with 🎙️ Paul Martin, Chemical process development expert & founder of Spitfire Research.
💧 Spitfire research is a Process development consulting company for a decarbonized future, where Paul acts as an antidote to marketing hopium and a tireless advocate for a fossil-fuel-free future.
This episode is part of a trilogy on the Hydrogen Economy (and its link with the Water Industry). Go check it out! 😀
What we covered:
🧪 How the thermodynamics and fundamental properties of the Hydrogen molecule turn it into a false hope of decarbonization strategies
🌡️ How given the way it’s produced, hydrogen actually is a decarbonization problem
🪶 How Goethe is right: hope’s preferable to despair unless hope needs the laws of physics to stop applying
⚡ How the biggest problem with green hydrogen production is not its water impact but its energy consumption
🏭 How hydrogen barely moves today, and what that reveals about the difficulty of using it as a transportation fuel
😒 How producing small amounts of hydrogen from wastewater treatment plants is fully doable, yet barely desirable
🦘 How optimizing the production of green hydrogen requires very specific geographic properties, and where that applies
🌬️ How the World barely features half the renewable production capacity needed if we wanted to just switch from gray to green hydrogen
👃 How the Hydrogen economy may well be the false nose of Fossil Fuel Companies to keep striving in a decarbonized world
📈 How Turquoise hydrogen production makes a lot of sense, already today, but has a limited market potential for its byproducts.
🧑🔬 How turning Biogas into Hydrogen sounds like a very weird thing to do.
🔬 How electrolysis processes don’t really allow to valorize the oxygen byproduct today, and why.
🚚 How Hydrogen is an amazing good and tool, just not to be wasted as a fuel
🌍 How the European Union and the UK daydream about Hydrogen, and how it may be a last resort solution for Japan and South Korea
🔋 How batteries are not perfect but have a clear path to scale
🏚️ How to be serious and earnest about decarbonization, states shall start with relevant policies
🍏 How we shall start with the low-hanging fruit when putting hydrogen and decarbonization in the same equation
🦌 Canada tackling carbon taxes, CO2 prices as business enablers, Hydrogen promoters being useful idiots, Hydrogen as a sunk cost fallacy, Hopium… and more!
🔥 … and of course, we concluded with the 𝙧𝙖𝙥𝙞𝙙 𝙛𝙞𝙧𝙚 𝙦𝙪𝙚𝙨𝙩𝙞𝙤𝙣𝙨 🔥
Teaser: Hydrogen is a Decarbonization Problem
🔗 Have a look at Spitfire Research’s Website
🔗 Come say hi to Paul on Linkedin
is on Linkedin ➡️
Infographic: Hydrogen is a Decarbonization ProblemInfographic-Hydrogen-is-a-Decarbonization-Problem-Paul-Martin-Spitfire-Research-Part-1
Quotes: Hydrogen is a Decarbonization ProblemQuotes-Paul-Martin-Hydrogen-is-a-decarbonization-problem-Spitfire-Research
Table of contents
- What we covered:
- Teaser: Hydrogen is a Decarbonization Problem
- Infographic: Hydrogen is a Decarbonization Problem
- Quotes: Hydrogen is a Decarbonization Problem
- Full Transcript:
- A carbon-free postcard from Toronto
- Introducing Paul Martin: a tireless advocate for a fossil fuel-free future
- What is Hopium and why is it dangerous?
- Hydrogen: Beyond the Hype, by the numbers
- Is water abstraction for hydrogen production a legit concern?
- What is the World using hydrogen for today?
- One third of hydrogen consumption enable to feed the World
- How to decarbonize gray hydrogen
- Who has interest in promoting Green Hydrogen and Power-to-X approaches?
- The colors of Hydrogen explained
- Is turquoise hydrogen a better solution?
- Did we just find a way to solve 10% of the Hydrogen Problem? 😀
- Could Water Electrolysis produce valuable by-products such as Oxygen?
- How do we decarbonize the remaining 90% of the Hydrogen Economy?
- Why do some countries so heavily invest in Hydrogen?
- Green Hydrogen will be an expensive path to energetical independence
- In a parallel universe, could hydrogen win over batteries?
- The story of hydrogen as Power-to-X is attractive to our psychological biases
- Rapid fire questions:
- Other Episodes:
These are computer-generated, so expect some typos 🙂
Get Season 2's Summary!
Antoine Walter: Hi, Paul, welcome to the show.
Paul Martin: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Antoine Walter: I have to say we have a very packed agenda for today, so I won’t be spending too long on this opening, but there’s this tradition, which I really like, which is the postcard. So I’m going to ask you to send me a postcard from the place you’re at right now.
A carbon-free postcard from Toronto
What can you tell me about Toronto that I would ignore by now?
Paul Martin: Well, right now it’s about minus nine degrees. Celsius is middle of January. So very typical weather here. And in January you can see a lot of esteem rising out of people’s natural gas furnaces and boilers trying to keep their houses warm. But:
One of the things that’s changed in Canada over the past few years, that’s going to make a big difference over the longer term is that we now have a very durable and very interesting carbon tax. That for one thing is going to make it a lot more expensive for people to heat their homes. And that carbon tax is paired with a carbon dividend that gives everyone back the average amount of money that people pay in carbon tax.
The idea there is that if you’re poor and you’re not consuming very much, because you live in a multiunit apartment and you take public transit everywhere, you don’t pay much in carbon tax, but we want to reward you for your low consumption. So you actually get more money back than you pay extra in tax and your life becomes easier.
But if you’re living in a big house and you’re driving a big vehicle, like the one that ruined my electric, my homemade electric car, uh, you’re going to pay a lot of tax, but of course you have a lot of capital to spend to do things. And so this system is widely supported in Canada. It’s survived to federal elections, it’s survived a Supreme court challenge.
It’s the law of the land, and it’s headed to 170 Canadian dollars per ton, CO2 by 2030. So it’s really going to make a big difference in the country. So I’m delighted by that fact and, and really looking forward to seeing the changes that it makes in our society as a result.
Antoine Walter: It’s very interesting because your postcard gives us a clear hint towards what we are going to be discussing in the rest of this podcast.
So I guess if people didn’t guess it it’s going to be about this carbon aspect, this hydrogen aspect, there’s gonna be probably also steam and gas involved at some point. So, it’s like a jigsaw of the next minutes. So thanks for that. Plus you’re not my first guest from Toronto and you’re the first one to tell me that story, which I didn’t know at all.
Introducing Paul Martin: a tireless advocate for a fossil fuel-free future
And which sounds brilliant if you asked me, but I won’t sidetrack you from the first question on, I’d like to get to know you a bit better beyond the 2 million views of your various LinkedIn posts in 2021. Can you guide me through your path over the past 25 years? I’ve heard you were even involved with water at some point
Paul Martin: That’s right. At the beginning of my career, I worked developing water treatment technology and trying to remediate groundwaters that were contaminated by industrial chemicals. And then 25 years ago, I joined a company that designs and builds pilot plants. We’re actually the world’s largest designer and builder of pilot plants, and I’m still active with them, but only part-time.
And I partially own that company as well, but I have a private consultancy called Spitfire research where I serve the needs of people that are looking to try to make earnest efforts towards decarbonisation, but their, their projects aren’t to the stage where they need a pilot plant built yet. And in that time, in that 25 years, working with a company that designs and build pilot plants, we’ve seen every kind of new chemical process technology.
You can imagine from the sublime to the ridiculous, and some of them have been brilliant successes and have made a huge difference to decarbonisation and, and some, I’m not sure.
And after a time that gets very frustrating, as you can imagine. So, but yeah, I’ve been involved in all that time, obviously as a chemical engineer making and using hydrogen and synthesis gas is it’s a big part of the business and it’s something that I’m intensely familiar with back in the late nineties, for instance, I was involved in projects.
We were trying to make small reformer reactors for the purpose of making a hydrogen out of natural gas to feed first. It was going to be vehicle fuel cells. And then later it was going to be fuel cells for combined heat and power in homes. And so I was intensely interested in hydrogen and have been for a long time.
Hydrogen is not a decarbonization solution: it’s a decarbonization problem
And frankly, since the late nineties, not much has changed. I think we’re more earnest in desiring decarbonization and renewable electricity is also getting cheaper and cheaper.
