Hydrogen, the Dream Fuel, Shifts From Cars to Houses

Last Updated Sep 29, 2009 11:54 AM EDT

Hydrogen has certainly taken its lumps in the ongoing debate over renewable energy. When President Bush provided a budget for research into using hydrogen in cars, he also kicked off a support movement that agitated continually in favor of hydrogen -- although many of its members appeared to not be aware that it had to be made from natural gas, at a significant net energy loss.

The movement died down over time, helped along by an attempt from new Department of Energy head Steven Chu to kill hydrogen funding. Now, aside from a few lingering efforts by major car companies to draw attention to hydrogen fuel cells, it's rare to hear much about it. But wait -- enter the hydrogen-powered house:

Similar experiments are being done elsewhere, but what sets Florida State's effort apart from most is the building's reliance on hydrogen for power at night and on cloudy or rainy days.

Hydrogen is a potential low-cost alternative to batteries because storage tanks for the lighter-than-air gas are comparatively simple and cheap.

"It's a viable concept that they are demonstrating," said Yogi Goswami, co-director of the Clean Energy Research Center at the University of South Florida. "For hydrogen the problem is the cost of production. It's usually high. If they are going to reduce that cost, that's moving in the right direction."
Attentive readers will remember something along these lines coming up last year. That was a project by MIT professor Daniel Nocera, who announced that his research into splitting hydrogen from water had found a cheaper catalyst, made from a cobalt phosphate.

And as it turns out, Nocera, also, is ramping up his efforts in this area. MIT spun off a company called Sun Catalytix, which is working on a plan very similar to the one above. Solar panels on a home's roof would generate excess energy during the day, which would be converted to hydrogen and stored for later use.

Chances are good that if two universities have projects going in this area, there are others doing the same. But what are their prospects in the real world?

For an off-grid house, the verdict looks pretty good. People choosing to live off-grid will typically take the best option available, if they can afford it at all. That may well be solar power with hydrogen storage; with that setup, a home could be continuously powered as if it were connected to a remote power plant.

The prognosis doesn't look as good for homes that are already connected. All the equipment to create and store hydrogen will be expensive by itself, but as the article on the FSU project notes, the amount of solar paneling required also drastically increases -- in this case, to 6.9 kilowatts, which is three or more times larger than the average solar installation.

The problem is that solar only peaks for a few hours a day, and during that peak, the conversion to hydrogen won't even approach perfect efficiency; a good portion of the energy will be lost, so much more solar paneling is needed than the amount required to power the home for a few hours. For reference, by the way, the solar paneling alone could cost well over $100,000 (without subsidies) if installed today.

Despite various technical hurdles, it's really the high costs that have inhibited vehicular hydrogen; it's too early to tell, but it looks like that will also be the case here. Still, those considerations aren't likely to stop the research, so we'll probably be hearing much more about hydrogen-powered homes in the future.