a hydrogen explosion to occur in an open area. It is also true that a hydrogen fire will burn out faster than a petroleum fire. These factors appear to make hydrogen safer than gasoline or diesel fuel as a source of explosion and fire.

But that does not mean, as your article implies, that hydrogen is not a potential source of explosion and fire. According to published Material Safety Data Sheets, it has other characteristics that make it dangerous.

  1. Although the flame will usually burn out very quickly and dissipate little radiant heat, hydrogen ignites over a wide range of concentrations (from 4 to 74.2 percent).
  1. A potential explosion hazard exists from reignition if a hydrogen fire is put out without shutting off the hydrogen source.
  1. Hydrogen becomes explosively dangerous if it accumulates in the upper spaces of a structure.
  1. In bright ambient light, the pale blue flames are invisible to the naked eye. People have been burned by hydrogen fires before they were even aware they had walked into an open flame.
  1. It takes relatively little heat energy to ignite hydrogen. For example, when hydrogen is released from a pressurized container, rapid gaseous expansion causes an increase in temperature due to its negative Joule-Thompson coefficient and the heat thus generated may cause spontaneous ignition.
  1. Hydrogen is easier to detonate if it is in a confined space, such as a tunnel, garage or the interior of a car. Care must be taken to eliminate sources of ignition, such as sparks from electrical equipment or static electricity, open flames, and extremely hot objects.

One final point on hydrogen's potential fire and explosion potential. Hydrogen is highly reactive with other elements and may combine with them to form new chemicals that are corrosive or explosive.

Other Hazards

Although hydrogen is odorless and nontoxic, it is classified as a simple asphyxiant. In an enclosed space, such as the cabin of a vehicle or your garage, symptoms of anoxia can occur when gas concentrations are within the flammable (and potentially explosive) range. Suffocation occurs because increased concentrations of hydrogen dilute the available supply of oxygen in the air to levels below those necessary to support life. To prevent explosions and suffocation, industrial systems typically employ sensors which trigger venting procedures before hydrogen reaches a concentration of 4 percent. If we plan to use hydrogen as a motor fuel, we will need to devise similar systems for use in garages and tunnels, and we will expect vehicle manufacturers, such as BMW, to automatically vent our cars and trucks in the event of a hydrogen leak.

And last – but not least – all consumers will have to be warned that skin contact with cryogenic hydrogen liquid or its vapors can cause burns and tissue damage.

Fuel Cells

Has anyone developed a reliable, practical and affordable fuel cell for automotive applications? Is it possible to develop a fuel cell that will last the expected life of the vehicle? How will we distribute, install, maintain, collect and recycle the exotic and sometimes highly corrosive chemicals used to sustain fuel cell reactions?

Until there are suitable answers to these questions, automotive fuel cells are, and will remain, interesting laboratory experiments. As a service to your readers, BusinessWeek's editorial evaluation should reflect this reality.

Hydrogen and the Environment

Before we waltz all starry eyed into a hydrogen economy, we need to answer some very tough questions. Remember the Periodic Table that your science teacher showed you in High School? Where is hydrogen on that table and why is it there?

The short answer. Hydrogen is a very reactive element. It will readily combine with any other element or chemical it contacts in the environment that has a suitable electron structure. Because it is lighter than air, hydrogen always dissipates upward.

In our existing world, we use tons of liquid hydrogen and millions of cubic feet of hydrogen gas every year. But most of these applications are for industrial use. In theory, hydrogen is used under carefully controlled conditions using specified procedures by trained personnel. Now we propose to make hydrogen a widely distributed fuel for mobile and stationary applications. Who will use this fuel? Millions of people with little or no training or real concern for the commodity they are handling. Leaks are inevitable. Accidental release will be a fact of life.

As this highly reactive gas ascends upward into the atmosphere, it will combine with oxygen and form water droplets. Will this contribute to global warming? Or cooling? And will hydrogen reach the ozone layer? If so, do we humans run the risk of destroying the ozone layer with our hydrogen energy solution?

The average composition of the low atmosphere (up to 15 kms) includes: nitrogen, oxygen, argon, carbon dioxide, ozone, methane, nitric oxide, hydrogen, nitrous oxide, carbon monoxide, and water vapor. The ozone layer or ozonosphere is generally the region in the upper atmosphere between 15-40 kms. The ozone layer contains nitrogen, oxygen, argon, hydrogen, hydroxyl and methyl radicals, hydrogen peroxide, and water vapor. There are continual photochemical reactions in the stratosphere because of the influx of short-wave radiation. Ozone is continually created and destroyed in catalytic reactions with oxides of hydrogen, nitrogen, and chlorine.