Those two things have changed, but technology wise, and in terms of the properties of hydrogen and its thermodynamics nothing’s changed. So I find it very exasperating to watch this most recent exuberance, this hyperbole that I’ve been calling it, the hopium addiction, you know, thinking of people’s hope being turned into an opium that that’s used to delude them into thinking that things are solutions when they’re really not.
And I find that very frustrating because I think it’s distracting us from real earnest decarbonization. So we have to be careful there hydrogens. Hydrogen is great. It’s a molecule we use in giant quantity. It’s essential. We depend on it for our very lives, honestly, through ammonia, but half the humans on the planet survive because we can make Haber-Bosch, uh, ammonia right now.
And we make it all from black hydrogen. That’s made from fossil fuels without carbon capture, and we have to fix that. And that’s really important, but:
Antoine Walter: There’s a lot to unpack in what you just said. I think we’re going to come back to these colors: black hydrogen, gray hydrogen, green hydrogen and all the colors,
Paul Martin: The colors of euphemism I call it.
What is Hopium and why is it dangerous?
Antoine Walter: But right before, I’d like to stop a last time before going into the deep dive. I’ve got to discover your work through your fight against hopium – this combination of hope and opium.
First, what is hopium and why did you strive to fight it?
Paul Martin: So hopium, I agree with Goethe, you know, the great German author. And he said that in all things hope is preferable to despair. And when you think about that, it’s, it’s gotta be pretty much true, except for one thing I think good too, would probably have said, well, except when your hope requires the laws of physics to be set aside, you know, if, if you’re falling from a cliff and your hope resides in gravity, suddenly not working, your hope is false.
It’s not getting you anywhere. So it’s really kind of pointless. Hopium is what, what happens when people’s hope is used as a drug to set aside their rational thing. And either caused them to waste their money or cause their governments to waste their money, you know, to expand it in a way that’s foolish or it’s, it’s used to pretend that the problem is being solved when really it’s being delayed and real solutions are being put off because they’re uncomfortable.
There’s lots of hopium in the world of all sorts. As hopium related to energy storage, this hopium related to hydrogen as hopium related to batteries, it’s not just hydrogen, but hydrogen is the most egregious example of hopium pushing and selling and dealing and consumption. And, um, you know, the hopium clouding people’s judgment.
It it’s, it’s the most obvious success.
Hydrogen: Beyond the Hype, by the numbers
Antoine Walter: So, let’s go to our deep dive on hydrogen. To give you a bit of background, and as an introduction to that conversation, I was reading the BlueTech insight reports on the hydrogen economy. I’m a water guy. To me, hydrogen trendy and fancy, and you’ll tell me to which extent I’m falling victim to hopium
By reading the report, it turns out that, what BlueTech is saying is that there is something happening. Don’t expect it to be as big as what people say and what you can hear left and right. But nevertheless, as the water industry, you should maybe prepare to something happening around hydrogen.
They go of course much more in depth than what I’m trying to summarize now, in under one minute. Yet, when I first discussed with you, I told you that I’m investigating this relationship between hydrogen and the water industry and you were straightforward. You said: this is not a podcast that is a five minute discussion because there is no relationship.
Is there a relationship between Hydrogen and Water?
And that is the first thing I’d like to understand. What makes you so affirmative to say that there is no relationship between hydrogen, which can be to a certain extent it’s made from water and the water industry.
Paul Martin: Sure. Yeah, it’s really easy. So there are two sides to this. So the first side is I think probably about five times per day on LinkedIn, which is where I’m most active with my commentary.
And so on. I encountered this concern from people that say, oh, well, you know, if we make hydrogen from water by electrolysis, it’s going to use a lot of water. And all of the amount of water is just mind-boggling. And it’s not a good idea because of the water use. And I have to reply to them and say, look, let’s say that you want to make one kilogram of hydrogen to make one kilogram of hydrogen.
You need nine kilograms of water, nine liters of water. And the water has to be. So let’s say it’s 10, because maybe we’re going to waste one, whatever. This is fine. So just tend to make it easy. So 10 kilograms of water per kilogram of hydrogen to desalinate enough seawater to make 10 kilograms of freshwater, pure water by reverse osmosis takes 0.035-kilowatt hours.
Okay. So a small fraction of a single kilowatt-hour and to make a kilogram of hydrogen from that takes between 50 and 65 kilowatt-hours. So you tell me, is water use a major issue with relation to hydrogen production or is it energy use? And by the way, to make 50 or 65-kilowatt hours of electricity, by say a thermal power plant, it doesn’t matter which one, whether it’s nuclear or coal or natural gas takes orders of magnitude more water than 10 kilograms.
When it comes to hydrogen, energy use is much more of an issue than water
You know, so that’s the one side, the one side is that hydrogens issue is energy use. It’s not water use. If you don’t, you have a problem with water and you have access to a brackish well or wastewater or the ocean, it’s far better for you to not make one kilogram of hydrogen. And instead use that energy to purify water so that you have water for whatever you need water for.
Then it is to make hydrogen out of it. I mean, that’s, that’s rather obvious. Then the other side of it is the relationship. If there is any between wastewater treatment and hydrogen, and there’s a number of different people going on about, okay, well, we make, you know, we can do anaerobic digestion of five solids and we can make biogas, which is a mixture of methane and CO2.
And we can use the, we can separate off the CO2 and then we can use the methane to make hydrogen and. Sort of thing. I mean, there are lots of, there’s a lot of energy used in waste wastewater treatment. And so on. It’s used in various forms, but a lot of this thinking just, it arises from ignorance of what hydrogen’s about and, and how it’s used industrially and what it takes to store it and use it and what it’s worth and why it costs what it costs.
Hydrogen is hardly moving today, why would it power transportation in the future?
And the, like, there are a lot of processes that make small amounts of hydrogen often mixed with other gases. And because of the difficulty in bringing that material to market it’s used as a fuel. And that arises from the fact that hydrogen is, I mean, it’s a bulky molecule. It there’s a very low density.
Uh, even at high pressures and even as a liquid, I mean, as a liquid at 24 Kelvin temperature, it’s only 71 kilograms per cubic meter. You know? So as a consequence, that bulkiness makes it hard to move and heart by heart to move. I don’t mean impossible. I mean, we do move hydrogen, quite a lot of it around in the world, but only about 8% of the hydrogen that we make in the world is moved any distance at all.
92% of it is used, right? Where it’s made when industry does something to that extreme extent, we’re not talking about 30% or 50% being moved and 50% being used on site, but 92% is used on site. That’s generally for good reasons. And it is in this case for good reasons that, you know, I won’t bore you with the details, but it’s for good reasons.
We don’t move hydrogen around much because it’s lossy inexpensive to move around. So, you know:
Is water abstraction for hydrogen production a legit concern?
Antoine Walter: We’ll come back to that waste water part because I have many questions on that one, but let’s start with what you just explained about the use of water.
You’re right, it sounds like focusing rather on the energy side of the equation makes more sense than looking to water. If I have to pick between the 50 to 65 kilowatt hour which are needed, to produce green hydrogen, and the 3 to 5 kilowatthour I need to desalinate water, it sounds like a no-brainer..
But now let’s say, that I stay within my silo, and only look at the water side of the equation. My only concern is to supply you water with sufficient quality so that you can produce green hydrogen out of it. That still makes for a lot of water! So if people raise you that concern five times per day to you, don’t you think it is because that concern is somewhat legit?
Paul Martin: No, it’s just because they miss analyze the problem that’s what’s going on. They don’t understand that our issue with water is the gargantuan quantity of water that we use most of which we use in a wasteful foolish way. That’s our issue with water when you’re talking about 0.03, five kilowatt hours to make 10 kilograms or three and a half kilowatt hours to make a cubic meter of freshwater from seawater.
Just about any treatment process that starting with a water, that’s not as contaminated as seawater is going to take less than that. Right? And yet we find water treatment to be a big deal. Why is that? Because we use millions of cubic meters of the stuff. That’s the issue. So this amount that we might use to make hydrogen, it’s really neither here nor there it’s trivial.
