The Future Role of Hydrogen – David McGrath – M.D. of Regentech the Fuel cell and Energy Company.

 The Future Role of Hydrogen – Text of presentation that was scheduled to be given at the October Claverton Conference by David McGrath – M.D. of Regentech.

Distinguished ladies and gentlemen,

I shall share my perspectives.  This is how I see things based on the evidence I have available.  If you like it is my working hypothesis.  A different evidence base, as we saw in the 80’s and 90’s gives differing interpretations.

The 3 central platforms of our modern world are Energy, Environment, and Economy.
Our economy today has evolved as a direct consequence of unlimited availability of cheap fossil hydrocarbon energy.  Its continuation is conditional upon continued unlimited availability of cheap energy. 

Our economic activities and dependence on fossil hydrocarbons is having a fundamental impact on our environment through habitat destruction, industrial and domestic waste pollution, over exploitation of natural resources and CO2 emissions. 

Further threats we face include Energy availability and economic turmoil if energy gets in short supply and continued environmental damage causing economic and environmental havoc.

On energy. Fossil fuel production fundamentals show an imminent production decline,
• started? 2-5 years? Certainly within 5-10 .  

Peak Oil the point at which production fails to meet entrained demand will be delayed by the current city derived and induced economic downturn, come it will.   This financial crisis has been in the making for 20 years.  The numbers cannot lie, but we can delude ourselves as to what they mean.  For example

• Mortgage lending, 10% annual property inflation, substantial sub prime lending in the UK,
• Share trading and trading of debt the way it has been done is utterly irresponsible
• Obscene fees these clowns extort and the insulting bonuses they plunder from our pensions funds was irresponsible
• The grief was predictable, predicted and inevitable. The costs of which we have to bear. 
• Add to this consumer debt which now meets its reckoning.   
• Average consumer debt is £1.33trillion in 2007.  
• If I earn £30k per year and spend £40k I must pay back the overspend.  I have created a forward spending vacuum. 
• We have done this nationally creating a huge forward sales vacuum awaiting reckoning.
So to some fundamental energy figures, the evidence is there for interpretation.
The exploration and production activities for the past 10 years have replaced on average 20% of the current consumption levels stocks.  The vast bulk of existing reserves, most of which are in production, were discovered during the 60’s and 70’s. 

The warehouse is emptying.   A 1% shortfall is a crisis and a 1% over supply is a glut.  But we need a high oil price in order to exploit most of the remaining oil reserves.  And before we beat up on the Arabs they produce only 40% of the worlds demand. 2/3rds of the world producing regions have reached peak oil conditions.

Make no mistake fossil hydrocarbons face global production decline and soon.  It is as inevitable as tax and death.  And whilst some of you take comfort in the current oil price remission, half of its peak, it is but a remission but this remission threatens all new exploration and production.

So if we want energy from where will it come and remember in the UK we consume 20% as wire delivered electrons, 80% as liquids, gasses and solids.  It is this 80% that worries me most.  What innovations could there be to address this issue?

Innovation asks the same question in a different way or asks a different question.  It then poses alternative hypothesis to these questions whilst understanding key externalities, for example in oil production terms remember 1% shortfall is a crisis and a 1% over supply. 

But I also ask you to reflect on the UK innovation disease.  Test this for yourself.  As soon as someone says something different 95% of UK people will have prepared their riposte before the sentence is complete without actually listening to what is said.  How many of you have already formed your riposte to this statement without asking why the statement is made. 

So with this in mind.  What role can Hydrogen play.  Remember this figure 1% shortfall is a crisis.  Over 40% of the world’s population live in remote areas where fossil hydrocarbons are shipped into the region.

Let us take a worked example. 
• The Western Islands of Scotland. 
• The highest renewable energy density in Europe and lowest population density. 
• Here we have wind and marine energy in huge abundance yet we import 95% of our energy in the form of fossil. 
• The grid cannot take any significant increase in renewable energy but we could increase renewable production a hundredfold. 
• Let us increase renewable energy production well beyond the grid limits and we produce vast quantities of hydrogen.  Let us use hydrogen fuel in place of imported fossil hydrocarbons. 

• Every existing fossil fuel based combustion system can combust hydrogen gas by changing the burners.  Cookers, ovens, internal combustion engine vehicles, catalytic heaters, everything.  Needs a bit of work of course. 
• Hydrogen based fuelled fuel cell vehicles are on their way now. 
• There is nothing bar total world economic collapse that will prevent them making their way to those places with the intelligence and foresight to prepare for them.  E.g. Germany, US, Canada, Suadi Arabia is about to overtake us.
• Every technical difficulty thrown at the hypothesis has or is being addressed
• Safety paranoia? The HSE, BOC, Linde, NHA, UKHA et al confirm hydrogen is safer than natural gas and petroleum when handled with the same car we afford these fuels.