What are the potential chemical reactions if excess hydrogen accumulates in the atmosphere? The answer to this question is presently the subject of scientific debate.

Hydrogen as a Fuel.

We have to remember that hydrogen is not a source of energy. It is merely a carrier of energy.

Hydrogen is a manufactured product. Your article glosses over and ignores a key fact about the production of hydrogen.

It's energy intensive.

Using existing and proven technology, it takes substantially more energy to make, compress, liquefy, store and distribute hydrogen than we can expect to get from hydrogen. If electricity is used to make hydrogen by electrolysis, and the hydrogen thus produced is used in an automobile fuel cell, at least 45 percent of the original energy used to manufacture the hydrogen will be wasted by the time it is consumed in a fuel cell using best available technology. The net energy efficiency of a vehicle which burns hydrogen as a fuel is substantially worse.

Where will we get this energy?


Your article ignores the facts. Biomass collection, transportation, processing and distribution yields little net energy and assumes the use of gasoline or diesel fuel. As the reality of oil depletion becomes a factor in public policy, the direct use of available oil resources for energy consumption will take precedence over their indirect use to produce another form of energy. The use of biomass for hydrogen production is problematic because it is not, on a net energy basis, a self sustaining process nor is there enough arable land on this planet to grow the crops that would be necessary to support a biomass solution to the emerging energy crisis.


Public policy will eventually work to discourage the production of hydrogen from oil, coal, solar, hydro, nuclear, or wind resources because in every case, it is more efficient to use the available energy for electricity or motor fuel than to waste it for the production of hydrogen. All of the experimental production and distribution options mentioned in your article assume the availability of cheap energy, usually in the form of oil or natural gas. As time passes, that assumption will prove increasingly false. A more realistic assessment of production costs using available resources would have shown substantially higher consumer prices than those quoted in your article.

So let us review the our facts.

  1. There are safety and environmental questions that need to be resolved before we embrace the hydrogen economy.
  1. In order for hydrogen to become an attractive carrier of energy, we must develop a far less energy intensive manufacturing process.
  1. No one has developed a reliable, practical and affordable fuel cell and unless someone has been able to change the laws of physics, burning hydrogen as a motor fuel is improvident.

Should We Give Up?

No. Although there is evidence that proposed automotive hybrid technology will be almost as efficient and environmentally friendly as a fleet of hydrogen vehicles, we face an era of dwindling oil supplies. So hybrid option only gives us a short term solution. The welfare of our children and our grandchildren depends on our ability to develop a practical alternative fuel for both mobile and stationary applications.

Since oil and natural gas depletion are a reality that will impact our economy and our culture over the next 25 years, energy production and consumption has become a critical issue for every BusinessWeek reader. However, before BusinessWeek publishes another article on hydrogen as a fuel, I would encourage your editors to do their homework. A good place to start is a report on The Hydrogen Economy by the National Academies Press. The project detailed in this report was approved by the Governing Board of the National Research Council, whose members are drawn from the councils of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine. This report addressed the problem of how hydrogen might be manufactured, distributed, stored, and dispensed for light-duty vehicles in the transportation sector. To quote from this excellent report "There are major hurdles on the path to achieving the vision of the hydrogen economy; the path will not be simple or straightforward. Many of the committee’s observations generalize across the entire hydrogen economy: the hydrogen system must be cost-competitive, it must be safe and appealing to the consumer, and it would preferably offer advantages from the perspectives of energy security and CO2 emissions. Specifically for the transportation sector, dramatic progress in the development of fuel cells, storage devices, and distribution systems is especially critical. Widespread success is not certain."

The analysis is reasonably optimistic: "at a future, mature stage of development, hydrogen (H2) can be produced and used in fuel cell vehicles at reasonable cost." However, "The challenge, with today’s industrial hydrogen as well as tomorrow’s hydrogen, is the high cost of distributing H2 to dispersed locations. … The committee believes that the required (manufacturing) cost reductions can be achieved only by targeted fundamental and exploratory research on hydrogen production by photo biological, photochemical, and thin-film solar processes."

Furthermore, the authors of this report envision a 50 year conversion cycle from petroleum to hydrogen. That's too bad. If it takes that long, our economy and our cultural fabric will be decimated by shortages of oil and natural gas.

Until we have demonstrated that we can turn interesting laboratory experiments into practical solutions, the hydrogen economy is a theory that needs more work. In the meantime, pop culture journalism has no place in a magazine that targets business readers around the world. Leave ideological rumination to The Los Angeles Times, CNN or The New Yorker. BusinessWeek readers have a right to expect fact based journalism.

© 2005 Ronald R. Cooke
Guest Expert on Financial Sense Newshour

Ronald R. Cooke
The Cultural Economist
Author: Oil, Jihad and Destiny

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