What separates dirty from clean water is energy
It’s it’s often the it’s often in the bushes and if you’re starting with reverse osmosis, You can start with wastewater, if you like. I mean, it’s all a matter of, of economics at that point. It’s not really an issue where you have to concern yourself with availability of water. So for instance, there are these projects that people are talking about doing in places where hydrogen production might make sense.
I’ll give you an ex a little bit more detailed about what I mean there to make hydrogen from water. You need gargantuan amounts of electricity for the reason that was mentioned. And if you want to make that hydrogen green, you’re going to have to make it from electricity that’s made from wind and solar.
So because electrolyzers are not cheap. In fact, they’re very expensive. They might get cheaper in the future, but right now they’re very expensive. I mean, very, very expensive. You have to feed them continuously or as close to continuously as possible. So that, that very expensive ass. Can I earn it’s living.
Okay. So, you know, I have an expensive car sitting in my driveway and I only drive it about 5% of the time. Right? If I could find a way to make use of that car, 95% of the time it’s cost to me per kilometer of driving would be much, much lower. Wouldn’t it? It would make a lot more sense. Now, of course, I can afford to have a car sitting there most of the time, because I derive enough value from the 5% of the time that I drive it, that it’s worth having it sit there and 95% of the time, but that’s because the car is not so expensive.
You need specific geographic conditions to produce green hydrogen
If you look in the electrolyzer, you can’t have it. Sit there 95% of the time and only make hydrogen from it. 5% of the time when electricity comes to you for free, okay, you have to have the electricity available at high capacity factors. So if you look in the world, it’s very easy to analyze this, what you need.
You need very specific conditions. You need a desert, okay. And it needs to have an ocean to the west. And when that happens, what you get is this perfect combination of you get nice access to sunlight, to, you know, high capacity factor solar. And then every night as the sun’s going down, the land starts to cool down and the winds blowing off the ocean.
So you get this perfect pairing of sun and wind with maybe a 70% capacity factor combined between the wind and the sun. And those places are places like Western Australia, Chile, maybe Namibia, maybe Morocco is a number of places in the world that don’t have quite perfect conditions, but these conditions exist in those places in the world.
And what’s the, I mean, they’re all deserts. So of course, what does that mean for water? Well, of course you have to be near the sea for this to work, right? So you have access to sea water, so you’re going to do desalination. Well, the nice thing is that if you set up desalination to make pure water for the purpose of making you hide.
Green hydrogen is maybe even an opportunity for water production (thanks to scale effects)
It’s not that difficult to make some extra water for the purposes of whoever’s living there. You just build a somewhat larger plant and use it with higher capacity factor, for instance. So again, the issue isn’t water use, even in dry places in the world, the issue is energy use because the thing that separates clean water from dirty is energy, right?
And ultimately it’s the sun, right? We’re taking clean water from lakes and rivers, which came from solar distillation off the oceans largely right. Or from transpiration, from plants. And like, so the, the thing that’s driving this purification process is solar energy. So water is actually a very low dollar value, but very high intrinsic value.
It’s a form of stored solar energy.
What is the World using hydrogen for today?
Antoine Walter: That’s absolutely clear, thanks. Let’s go back to your ammonia story. Today, this is the main use of hydrogen, through the Haber Bosch process.
Paul Martin: It’s not a third of hydrogen consumption, but yeah, it’s about 40 million of 120 million tons of hydrogen used per year.
But it’s the one that our lives depend on. Yeah. There’s we could live without
Antoine Walter: So, if that’s one third, what are the other two thirds? Petrochemical applications?
Paul Martin: About a third is made from and used in the petrochemical industry, mostly to remove sulfur from gasoline and diesel and other fuels jet fuel before we burn it.
And so that’s about 40 million tons and we’ll need about 10 of those 40 in the future because we’ll still in the future. Need chemicals and we’ll need plastics. And the like, so we’re going to keep using petroleum for those purposes and we’ll need to do fries that portion, but three quarters of the barrel right now we’re burning.
And we don’t need to do sell fries that in the future, if we don’t burn it. So we don’t need that hydrogen. And the other third is used for other things like the direct reduction of iron for making chemicals like methanol and in a myriad of other things it’s used as a coolant in gas turbines. And I I’ll make goodness a million uses for hydrogen.
There are numerous, but they’re fairly small. So those are the big ones, direct reduction of iron ammonia, methanol desulfurization of petroleum, and as a chemical reagent, as a reducing agent, for instance,
One third of hydrogen consumption enable to feed the World
Antoine Walter: So we have these 40 megatons,, which are the ones used today for the production of ammonium through the Haber Bosch process. And that is done today with gray Hydrogen, right?.
Paul Martin: Yeah. Gray is a lie. Okay. Let’s call it. Let’s call a spade, a shovel here. This is not great. It’s black. In fact, it’s ultra black, it’s black hole black it’s 30% blacker. Then the fossil fuel that it’s made from Purdue. Okay. Well, if you start with one Juul of a, of methane lower heating value and you make hydrogen from it, you only get 0.7 Juul of hydrogen, lower heating value, and you get the same number of kilograms of CO2 as you would get.
If you burned that natural gas in the first place. So it’s 30% blacker than burning methane. If you’re going to make hydrogen and then burn it. So that’s what I mean by that. So it is gray is, is a euphemism. It’s not a, it’s not the truth. It’s black. So let’s call it what it is. Okay. And then you can make it black or still if you make it from call.
Okay. Because for every kilogram of hydrogen you make from methane, you get about 10 kilograms of CO2 for every kilogram of hydrogen that you make from call. You get about 30 kilograms of CO2. So it’s even blacker. I don’t know how you say blacker than black, but that’s really it. But the majority of it is made from guests, right?
The majority of it is made from either gas or coal or petroleum gas is the most popular one because this is the cheapest way. And, uh, petroleum, like I said, all of the hydrogen that’s made from petroleum is used to refine petroleum. So it’s more or less cancels itself out. And about 25% of it is made from coal, mostly in places like China and India, where they don’t have access to cheap, natural gas..
How to decarbonize gray hydrogen
Antoine Walter: So we have these 40 megatons of black hydrogen. If we want to decarbonize our world, that’s the portion which is non negotiable. It has to be done with hydrogen.. So we have to replace gray, brown, black, whatever we call it, by a carbon-friendly alternative, that might be green hydrogen. How would you do that?
Paul Martin: So the way I like to think of it as this, so let’s remember, we were talking about 120 million tons in the first place and in a decarbonized future, we’re still going to need 90. Okay. Because 30 will go away when we stopped the self-rising fossils as fuels, right? So we need 90 million tons per year. So to make 90 million tons per year using the best electrolyzer in the world that you can buy.
That’s 50 kilowatt hours per kilogram of hydrogen. You can’t afford that one, but that’s okay. Let’s assume you can scale those up to an enormous scale and make lots of them. That would mean that you would need 4,500 terawatt hours of electricity. To make that 90 million tons of green hydrogen to replace the black hydrogen in the world that we will still need.
Right. Well, in 2019, all of the wind and solar in the whole world added up to only 2100 terawatt hours. So we would need more than twice as much wind and solar as we had in the whole world in 2019, just to decarbonize, just the fraction of hydrogen that we’ll need an decarbonized future. And yet we have all of these people frothing at the mouth, talking about how there’s going to be excess hydrogen to waste as a fuel.
And how can you take them seriously? So you can see my problem with this whole thing. It’s not the math doesn’t add up.
Who has interest in promoting Green Hydrogen and Power-to-X approaches?
Antoine Walter: Let me just try to scratch that surface, because you say: “people promote it.”. Personally I remember, it was probably two years before the pandemic, in 2018., I was at the European Utility Week in Vienna, and as an humble energy muggle, I’ve attended two full days of conferences explaining how hydrogen was the future and how the grid in Germany was about to fall apart, as there was too much of electricity at nights when wind was blowing and nobody consuming. And my take-home message was, that if you didn’t use hydrogen in a Power-to-X approach, you were in big, big, big, big, big trouble. And now that I’ve read your various articles, I’m starting to think this was hopium and a part of it might even be just pure lies
Paul Martin: Yeah! Some of it is motivated selling, you know,
Antoine Walter: Exactly, that was going to be my question. How much of that is people really believing that hydrogen is the future and how much is really people having something to sell?
