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The Phoenix Project: A Plan for Sustainable Economic Prosperity Without Pollution by Shifting from Oil to Hydrogen

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November 18, 2002

The Phoenix Project: A Plan for Sustainable Economic Prosperity Without Pollution by Shifting from Oil to Hydrogen

By Harry Braun

As the people in California quickly realized during the rolling blackouts last year, energy is not just another commodity-it is the very foundation upon which an economy functions. Indeed, there is no product produced that does not have a corresponding energy cost. As such, without stable and affordable sources of energy, civilization as we know it changes quickly and profoundly. At present, the world primarily runs on oil and other fossil fuels, which are highly polluting and non-renewable, and given that these resources are being exponentially consumed (i.e., there are more and more people competing for fewer and fewer resources) energy instability and chaos will be inevitable in the future. It is only a question of time. Energy policy also profoundly impacts the environment and foreign policy, and while the Bush Administration seeks to secure the oil in Iraq and recover the remaining reserves in sensitive offshore or wilderness areas, the democratic leadership is focused on conserving the remaining oil by getting American consumers to give up their SUVs. Both of these policies are equivalent to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Note the above forecasts of oil availability that were prepared by Lockheed engineers to show that billions of dollars of aircraft are being designed to operate on a fuel that will not be available for the life of the aircraft. The same concerns affect power plants, pipelines, ships and trains.

Shifting From Oil to Hydrogen

The focus needs to be on shifting to hydrogen because it is the only zero-carbon emission fuel that can make the U.S. energy independent of not only Middle East oil, but of all fossil and nuclear fuels-and the staggering environmental problems they create. Millions of Americans will be employed as the U.S. is transformed into a Saudi Arabia-class energy exporter and every existing vehicle is modified to use hydrogen-the only energy option that can provide sustainable prosperity without pollution.

A Liquid Hydrogen-Fueled BMW

A BMW Liquid Hydrogen-Fueled V-12 Engine

Investigators at BMW have been modifying vehicles to operate on liquid hydrogen fuel for more than 20 years. The BMW hydrogen-fueled engines also operate on gasoline with the flip of a switch from inside the vehicle.

Hydrogen-Fueled Aircraft

The images below show how an existing commercial L1011 commercial aircraft designed by Lockheed Aircraft Corporation could be modified to use liquid hydrogen fuel. The image on the right shows how the aircraft would look very similar to an existing commercial aircraft.

According to investigators at NASA, the U.S. Air Force and Lockheed, liquid hydrogen-fueled aircraft will be lighter, quieter, safer and less expensive to manufacture and operate than with hydrocarbon-fueled aircraft. When aircraft are optimized for hydrogen fuel they have the potential to be much larger, like the Lockheed design pictured below. In addition, if the hydrogen is made with renewable energy technologies, its future costs can be projected without the uncertainties that are associated with non-renewable oil and gas resources.

Note that if the hydrogen fueled commercial aircraft design by Lockheed in the above image was used, it would be impossible for a passenger to hijack the aircraft because the passenger compartments are completely separated from the flight crew by a hydrogen storage tank. It is worth noting that In the 9/11 attack, the vast bulk of the damage was not caused by the impact of the aircraft into the buildings-but rather the fire and resulting deadly smoke that was generated from the aircraft.s hydrocarbon fuel, which softened the steel support structures within the buildings, causing their collapse. By contrast, if the same aircraft had been fueled with hydrogen (which is the lightest element in the universe) the fire from the impact would only have lasted a few seconds. Thus the loss of human life and property would have been dramatically reduced.

Advanced Hydrogen-Fueled Aircraft

When aircraft are fully optimized for using liquid hydrogen fuel, they will be able to be substantially larger and have a greatly extended range with the same weight of fuel.

Cryogenic Tankers

Unlike electricity, hydrogen can be transported like oil to world markets, but unlike oil, hydrogen is completely non-toxic in the event of accidents or spills.

Interstate Hydrogen Pipeline System

Hydrogen can be safely transported in underground pipelines as a pressurized gas or a cryogenic liquid. If superconducting cables are imbedded into the liquid hydrogen pipeline, electricity can also be transported in the pipeline with virtually no transmission losses, thereby eliminating the need to build unsightly overhead transmissions lines. Image provided courtesy of Union Carbide.