Now what of the local grid with localised wind, solar and marine energy the grid stabilisation is easy to achieved through localised 5-400kW fuel cell static generators, as we speak MW stations are in development.

This model can apply across 80% of the Scottish land mass some 50% of the country’s population.  It also applies in the N of England, Wales, Devon Cornwall and many more. 

We could in short measure reduce the UK net fossil demand by as much as 20-30%.  Given that 40% of the world’s population live in remote communities it can work there so we are now making a substantial dent in world demand which fossils are able to meet.

The arguments against this are

Cost.  As with every new technology volume drives down price.  Fuel cells are too expensive, of course they are but consider in 2004 I was quoted Euro 40k for a smart fuel cell which I now buy for euro 1k6.  Idatech this week announced an order for 30,000 5kW fuel cell systems for deployment across India.  Cost are on the way down NOW.  Electrolysis is the same, the base technology is over a hundred years old, but demand drives up production and reduces costs.

Efficiency, the left hand side of the engineers brain is disconnected to the right.  On the one hand they say export the electricity to the central belt as electricity because it is more efficient and in the same breath declare the Canada tar sands are a good thing.  But this also ignores capital efficiency, social efficiency and the efficiency of self sufficient localised economies.

My hypothesis  is,
• Where ever possible localise energy
• Reduce energy demand with every device possible
• Use every means of local energy to met local needs in the most efficient manner possible, technically, economically and socially over the long term 10-20 years.
• Store excess energy in every form possible, batteries, flow batteries, hydrogen and hydrogen carriers, water, compressed air whatever you can think of.
• Use these energy stores in every way possible including hydrogen
• Use hydrogen and its carriers to meet local off grid energy demand, transport, cooking, hating
• Localise, localise, localise.  Locally made energy consumed locally.

Of the grand Schemes

I read of the many centralised solutions for UK and EC supergrids.  I will not say do not pursue these but I urge you consider. 
• We have seen a progressive centralisation of decision making across the UK and EC in the interests of maximising efficiency. 
• What is happening fewer and fewer people are having to make decisions and they are overwhelmed. 
• They concentrate on the bigger and bigger picture whilst smaller and localised solutions fall as no one is authorised to make decisions.
• Speed of response is virtually stopped, innovation is crushed, you cannot get consensus across 26 countries.
• The grinding bureaucracy and institutional inertia is paralysing
• These decisions makers are often ill equipped non-technical administrators terrified for their jobs or egos and the worst are the accountants and lawyers.

I suggest re-localise decisions;
• Stop central planning as the only planning allowed.  What works for Gigha may be inappropriate for London.  An EC super grid is utterly inappropriate for the needs of Caithness’s demand for heating, transport fuels, cooking and electricity
• Importing solar energy from Africa is utterly socially irresponsible, they will need this energy themselves.
• Authorise a high degree of innovative anarchy
• Authorise trying things for the sake of trying them
• Pay for the transition collectively
• Shed this anal-retentive obsession on short term cost effectiveness.

One last thing I urgently ask you to do before dismissing the hypothesis is look around you all over the world. 
• National and local governments are joining this movement, sadly not the UK.
• Companies and communities are developing technologies and projects their hearts and inventive minds wish to pursue, many will fail many will be hugely successful. 
• We cannot predict which.

Above all there is no one overall solution. When any one suggest “The solution is” you can be sure
• it is a solution only for that bit of energy in which they operate, understand and within their comfort zone. 
• It is highly unlikely it is THE solution for every ones needs, for every energy form or every demand location.

The suns must and will begin to set on inefficient fossil hydrocarbon combustion to be replaced by every forms of renewable energy in the wet, windy, sunny, smelly and hot.  There will be nuclear much as I am against it and Hydrogen and its carrier forms will rise progressively displacing fossil fuels whether we in the UK like it or not.

It’s day is dawning and cannot be stopped other than by utter global economic collapse.

1 Comment

  1. Reply

    Thousands of people are building and experimenting with Hydroxy cells producing Hydrogen from water using electrolysis. I am currently building a copy of the Dave Lawton cell for use with a diesel engine. Hydrogen will have a huge economic effect, this is why the technology has been stifled by governments and multinational energy companies. See

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