Paul Martin: It’s a little hard to say. I’m a very rude man. Okay. And I’m old. I’m not that old, but I’m old enough that I stopped caring quite so much about whether people think that I’m being polite with them or not. And as a consequence, the way I view hydrogen. Now hydrogen is being pushed by two groups of people it’s being pushed by the fossil fuel industry for whom it’s a win-win situation.
Who are the Hydrogen useful idiots?
And it’s being pushed by hydrogens useful idiots. Okay. I don’t know if you recall, but back in the, back in the era of the cold war, the Soviets used to refer to the socialists in Western countries as they’re useful idiots, you know, their hearts were in the right place. Perhaps they were worried about the social conditions of their population, but they were serving the interests by manipulation of the Soviet apparatus.
And so hence they were referred to, and not just as ordinary idiots, but useful idiots. And so the useful idiots in the hydrogen regime. There are people that think they’re going to make giant amounts of renewable electricity, that nobody will know what to do with. And so they have to find something to do with it.
So they’re going to make hydrogen and it’s people that sell electrolyzers and fuel cells and entities like Airbus that, you know, get paid by dubious governments to, to design aircraft, whether they ever get built or not. You know, so people that are, you know, moral hazard position in that they benefit, whether the thing that they’re promoting is a successor or failure.
And you’ll note that I said that hydrogen is a win-win situation for the fossil fuel industry. That I’ve long thought that, but Michael Liebreich who founded a Bloomberg new energy finance, put it best when he said that for the fossil fuel industry, it really is a win-win situation. So hydrogen is pushed by the fossil fuel industry either to delay decarbonisation in which case.
So the promise of future hydrogen delays, electrification now, which would lead to decarbonisation now, and decarbonisation now would be bad for the fossil fuel industry, because it would mean that he would earn less revenue, right. And more important than that, it would mean that their assets in the ground that their shareholders currently think have value would turn into liabilities in a lot of cases.
Hydrogen could turn back liabilities into assets for Fossil Fuel Companies
I mean, if you can’t burn natural gas, what else are you going to do with it to the fossil fuel industry? It’s well, we can make hydrogen from it. Okay. Well, what are you going to do with the CO2? Oh, we can bury it. Yeah. We call it blue hydrogen. Right. And the challenge of course, with is blue hydrogen bill.
Is that it’s much easier and much cheaper to make very Blackish blue bruise colored hydrogen than it is to make really truly blue colored hydrogen. You know, the CCS, the carbon capture and storage is expensive. We know what it costs. We know how difficult it is to do. We’ve got projects doing this at scale.
Honestly, there’s a big one called shell quest in Canada that I’m quite familiar with. We know what it costs. It costs a lot of money even to do the easy stuff, the easy CO2. And of course they always forget about the methane leakage and the methane on the 20 year time horizon has 86 times the global warming potential of CO2.
So a little bit of methane leakage goes a long way. And if you do something wasteful, like convert natural gas and. Hydrogen and then use some of the natural gases energy to bury the CO2 that is produced at the same time. You’re generating a lot more methane leakage, which is leading to a lot more global warming potential.
Blue Hydrogen is kind of Blackish
So this blue hydrogen is really quite Blackish, blue bruise colored stuff. But you see if you’re, let’s say you’re a natural gas distribution utility. If you don’t have natural gas to sell, because decarbonisation requires that product to go away, you have to sell something, right. Otherwise you have to go out of business and going out of business is hard for people to accept.
So of course, you’re going to sell hydrogen, right? It’s the hydrogen must be the future. And we’ve got all these pipes in the ground and all this infrastructure, it would be a shame to let that go to waste. Right. But you see, this is a sunk cost fallacy, you know, w when you look at it in detail and I’ve looked at it in detail, putting hydrogen into the natural gas pipelines, it’s a really bad idea.
Like it’s a really, really bad idea. It’s not just very expensive. It’s full of. I mean, it serves a very useful purpose to the fossil fuel industry. It gives their investors, the illusion for a time that their natural gas assets have value in a decarbonized future. Whereas they don’t, they’re actually liabilities.
And you know, if you’re you’re the head of shell or BP or one of those big companies, you know, reliance or whoever on the world stage, you don’t want your investors to think that your natural gas assets or liabilities, you, you want them to keep thinking they’re assets because that way you’re you keep being willing to hold their shares.
So there’s the problem. It’s, it’s a win-win for the fossil fuel industry and it’s not really a tool in earnest for decarbonisation of much of anything. Really.
The colors of Hydrogen explained
Antoine Walter: I think we have to explain a bit what you’ve just said for the laymans like me. You’ve mentioned a lot of colors, and please jump in to correct me whenever I say something stupid. So you’ve explained us how gray is actually black.
Gray is supposed to be hydrogen made from fossil fuels, aka gas, through steam methane reforming. Let’s call it black. As next on my list, I have brown, which is made from coal gasification, and you just explained how that’s blacker than black. So now we have black and blacker than black, that replace gray and brown. What you’re now adding with blue is doing exactly the same than gray, but now instead of venting the carbon gas off to the birds, you capture it and you put it somewhere for storage. So gray with carbon capture becomes blue.
Then we have green, purple and pink, which are made through electrolysis of water, green from renewables, purple and pink from nuclear energy.
… at the end it’s almost only Gray Hydrogen
Paul Martin: In reality:
And that’s, it’s not really, in fact, the poor acolyte industry spends a lot of money to avoid making hydrogen because it costs them money. So they don’t want to make hydrogen, but in order to run their business, they have to. So about a third of this by-product hydrogen, you can claim was made from renewable electricity because of what a third of the electricity in the world is renewable or nuclear, no emissions.
But really ultimately you’re talking about low carbon hydrogen, potentially low carbon, hydrogen, and hydrogen as it is, which is really high. Right. So low carbon hydrogen. If you make hydrogen by electrolyzing water using wind and solar, that’s quite low carbon views electricity from nuclear while you’re wasting nuclear electricity, because nuclear electricity is dispatchable and perfect replacement for electricity on the grid that might be made from burning fossil.
So you would be much better to use your nuclear electricity, to supply people with electricity. You know, it’s not like nuclear plants that are in remote locations where they can’t get their electricity to market. They’re built only where there are people to consume it. So wasting nuclear electricity to make hydrogen is really questionable.
So I don’t believe in this pink stuff, it doesn’t make any sense. And the blue stuff is carbon capture and storage. As I mentioned, if you want to do a decent job of carbon capture and storage from hydrogen production, you need to do things differently than the way we make hydrogen right now. Right now, we make a lot of hydrogen by steam, methane reforming.
And that process involves a big furnace and about a third of the gas that you feed to the process goes to the furnace to keep the furnace hot. And that’s where the, the, uh, furnace tubes are that contain the catalyst and the endothermic heat absorbing reactions that make hydrogen out of water and methane happened in those tubes.
And what comes out the back end of that process is a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. And you shift the carbon monoxide to make more carbon dioxide and hydrogen, but in the end, you, you get a lot of, uh, a lot of carbon dioxide, but half the carbon dioxide is in the product hydrogen and you separate that out.
And that stuff by and large gets vented to the atmosphere. It’s not used for anything, but you also get some streams that have. A little bit of these contaminant molecules in it, but a lot of hydrogen. And what you do is you feed that back to the tube furnace to recover its energy. So when you do the math, about half of the CO2 from steam, methane reforming is easy to capture because it’s at high pressure inside a mixture with hydrogen.
So it’s easy to capture and then store. But about half of it comes out of the top of this furnace and it’s no different than a CO2 that might come out of a natural gas turbine. That stuff is hard to recover and expensive to recover. It takes energy to recover, and it’s true for that half that comes out of the seam reformer.
So if you want to make really blue hydrogen, you have to do something called auto thermal reforming instead. And so there, what you do is instead of using the furnace, you, you make the fire inside the process. So you feed oxygen instead of air. And you burn some methane inside the reactor to make the heat.
And then, uh, it goes over the capitalist and makes the hydrogen, and then now all of the CO2 comes out with the hydrogen so you can capture it theoretically all, but in reality, you you’re going to lose some. So maybe 90% capture is possible, but you need brand new equipment. And by the way that the auto thermal reforming, you need electricity to run the air separation unit, to make the oxygen.