The Universal Fuel

The economic impact of shifting from fossil and nuclear fuels to solar hydrogen production technologies will be unprecedented, as the U.S. will be rapidly transformed from the world.s largest energy importer, to the world.s largest energy exporter. Moreover, hydrogen is the only .universal fuel. that can power virtually every existing engine or appliance, from the family automobile or lawnmower, to ships, aircraft, spacecraft, or a Coleman stove operating on a mountain-top. As the hydrogen tree below demonstrates, hydrogen is also a primary chemical feedstock that is used to make everything from peanut butter to gasoline.

The Hydrogen Tree

In the case of making gasoline, the hydrogen is extracted from natural gas, which is not renewable and therefore not sustainable. Moreover, while natural gas is the cleanest burning fossil fuel, there are serious environmental costs associated with the extraction of natural gas. If the hydrogen is manufactured from water with wind or other solar technologies, however, it is completely renewable and pollution-free. It is also worth noting that it takes about 18 gallons of water to make one gallon of gasoline from crude oil, whereas it only takes 2.3 gallons of water and approximately 45 kilowatt-hours of electricity to make an equivalent amount of energy in the form of hydrogen. It is also worth noting that all green photosynthetic plants on the earth have been successfully using the solar hydrogen energy system on a global scale for over 3.5 billion years.

Economic Reality

The world now finds one new barrel of oil for every four it consumes. World oil discoveries peaked in the 1960s, and in the U.S. they peaked in the 1970s. Indeed, the U.S. now has less than 3% of the remaining proven reserves. More than 90 percent of today's oil comes from fields discovered more than 20 years ago and most of the fields uncovered in the past decade have been relatively small. Existing oil reserves will last for 40 or 50 years at current rates of consumption, but even if there were a 1000-year supply of oil, with 5% annual growth in consumption, the 1000-year supply would be exponentially consumed in only 79 years. The U.S. has a 250-year supply of coal at current rates of consumption, but if it were used to displace oil and natural gas in the transportation and energy sectors, the coal would be consumed in about 30 years, and the environmental impact from the strip mining alone would be devastating. Many of the most serious global environmental and economic problems are directly related to the industrialized world.s reliance on fossil fuels.

The Phoenix Project

Hydrogen has often been referred to as the .Holy Grail. of energy because it is inexhaustible, non-toxic and pollution-free, but most analysts anticipate that the hydrogen economy is far off into the future because they assume the hydrogen will be have to be made from nuclear fusion or that fuel cells will have to replace existing internal combustion engines. However, wind-powered electrolytic hydrogen production systems are no more difficult to manufacture than automobiles, and hydrogen is a "universal fuel" that can and should power virtually any existing vehicle. Moreover, given that the interrelated energy and environmental problems are worsening exponentially, the shift to a hydrogen economy should be undertaken with wartime speed (i.e., by 2010).

Approximately 12 million one-megawatt wind-powered electrolysis systems could provide 100% of the U.S. energy requirements (i.e., 100 quads) in the form of electricity and hydrogen. Given that over 17 million cars and trucks are manufactured in the U.S. each year, the 12 million wind-powered electrolysis systems, which are similar to automobiles from a manufacturing perspective, could and should be built and installed within a five or ten year period. Because of the economies of scale, the resulting hydrogen will be competitive with the current price of gasoline. Moreover, most while gasoline and other non-renewable hydrocarbon fuels will only get more expensive in the future, hydrogen costs will continue to be reduced as more and more scientists and engineers focus their attention on optimizing hydrogen production technologies.

Instead of oil companies investing in foreign countries that have few . if any . environmental rules, those investments will instead be made in the U.S., as oil companies evolve into hydrogen companies. Fair Accounting Act legislation is the .trigger mechanism. for this .transition of substance. because it would eliminate the $3 billion a week in federal subsidies to fossil and nuclear fuels, and factor in the many external environmental, military and health care costs into fuel taxes. With a fair accounting system, hydrogen will be the least expensive fuel.

About Harry Braun

Harry Braun is a graduate of Arizona State University and has worked as an energy and environmental analyst for the past 30 years. He is the author of The Phoenix Project: Shifting from Oil to Hydrogen (, and the proposed Fair Accounting Act legislation that will serve as the economic .trigger mechanism. for shifting to a hydrogen economy. Harry is Chairman of the Hydrogen Political Action Committee ( and has been an Advisory Board Member of the International Association for Hydrogen Energy ( for over 20 years.

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