Ride a bike, say Salon's readers, responding to Katharine Mieszkowski's "Just Say No, to Hydrogen."

By Salon Staff

Published May 4, 2004 6:24PM (EDT)

[Read the story.]

Thank you, Salon, for publishing an article debunking the hydrogen utopia that some ill-informed government officials have been pushing.

The interview with Joseph Romm is the first time I have seen the real concerns about hydrogen spelled out in a nonscientific publication. Keep up the good work!

-- Ben Burnett

Joseph Romm makes some excellent points about why hydrogen is not the environmental panacea that its boosters portray. However, his presentation of the alternatives is similarly shortsighted.

Hybrid-electric gasoline vehicles are certainly efficient, but efficiency alone is not sufficient to address the myriad problems caused by the petroleum economy.

While Mr. Romm mentions ethanol, he completely ignores what is perhaps the most promising biofuel on the market today -- biodiesel. Biodiesel is produced from vegetable oil in a simple process. It can even be made from used fryer oil recovered from restaurant grease dumpsters. Using ethanol in gasoline engines requires modifications, but biodiesel can be used in diesel engines with no modifications, in any blend with petrodiesel.

Modern diesel passenger cars, which are currently very popular in Europe, match or surpass the performance of their gasoline equivalents in terms of efficiency, acceleration, noise, and emissions. A diesel Volkswagen Passat can be expected to get 40-50 mpg on the highway. Diesel vehicles available in Europe can get up to 100 mpg. These are not hybrids, and therefore avoid the serious battery disposal problems that hybrids pose at the end of their life.

Moreover, biodiesel can be used in any diesel engine -- from a big rig to a garden tractor.

Using biodiesel in these vehicles is proven to slash emissions in nearly every category. Because the fuel is made from crops, no carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere, and there is no need to secure petroleum supplies in hostile lands.

Biodiesel is currently used by the federal government in the national parks, by the city of Berkeley, Calif., in all its vehicles, and by a large number of individuals all around the country.

This fuel has grown so popular in the San Francisco Bay Area that the market for used diesel vehicles has become highly competitive.

Unlike hydrogen or gasoline-electric cars, biodiesel has the potential to be a truly sustainable, domestically produced transportation fuel solution that requires minimal investment in infrastructure or vehicles. It is available today in most urban and many rural areas. For these reasons, I was very surprised that biodiesel was not even mentioned in this article.

-- Carl Lenox

As a newly minted mechanical engineering technology graduate in 1975 who so wanted to work on developing either internal or external combustion electric vehicles, I was told point blank by all the American automotive manufacturers that it would never happen in my career lifetime. At that time their only interest was in politically squeezing all the [fuel efficient] imports out of the marketplace after the oil embargoes earlier in the decade made them so attractive.

I've not kept up with either the combustion technologies for prime movers nor the advances in electric motors in the past 29 years, but I still believe an external combustion Sterling cycle prime mover coupled with linear motor technologies on all four wheels, with today's computer-control technologies, could produce Hummers that get double, even triple, their current mileage, perform better than today's models, use virtually any fuel, and be considered low-emissions vehicles by today's standards.

Could it happen? Absolutely! Will it happen in the remainder of my career lifetime? Not a chance.

-- Richard Dunn

Thanks for exploding the myth that hydrogen is somehow going to save the world. I'm always surprised to see articles about how great hydrogen is, but no one ever asks where the energy to create it is going to come from.

However, you then go on to make the same facile mistake. Your "next page" link at the bottom of Page 2 says, "Wanna save the world? Drive a hybrid." Who are you kidding? All driving a hybrid does is reduce the amount of greenhouse gases you're emitting -- at best you'll be able to slow down global warming, but with more and more people driving, you'll probably just end up running in place. Hybrid cars, hydrogen cars, even electric cars, are just red herrings that can make us feel we're being environmentally friendly while we do very little to change our lifestyle. Walking, biking, public transit -- these are simple but radical ways to reduce our energy use. But as long as we're set on our me-me-me lifestyle, where everybody thinks they're entitled to live in the suburbs and drive everywhere, we're not going to get anywhere.

-- Stephan von Pohl

I wanted to thank Katharine Mieszkowski for the excellent article on the growth of hydrogen power. I wanted to add a simple comment to Mr. Romm's answer to her question, "What do you think consumers and citizens can do now to fight global warming?" He neglected to give a very simple solution: Ride a bike! Bicycles are the single most energy-efficient form of transportation (more efficient than walking). We have the needed infrastructure. Bikes are low cost, run on renewable energy (food), and in many places can be ridden year round. Even well-informed supporters of renewable energy often overlook this as one of the simplest, most effective ways to reduce fuel usage and pollution.

-- David Matsu

You need to realize that high pressure is not necessary to store hydrogen. The hydrogen hydrides do a very good job at low pressures. The most efficient metal hydride is lithium, about 12.5 percent pounds hydrogen per pound of hydride. However, carbon hydride is even more efficient. In liquid form it can reach 14 percent. By the way, the compound is commonly called gasoline.

I participated in feasibility studies on the hybrid 30 years ago. Looked good then; they look even better today. By the way, diesel engines are not too shabby either and can be combined with hybrid technology.

When I was a research engineer for a major oil company (retired), we postulated 30 years ago during the Arab oil embargo that if we were to raise the crude oil tax 1 cent per gallon per month, we would after 20 years gradually shift our lifestyle to a much more energy-efficient one without the dramatic bloodshed and agony we are going through today.

Oh well. Opportunity lost.

-- R. B. Stanfield

What I do not clearly understand is a portion of the economics of alternative energy.

Gas prices will increase as oil becomes scarcer and as global warming increases. In addition, do we not subsidize the use of fossil fuels versus alternative sources? How much of a difference does this make in the cost?

On the opposite side, some of the costs for alternative energy sources will go down with adoption. For example, how much of the increased costs for hydrogen cars are a result of no cost reduction for volume construction?

Given this, at what point do the higher costs related to hydrogen, assuming renewable generation of hydrogen, meet the rising costs of fossil fuel?

In other words, I assume there is a public policy element that can impact the economics.

-- Rick Gable

The debate over hybrid vs. hydrogen cars is missing the point. We're not going to save the planet or achieve energy independence by buying a different kind of car. We're going to achieve it by driving less -- a lot less.

People don't want to hear it, but there wouldn't be a global-warming problem if people stopped insisting on big houses out in suburbs that are so spread out that walking, biking or public transit are out of the question. (Public transit only works at relatively high densities. That's why everyone takes the subway in Manhattan and no one does in Houston.)

So get over it. Stop waiting for a magic elixir that will let us keep dragging two tons of steel and rubber with us wherever we go, 'cause there ain't none.

-- Tim Moerman

Salon Staff

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