You also need the capital to buy that equipment. And that process is less efficient at making hydrogen than steam. Methane reforming is so you actually need to buy more gas and you end up making more CO2 that you have to vary. And as far as this blue hydrogen, you’ll never do it from coal ever because the cost of burying all that extra CO2 is way, way more than you will save by buying the cheaper fuel, you know, coal instead of natural gas.
So forget about CCS for coal. Coal is dead as a doornail.
Is turquoise hydrogen a better solution?
Antoine Walter: So we have one color left on my list, which is turquoise.
Paul Martin: This is a good one, honestly, but it’s partial. So we have to be careful about this one in saying that it’s good when it can be done in the right way, but it’ll never be a major source of hydrogen.
So the idea here is instead of trying to react the energy that’s in methane to produce as much hydrogen as possible with either of those other two processes, steam, methane, reforming, or auto thermal reforming. What you do instead is you use an artificial heat source and you heat up the methane until it just falls apart.
And when it falls apart, it makes carbon and it makes. And so one of my clients, former clients is a company called monolith and they’ve actually commercialized this process. So what they do is they heat up a methane to very high temperatures using an electric plasma arc. And the electricity is supplied by a nuclear plant and they end up making, not just carbon, but a valuable form of carbon that’s called reinforcing grade, carbon black.
Turquoise hydrogen is already market competitive today, to a certain extent
So that’s the stuff that’s used in tires, for instance, then rubber goods in order to provide strength as well as UV resistance and other beneficial properties. And it’s quite valuable. And it’s normally made from heavy oil by a very dirty partial combustion process. So they’re eliminating that dirty process.
They’re making a nice high quality product that the rubber market wants and the by-product is hydrogen. And they use that hydrogen to make. And they’ve planted their plant in the middle of Nebraska. And if you draw a hundred mile circle around their plant, a hundred mile radius circle, you have about 40% of the users of Monia in the United States within that circle.
So this is a very good thing that what they’ve managed to do is they manage to decarbonize carbon black production and decarbonize hydrogen production for the purpose of making ammonia, which is something we need, right. For agriculture. And they’ve done that in a way where they make money, despite the fact that they have no carbon taxes in the United States.
So if the carbon tax has come, they’re going to be even better. They’re going to make even more money. So this is really wonderful. Okay. But let’s do the math to remember the math experiment we did. We said we needed 90 million tons of hydrogen in the future, right? Post decarbonisation. If we’re going to make that from, let’s say we find a renewable electricity to supply the energy that you need to run this kind of process.
There’s a limited market for Carbon Black and Graphite
And we’re going to PI realize methane to make the 90 million. Of a hydrogen, well, we’re going to make 270 million tons of carbon. And that’s 10 times the world market for both carbon black and graphite combined. So 90% of that carbon will have to be landfilled in kind of reverse coal mines, you know, where we find a hole on the ground and we fill it up with coal and then cover it up again, you know?
And, uh, it’s a little hard to imagine how throwing away half of the energy in three quarters of the mass of your feed is going to make money. Now, if you can sell it as a valuable product, it makes good sense. Right? So again, this turquoise hydrogen, which is made by pyrolysis of methane is a good process, low CO2 emissions, fairly low methane leakage, which can always be made.
It makes hydrogen, but it’s only really a good process if it makes a carbon product that you can sell. And if it doesn’t it’s, I dunno, maybe it’s easier to bury carbon than it is to very CO2, but to throw away half the energy and three-quarters of the mass in the form of a waste product that you have to pay someone to take away.
I dunno. It seems hard to imagine how that’s going to make money.
Did we just find a way to solve 10% of the Hydrogen Problem? 😀
Antoine Walter: That is because you’re trying to replace the entire amount. But if we say let’s go with one fourth of your current use, then we still have approximately the right outputs for both carbon black and graphite.
Paul Martin: Yeah. So, so you could make 9 million tons of the.
And supply all of the carbon black and all of the graphite needs on earth and that would match, right? So we solve 10% of the problem, but it’s only one 10th of what, I mean, every problem is solved in slices, right? We don’t make all the hydrogen in the world the same way we make it this way and that way in different places, in different parts of the world, depending on the economics.
So if we can make 10% of the hydrogen that we need by a process that makes carbon black and graphite is a by-product. That’s good. What we don’t want to make is more carbon black and graphite do, or other carbon products that are waste materials. That would be foolish.
The Hazer process: a good prospect?
Antoine Walter: So you’ve mentioned one of turquoise hydrogen technologies and projects. And within my research for that discussion, I came across a process from an Australian company called Hazer. It’s a process developed by a university in Australia, which was then outsourced and incorporated into Hazer. And they locate that on a wastewater treatment plant.
So you see, we are back to this waste water treatment plant.
Paul Martin: Yeah. I’m well aware of, of, of Hazer his, his problem is that they’re not making a valuable form of carbon. They do graphite. Well, they make graphite, but they have no way to get the graphite off of their catalyst. So they don’t really make graphite.
Now, maybe that’s changed. I could be wrong. I mean, I’m, I’m not in the middle of their technology and I’m sure there’s lots of secrets, but you know, assuming that they can make graphite, that they can sell, that would be great. But the trouble is, if you think about even a very large wastewater treatment plant, it’s not making very much methane.
And if it’s not making very much methane, it can’t make very much hydrogen or very much. And so the size of the plant that you end up building will be small. And the resulting cost of the products, whether they be graphite or hydrogen will be high, right? This is, this is the fundamental problem that, that, and if you make hydrogen somewhere, you have to distribute it.
You have to have it. Do you have to use it in something either right on the site or you have to distribute it somewhere. And the infrastructure to distribute hydrogen from lots of comparatively, small sources, like say wastewater treatment plants all over, it doesn’t exist. It would have to be built. You can’t use the natural gas infrastructure for that purpose.
So you’re kind of stuck with a product that maybe is valuable in theory. But in reality, it’s not valuable that you can’t monetize it. The graphite it’s easy, it’s dense and you can ship it.
Shall we better leverage Biogas instead of Hydrogen?
Antoine Walter: Talking of Hazer, you would probably not like it, but if I’m right, their intended output is to use Hydrogen in a fuel cell, because utilities have heavy vehicles that could be powered with hydrogen.
Paul Martin: If that’s the case, why not skip all of this complicated technology burn, the CO2 burn, the methane make electricity by a much, much cheaper process.
That’s pretty much as efficient as the fuel cell, but without the conversion technology in the middle that throws away half the energy, you know, what are you getting? You’re getting a little bit of decarbonisation. If you bury the carbon product or you use that carbon product in some durable thing, that’s never burned in the future.
Right? So it’s not really doing much to my mind. I think bio gas is really valuable. I think we should use bio gas because we’ve got the infrastructure to distribute. Right. We have the natural gas infrastructure. So if you have excess of biogas somewhere, you should use it. And yet we have crazy people that want to make hydrogen out of it because they think hydrogen is sexy for some reason or another.
Right. And then on the other side, you have people that are thinking they’re going to have a giant wind farm somewhere, right. And there’s no, not enough use of electricity to pay for that wind farm. So what do they want to do? They want to make hydrogen from it, but then they go, oh, now I’ve got a problem.
I have to get this hydrogen to people that need it. And that’s hard because it’s a bulky molecule and transportation infrastructure doesn’t exist and it’s very expensive. Oh, I know what I’ll do. I’ll capture CO2 from somewhere and I’ll wrap the CO2 with hydrogen to make methane, and then I can put it in the natural gas infrastructure.
You see? So one of those two groups of people must be wrong or. I think we need a lot of bio gas in the future. I think all the bio gas we can make, we can definitely put, to use to replace things that can’t be easily electrified, like cement production and various other things and whatever excess we have, we can store for the cult Dunkel flour to conditions that are happening in the cold parts of the world.
Like where I live a couple of weeks, a year, there’s no wind. And the solar panels are covered with snow and a, what are you going to do? You have to burn some fuel. Otherwise you’re going to freeze to death, right? But that’s only a couple of weeks a year. So maybe you could store a whole year’s worth of methane in the existing natural gas infrastructure and use that for the cold Dunkel flow to instead of fooling around with making hydrogen, it makes more sense to me than making a.
