HyBlend - Chickens and Eggs in Technology Adoption

May 17, 2023

Copyright alison1414/AdobeStock
Copyright alison1414/AdobeStock

I will readily confess that 20 years ago I was not convinced that EV’s were the answer to sustainable energy. Instead, I had long been a fan of hydrogen. I was well aware that there were technical issues associated with hydrogen, but was equally aware that, for total sustainable energy, a transportable fuel is needed and hydrogen seemed to be the way to go.

I envisioned hydrogen generation from sustainable sources (wind, solar, etc) and the use of hydrogen with fuel cells in cars, ships and with gas turbines in airplanes. I knew battery technology had technical limits (and also always will) and the development of hydrogen as our standard fuel would bypass that problem. Everything could run on hydrogen (or derivative synthetic fuels like e-methanol) and since hydrogen can be stored, it would deal with the inherent variability of wind and solar.

I was wrong. Actually, I continue to be right, but missed a very important issue in major technology adoption. Major technology advances are rare. Humanity has probably encountered no more than a dozen of those.

Some of which are:

  1. Fire
  2. Agriculture
  3. Written word
  4. Sail
  5. Steam
  6. Fossil fuel economy, and now …
  7. Sustainable energy

These technology advances are extremely cathartic and often are not easily adopted because, besides the adoption of the actual technology, there are also underlying associated problems that need to be solved and they always take on a chicken and egg character.
Take fire. When humanity invented fire, almost certainly a conversation as follows ensued:

  • “Look I can make fire”
    “So what?”
     “Well now you can cook food and it will taste better”
    “Well maybe it tastes better but I am not sure I want to spend the effort to gather fuel, I think I will rather spend more time eating raw food than gathering fuel and have less time to eat food.”

There is an adoption hump there. Often those humps are emotional (I don’t like new stuff), but too often they occur because two things need to come together at the same time to accept a new technology and its benefits.

If fuel for cooking fires is very readily available, cooked food will catch on immediately. If fuel is scarce raw food remains in the diet.

This is the chicken and egg issue. I will even substitute sustainable fuels for the fire discussion:

  • “Look I can make sustainable energy”
    “So what?”
     “Well now you can live like before and not wreck the world”
    “Well maybe it saves the world, but I am not sure I want to spend the effort to use sustainable fuel, I think I will rather burn oil than look for sustainable fuel and have less time to take advantage of the things that fossil fuels allow me to do.”

In other words: If sustainable energy is readily available, people will use it. If not, they will stick with fossil fuels.

While I technically preferred hydrogen over batteries, I did not pay sufficient attention to the chicken and egg problem with regard to sustainable energy. Hydrogen is simply not available to the public, but electric is available at every home. This allowed EVs to first gain a toehold and today this is developing into a ubiquitous world wide battery and charging network. Hydrogen may technically be better than batteries, but a hydrogen network cannot be developed without cars using hydrogen and hydrogen being readily available simultaneously.

Toyota actually has tried to establish a start-up hydrogen network in California with its Toyota Mirai program. Technically it works quite well, but is not gaining rapid customer acceptance since there are only a few hydrogen fuel stations in the state.      

This chicken and egg realization has led me to surrender to battery powered EV’s. I simply could not think of a way that hydrogen could be generally introduced into the world’s sustainable energy infrastructure to an extent that electricity already has been introduced.

But then I came across the HyBlend project. Once all energy (electricity, heating and transportation) can be generated sustainably (a technical reality as long as we keep pushing efficiencies and include nuclear), we will have the ability to generate hydrogen from water during peak production hours and the ability to generate power from stored hydrogen during peak demand hours. And this is not just on the electric grid, it will apply along the entire energy infrastructure. All we have to do is distribute it widely and, strangely, HyBlend could provide the mechanism for that.

HyBlend is a DOE program that injects green (sustainably generated) hydrogen into the national gas pipe line network. When I heard about this as an engineer, I was incredulous because hydrogen will leak through conventional gas pipe seals and it seemed to me it would require an entirely new gas pipe line network down to every home and outdoor gas BBQ. However, in mixture and at relatively low pressures that issue is manageable with most existing gas lines as long as the amount of hydrogen in the natural gas is around 5%.

Upon initial inspection, once may think that, at best, it will only reduce the greenhouse effect of all the natural gas we use in the world by 5%.  

However, here come the eggs (hydrogen fueling stations) for my hydrogen chickens (Toyota Mirais).

This hydrogen can be generated all over the country wherever there is sustainable power and some water. In Howell, NJ such a plant already exists. It takes sustainable energy and feeds it into the local gas pipe lines. However, if any of that hydrogen is needed to power a car, ship or plane, it is only a diverter valve away anywhere this hydrogen is generated. Instead of locally injecting it into the gas line this green hydrogen could be compressed or turned into e-methanol, and would be widely available as a storable transportation e-fuel.
In other words, this relatively simple program that initially might displace only 5% of all natural gas, could actually result in a national e-fuel supply network that will be the egg that is needed to make the chicken exist.

Even more interesting, this program will actually displace natural gas, because once we have ample sustainably generated transportable e-fuels (whether compressed, piped or liquid) together with an improved electrical grid, we no longer need natural gas at all. At that point the options will be endless, and consumer acceptance will be almost automatic since the chicken and egg issue has been removed.

I used to think that sustainable energy will be one of humanity’s major technology advances, but it may well turn out that Hyblend was the actual invention that made it happen.

Meanwhile, never, ever, ignore Chicken and Egg issues in design.        

For each column I write, MREN has agreed to make a small donation to an organization of my choice. For this column I select Menhaden Defenders. During a delightful wide ranging lunch on all subjects that interest me, its fearless leader, Paul Eidman, introduced me to the Hyblend concept www.menhadendefenders.org

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