Could Water Electrolysis produce valuable by-products such as Oxygen?
Antoine Walter: I think I’m starting to get the bigger scene,, but let me stay on my wastewater treatment plant for a minute. Let’s say I switch back to producing green hydrogen through an electrolysis. I’m now also producing a by-product. I’m splitting H2O into H2 and O2, so I’m also producing oxygen and oxygen can be a reactant for a waste water treatment plant.
So I could be using that oxygen as a feed gas for my ozone generators. I could be putting my oxygen into my biology and improve its yield,
Paul Martin: switch gears a little bit. So either we’re making hydrogen by pyrolysis of methane that comes from anaerobic degradation. In which case you’d not making any oxygen or you have excess electricity, which you could either use to put oxygen from the air into your wastewater treatment process, which is quite energy efficient.
Or you could use to electrolyze water, which is very energy inefficient to make hydrogen. And then, okay. Hey Presto, we’ve got some oxygen that we can use for some other secondary purpose. Most of the time, most electrolyzers vent their oxygen because the oxygen isn’t worth the bother of producing at pressure drying, purifying to remove the hydrogen contamination that it contains and then storing and carrying off the site to somebody that needs it.
So by all means, if, if you had some use for hydrogen in the wastewater treatment plant and not won’t be running a fuel cell by the way, because that would be nuts, right? If you’re using electricity to make hydrogen, you’re not going to then use the hydrogen to run a fuel cell. You’ve just created a very inefficient perpetual motion machine there.
But you know, if you had some excess electricity, it would make a lot more sense to just use it. Oxygen from the air and use that that’s going to take a lot less energy than it is to electrolyze water to make oxygen, um, unless you have some real purpose for the hydrogen.
How do we decarbonize the remaining 90% of the Hydrogen Economy?
Antoine Walter: So I’m going back to this real purpose because we’ve solved together, see how we made a big progress towards that, we solved 10% of the problem because I stand on my 10%, which is we take this turquoise hydrogen, and we use it to the maximum outputs we can have in carbon black and graphite. So 10% of the problem is solved. We have 90% of the problem to solve. If we want to keep feeding humanity in a carbon neutral world, with the Haber-Bosch process and all the other appliances that we’ve cited that at the beginning of this discussion. How do we do?
Paul Martin: So almost half of that.
90 is 40 and that’s the 40 that’s used to make ammonia. And what do we do there? We make all of that ammonia in those places in the world. I talked about before we make it in GLA, we make it in Australia because we can ship ammonia. We can’t ship. In ships. Okay. So that’s half the problem taken care of.
And then let’s say we do the turquoise hydrogen. We take care of another 10%. So we’ve got 60% taking care of the remaining 40%. How do we do it? Well, we either, you know, a lot of that stuff is being used for things like methanol and direct reduction of iron. We can do those in Australia and Chile too, because we can ship methanol and we can ship steel, right.
Or, or iron, uh, Hartford headed iron. So we would do all of those things in those places, in the world that are rich in high capacity factor renewables. So guess what? The Chileans and the Australians, maybe if, if we’re dreaming the Namibians, get really rich in the future as a result of their access to clean, renewable energy.
What better thing could you want? You know, it sounds great. And that leaves. Only a little bit left that kind of has to be produced closer to where it’s used and that we can probably do just not very efficiently cost efficiently by using local renewables. You know, so honestly I think taking care of the decarbonization of hydrogen, it’s just one of many parts of the puzzle, but it’s not impossible to imagine us doing it.
And the reason it doesn’t make sense to me is that it shouldn’t make sense to anybody. Honestly, again, it’s the result of hopium in my opinion, as opposed to an honest, dispassionate review of the thermodynamics and the properties of hydrogen and the energetics, there are better solutions that cost less.
So we’re going to use those instead.
Why do some countries so heavily invest in Hydrogen?
Antoine Walter: Talking of hopium, and of how much it should not make sense for anybody to quote you. Neither Chile nor Australia or Namibia are in the European union.
Paul Martin: That’s right. But they have trade relationships with them. So,
Antoine Walter: And nevertheless, European union plans to invest 400 billions into the hydrogen economy.
So does that mean that none of them ever heard of thermodynamics or that among your two million interactions on LinkedIn last year, nobody was working for the European union ? What’s the deal there?
Paul Martin: The deal is it’s actually, it’s funny that you speak about the European union. I honestly, I think that the European union and the UK together they’re tied for the most rampant, uh, hydrogen hopium addiction in the world, but the places that have the most justification for such an addiction are not in Europe or the UK.
The paradox of South Korea and Japan
There are South Korea and Japan. Okay. If you look at Europe in the UK, I mean, UK is already almost decarbonized its electricity grid. That’s shocking. If you told me 10 years ago that the UK by today would have almost decarbonized their electricity grid. I would have told you, you were lying. There was no likelihood of that.
They’re going to burn coal till the cows come home. And no, they did. They managed to do it, you know, but South Korea and Japan are different animals. Okay. So they have the problem that they don’t like their neighbors, their land neighbors so much, they have bad relationships with their land neighbors.
They don’t trust them. And they’re also very high energy hungry, very large populations, right. With a lot of heavy industry in both in both countries. And they’re totally dependent on fossil energy. Right. So guess who’s pushing the hydrogen hyperbole for hydrogen as a transport fuel. It’s the Japanese and the Koreans.
I mean, you can understand why, because to them, they really don’t want to import electricity via high voltage, DC, from people that might put their foot on the cable and kind of squeeze them anytime that they don’t like their politics or whatever’s going on. They’d like to import by ship from anybody that will sell them a product, just like they do with, you know, natural gas, LNG, and petroleum.
Right now. They like that. And of course, coal and both big burners are coal too. So they like that. But they think that in the future, maybe we won’t be able to do that because we’ll get serious about decarbonisation. So they want to recreate that economic model that they have just with a different fuel.
… Could their future dependency to Hydrogen be a deathly threat?
And that’s intellectually very simple. And the fossil fuel industry is going, yay. That’s what we want you to do because otherwise we’re not going to be supplying you anything, but the people that are sitting there in Japan and Korea that are talking about this, I don’t think that they’ve got a calculator in hand.
They haven’t run the. This is a nice little thought experiment. So if you go to the United States on the Gulf coast where the big chemical plants and refineries are there’s this facility, or they’re not really a facility, I guess it’s a, it’s a price metric that they call the Henry hub cost of natural gas.
So this is a raw wholesale, natural gas costs kind of like the Brent barrel of oil or, or the west Texas intermediate barrel of oil. These are metrics that are used in order to track the cost of a commodity and natural gas. It fluctuates. And of course it’s quite high in Europe right now. Um, went up and now it’s coming back down again and it fluctuates seasonally and so on.
But average, average average, the Henry hub costs in natural gas is about $3 and 50 cents per million. BTU’s so that’s a measure of energy. It’s like Juul, right? $3 and 50 cents per million. BTU’s if you convert. $3 and 50 cent per million BTU, natural gas to hydrogen. It costs about a dollar 50 wholesale.
Okay. That the hydrogen that you produce of which about a third of that cost is the cost of gas. And two thirds is the cost of the other ONM and capital. Okay. So at a dollar 50 per kilogram, that hydrogen now costs $11 per million. BTU’s it’s three times as expensive just by making hydrogen out of it.
Now that’s not capturing any CO2 or anything, that’s just making hydrogen out of it. So now when we look at that’s a dollar 50, a kilogram and the green hydrogen people are hyperventilating about maybe one day in 20, 40, or 2050, we can make hydrogen for a dollar 58 kilowatt. And I don’t even believe them.
I think they’re delusional. I think they’ll have a very, very hard time getting to those kinds of costs, largely because it would take hundreds of billions, of dollars of public subsidy to buy really, very much more expensive hydrogen than that in order to get to the scale necessary to drive the cost down to those little levels.
Green Hydrogen will be an expensive path to energetical independence
But let’s set, let’s set that aside for a moment. Green hydrogen is costing a multiple of the cost of black hydrogen and black hydrogen is costing a multiple of the cost of natural gas. So imagine that you’re Japan or Korea and you have a lot of heavy industry and your economic competitors get to use electricity directly.
Whereas you have to use somebody else’s electricity. That’s been partially converted to hydrogen and then into ammonia to ship to you for you to break the ammonia back down into hydrogen again, so that you can use it to make electricity or heat or. What kind of car you drive, doesn’t matter, your industry’s bankrupt, your energy cost per Juul is five times that of your economic competitors.
So any energy intensive process is not going to be done in the future in Japan or South Korea, because you couldn’t afford to do it. Right. So see, there’s the thing. I think a lot of this thinking is just not based in, you know, basic engineering economics. You have to think about it a little bit more carefully.
And when you do you’ll realize that direct electrification just makes an awful lot more sense. You know, I know people have this box on their head that if you want to make heat, the best way to make heat is burning stuff. Right. And that makes sense when all your energy is coming from stuff that you burn, you know, you make electricity by burning stuff.
You may keep by burning stuff. It makes it’s crazy. Electricity by burning stuff. And then using use that electricity to make heat, right? There’s too many steps and it costs you too much money. So you don’t do that well in the future, we’re going to be making electricity. So if we want heat, we’ll make it from electricity and they’re going to make a molecule from it and then burn that to make it cause let’s do many steps and it’s going to be too expensive.
So you see, we have an optimized thinking for the fossil fuel world and we’re trying to apply it to the decarbonized future and we’re getting the wrong conclusions and it’s going to cost a lot of money. That’s just going to be burned up and wasted and it’s not going to help us decarbonize. And that’s my worry.
In a parallel universe, could hydrogen win over batteries?
Antoine Walter: I have a last question for you in this deep dive, which will require some imagination. Let’s say we go to a steam punk alternative universe. In that steampunk universe, electricity didn’t win. There’s no battery. And we are starting from scratch. And so far, the biggest thing to power all our stuff is still steam.
And so we’re really restarting the race from scratch. And we have two candidates for that decarbonized future world. We have batteries and we have hydrogen. Batteries have to restart from scratch, so they don’t have the proxy of people having iPhones and hence having batteries and be ready to pay quite a lot to build the scale.
So we’re really starting from zero. There is no scale effect. Under those conditions, does hydrogen stand a chance against battery, or if we redo the race, batteries win again.
Paul Martin: If the source energy is electricity, then batteries still win because there is a path to scale for batteries, and there are greater efficiency pays for the path to scale.
Okay. And hydrogen’s problems. That’s the opposite. Hydrogen is a weight. Well, actually there’s your trouble is that once you’ve made hydrogen, your problems are just beginning because yeah, you have hydrogen. And if you need the hydrogen where you’ve made it, you could have just used electricity and cut out the middleman.
So the whole idea behind hydrogen is as a means to transport or store electricity. And if I told you that I had this a special bucket, you know, and I, I to fill it up with my nice homemade cider for you. And if I put it in one bucket, when you get it to your house, 90% of the cider will still be there.
What is the best tool to store energy?
And if I put it in another bucket, only a third of the cider will be there. Which bucket are you going to do? You’re paying the same for the cider, right? I don’t care how much you drink. I only care how much I pour into your bucket. You want to choose a bucket. That’s easier to carry, but it only has a third as much in it.
When you get it, get it home. It’s really not a good economic proposition. Is it? And so there’s your fundamental issue? The thing about batteries though, is that batteries are not the be-all and end-all, you know, batteries are in a very important tool. They’re the thing that’s going to help us with mobility, like mobile applications for energy.
Like most of transport will be handled by batteries, but they’re not the be-all and end-all, and we need a lot of other technologies in there as well. And fundamentally we need more important than any of this. What we need is the decarbonization policy, the carbon taxes and the emission bands that signal to people.
Hey, all of your choices are valid. But some choices generate a lot of fossil CO2 in the atmosphere and they’re going to be very expensive choices. So you shouldn’t make them unless you don’t really have an alternative. And once we’ve applied that high carbon tax for a long time, we’ll trim away the easy to substitute stuff, which by the way, should be our focus.
Right? When I go to an apple tree, I’m picking apples that are close to the ground before I go and get the ladder, that’s just human nature. Right? And why are we not doing that with energy?
And decarbonisation, I don’t understand. It makes no sense to me, except if your, your effort is really to delay doing anything, then I understand perfectly. So this focus on hard to decarbonize sectors is really an attempt to delay decarbonization because what we should be doing is pursuing easy to be carbon that second.
The story of hydrogen as Power-to-X is attractive to our psychological biases
Antoine Walter: I don’t want you to re-side track you. But to me, there’s a clear link with the psychology of humans. I mean, we love stories and we love something which we can really grasp . And it’s so beautiful as a story, this electricity, which is in excess and nobody knows what to do with it. And, oh, we can do an electrolysis and the byproduct, when you burn hydrogen again in a fuel cell, the byproduct is water! What’s not to love about that?
So that sounds so perfect. That it’s a cool story. So I get why people buy it.
Paul Martin: The trouble is. You’re skipping a lot of steps. All right. So first of all, it all, it makes water, but it makes NOx when you burn it in air, uh, it only time it doesn’t make NOx is when you burn it in a fuel cell at low temperature over a catalyst.
So that’s misstated. If you burn hydrogen in your cooker at home, you’re going to be making so much NOx that you’re going to give yourself asthma. I mean, it’s, it’s not a good thing to burn in your house, for sure. It’s possible on big engines, for instance, to put an SCR catalyst on there to take care of the NOx, but, but in on a cooker or other, you know, your home boiler, you’re not going to have an SCR.
You’re gonna make a lot more NOx. So there’s the first lie in the story. It’s a nice story, but it’s a story that’s told this way with head nodding. Yes. Now what you need is me. Okay. Cause I tell you this other story with head nodding. No, and you need both stories in order to understand what’s going on.
Right? Otherwise you have a fairytale. You don’t have a story.
Rationale for an expert opinion
Antoine Walter: I think that makes a perfect conclusion for this deep dive. Thanks a lot!
Paul Martin: You’re very welcome. And I, and I’ve made a lot of assertions in our discussion today that make me, it sounds like I’m stating things as if they’re fact without providing any backup.
I encourage people to go to my LinkedIn profile or to a Spitfire research.com where I have a lot of my articles republished go there and visit and take a look at the articles because I provide the references and the calculations. And I have long discussions with very smart people who have forgotten more about certain topics than I’ll ever know.
And they helped me refine my position. And when I’m wrong, I correct it, you know, cause I’m human being I’m often wrong, but I, I use the scientific principle of. Having people review and comment and go back and forth with the facts until we agree what makes sense. And then I revise my opinion to match the data.
And when new data comes along, if my opinion needs to change, it changes. So go there, visit those resources, listen to my podcasts and review my articles and so on. And you’ll get a sense that the points that I’m making, they’re not infallible, but they’re based in something they’re not just made up. And it’s not that I hate hydrogen.
I love hydrogen. Hydrogen is amazing. It’s just a tool that needs to be used for the right purposes and burning it as a fuel is not the right purpose for,
Antoine Walter: For anyone listening and being curious right now, if you look at the episode notes, you’ll find my personal selection of Paul’s articles, you’ll see, it’s pretty easy from those ones to navigate to the other ones.
And then it’s like a rabbit hole you start, and you don’t really know where you’re stopping. I have a last section to wrap things up, which is the rapid-fire questions.
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Rapid fire questions:
Antoine Walter: In this last section I’ll raise you short questions, which you can answer with short answers, of course. And you’ll see that I’m still the one which is sidetracking all the time. My first question is what is the most exciting project you’ve been working on, and why?
Paul Martin: Uh, in recent days, I’ve been helping through Spitfire, a client who is from the very first principles and ground up looking at how to make hydrogen production by electrolysis as cost effective as possible.
And I find that very exciting because as I mentioned,
The other one is more a past triumph and that’s that a monolith project. So I love the fact that they were commercially successful, that they just got a billion dollar loan from the USDA and that they’re making a huge benefit to decarbonisation without even the wisdom on the part of the United States to put in place carbon taxes.
That’s just amazing, but it’s kind of, it’s rare. It’s a purple squirrel type project. I don’t think there are going to be too many like that.
Antoine Walter: Can you name one thing that you’ve learned the hard way?
Paul Martin: One thing that I’ve learned the hard way. All my goodness, I learned the hard way. That I always encountered my nature, my personality as a detriment, to my ability to, to do business.
And it always got in the way. And now I’m finding that when I correctly deploy my effort, that my personality is actually an asset to business. Oh, I wish I learned that, uh, sooner, but I’ll add one more. And this one I learned early and it was wonderful. Okay. When I started, I was working for a startup company and they were trying their best to make money, but no young engineers like myself that were working there, well, they didn’t give us any shares or any opportunity to have any ownership in the company.
We were just working there and getting a salary. But man, we were working a lot and I was working 70 hour weeks for these guys because if my design tests weren’t done, they weren’t selling anything, you know, They came on hard times and they cut me down to four days per week. And we had this wonderful government program at the time that they would pay half of your salary.
The government would pay half of your salary, that the decrease in your salary as a result of a layoff, if the company would commit to keeping you over the longer term. So my hours per week went from 70 to 32 because there was no way I was going to work any overtime. If they weren’t even going to pay me my full salary, my pay dropped by 10%, the amount of the number of hours in the week that I worked dropped by more than 50%.
And I had a full day off every week to look for another job. And I realized the light bulb went off over top of my head. And now working for free for for-profit companies is a really bad strategy. I’m never going to do it again. And from that day until now, I have never worked a single. Oh, uncompensated overtime.
I’ve always either earned a piece of ownership or a bonus or time off or something of value to me in return for every hour that I’ve worked. And oh, what a huge thing it was to learn sort of early in my career, that workaholism is a bad thing and you don’t want to do it and making, if you’re going to donate your time, donate it to a charity or something noble, not to people that are earning profit from your labor.
Antoine Walter: Is there something you’re doing today in your job that you will not be doing in 10 years?
Paul Martin: Uh, well, I hope to not be doing any job beyond maybe my private consulting in 10 years, but I would say that probably the better way to put that in the more profound way to put that is that back before March of 2020, I was spending 122 kilometers.
On the road every day. And that was two and a half hours every day, four days a week. So 10 hours a week driving to, and from an office where I did exactly the same job that I’m doing now without driving. And I’ve been to the office now, three days out of a, that whole period of time until now. And I had fought for quite a long time to get one day per week working from home.
And it was always viewed with displeasure, but I found it very useful because I found I can focus and concentrate and, and, uh, I worked better at things like reading technical papers or reviewing, or, or checking or things that required concentration. I could do it better at home where there were fewer distractions than I could in a cubicle, in an office.
Well, I went seamlessly from working one day a week at home to working every day, a week at home and, uh, got 10 hours of my life per week back again. It was. So, yeah, I’m hoping that that change will still be in place in 10 years. I hope I’m not driving anywhere to work in 10 years.
Antoine Walter: I fully subscribe subscribed to that one, I somehow hope exactly the same. I have two questions for the former water professional in you, and the first is what is the trend to watch out for in the water sector, if apparently it’s not hydrogen anymore?
Paul Martin: Oh, you know, I’m terrible at that sort of thing. I can tell you what, isn’t the future much easier than I can tell you, what is the future?
I think water is, you know, an under appreciated resource. It’s, it’s my hope that we get smarter about how we use it and that we waste less of it. But honestly, I think that water ultimately largely it’s a dichotomy in that it’s extremely valuable to, you know, absolutely necessary to human life. And at the same time, it’s a very low value commodity that’s produced from solar energy and it’s really stored solar energy.
So I think. Tenancy we’ll continue in in the world. And, and that will continue to experience pressure related to people consuming too much water, uh, needlessly and not being really happy with being forced to do things more sensitively. So unfortunately that’s the way I see it, but I don’t see any magic technology coming.
That’s going to suddenly turn wastewater into clean water or, you know, be able to do it more efficiently or more effectively using sunlight or something, you know, back in my early days, that’s what we were doing. We were trying to use sunlight to treat water, and then we realized no sunlight’s availability factor is only 16%.
So we have to use artificial lights to do that. And, um, now we were consuming electricity rather than using sunlight, but in any way, it’s the way it worked out. Reality sunk in.
Antoine Walter: Well, you told me that in the early days of your career when you were working with the water industry, you were doing this AOP based on solar, if I get right what you’re explaining now, I had an interview on that microphone with Fajer Mushtaq, from a startup called Oxyle, and they’re turning that into a promising process.
Paul Martin: I would say this is an object lesson about technology development and research and development and the popularization of science and funding and all these things.
Titanium, dioxide, foot tall assists using visible or ultraviolet light has been studied extensively by hundreds and hundreds of research groups all over the world. And billions of dollars have been consumed on it. And it has no commercial applications other than self cleaning surfaces. None. You see it wrong to bells in the minds of the funding agencies, solar and environment.
And it was fun research, you know, but I mean, within five minutes, it speaking with a brilliant photo chemist, a guy named Allie and Mary, who I used to work with, it was quite clear what was wrong with titanium dioxide and why it would never be a commercial process for industrial or even pre-treatment of water and why that could not change.
Right. Couldn’t be made differently. And, uh, you know, Allie was right. He was absolutely right. So, you know, he was the thing is he was right presciently 30 years ago, you know, and now we can say, you know what, Ellie, wasn’t just suspecting that he was right. He was actually right.
Antoine Walter: So once you’re done fighting hopium on hydrogen , you can start fighting hopium on titanium dioxyde!
Paul Martin: It’s amazing how much money was wasted on the hopium of annotates Ty ox, you know, Crazy. And here we were doing homogeneous photochemical technology that actually made a meaningful difference and it didn’t make money because our company made foolish commercial decisions. It wasn’t because the technology didn’t have a promise and those, those patents have expired.
So they’re free to ever for everybody to use now. Uh, so anyway, it was a fascinating experience to have as a young engineer.
Antoine Walter: Well, it’s been really a blast discussing all of this matter with you, Paul. So thanks, thanks a lot for accepting my invitation. If I was to look for a guest equally brilliant, as you, who would you recommend me to invite as soon as possible on that microphone?
Paul Martin: I would say that there are two people that I would recommend. Well, in fact, three. So one of them is a guy who’s who is a very knowledgeable about. Lithium and lithium production. His name is Alex Grant and Alex is young and smart as a whip and extremely effective as a communicator and totally unafraid to tell the truth as he sees it.
So he’s a great guy to, to talk to. And, uh, so for instance, he knows a lot about trying to take lithium out of unconventional resources, like geothermal brines, and it’s going to be very interesting. There’s some very prominent projects all over the world that he’s involved with, that, uh, that are going to do just that.
Another guy is a guy in Australia named John Paul, Jack, and John is his thing. He has a site called key numbers. And what John’s specializes in is making little models of problems so that you can run the numbers yourself and get visual, rapid visual feedback on what’s making the thing. You know, so for instance, John’s got these great resources for the purpose of, uh, looking at the economics of making hydrogen.
John would be a great guy to talk to. And then the last one is kind of a polyglot guy who knows a lot about a lot of different things is very interesting thinker, uh, is a guy named Michael Barnard and he’s in, uh, Western Canada and Vancouver. And Michael knows a lot about energy and his company is called T F I E, which stands for the future is electric.
And on that Michael and I, 100% agree that those are the people that I would talk to. And one last guy, a guy named Paul, Brian, who recently left LinkedIn and discussed, unfortunately, uh, he’s a former VP of Chevron and a champion of biofuels, extremely knowledgeable chemical engineer, brilliant guy, very incisive thinker.
And, um, I think he’d be a really good guy to talk to this.
Antoine Walter: Well, thanks a lot Paul, I hope that you weren’t too bothered by my muggle questions about hydrogen
Paul Martin: not at all. This is the whole point. My job is to try to fill in that gap between the technical papers and the science popular is stuff that just gives the very lightest kind of skim of, of information. I try to fill in that piece in the middle, but to do it in a way that gets the point across as technically accurate, but still approachable. So I hope I’ve accomplished that. And I’ve enjoyed your questions!