Half a century of pushing the Hydrogen Economy idea, some personal memoirs
Cesare Marchetti, keynote speech
World Hydrogen Technology Convention
Montecatini Terme, 6/11/2007
Some years ago I made a study of the history of basic inventions and innovations in the context of the social and economic system. [Full text, scan PDF 419 Kb]. What I discovered was that ideas, experiments, diffusion, and success are not only quantifiable in time with neat logistic equations, but also occur under the strict control of a periodicity of about 55 years called a Kondratiev cycle. Furthermore, I discovered that successful inventions and innovations occur during precise periods of that cycle. To give an example: I studied in detail the behavior of the nuclear energy industry in the context of other basic innovations like cars and trains. It was not opposition to nuclear power that caused nuclear construction to dwindle in the nineties. In actual fact, nuclear construction strictly followed the rules internal to the cycle mentioned and will pick up speed in the current cycle that formally began in 1995. [Full text, part1: scan PDF 888 Kb] [part2: scan PDF 1147 Kb].
The system treats innovations in precisely the same way. A new idea has to fight to penetrate minds and opinions until it takes root and is finally accepted naturally with all the usual pros and cons. This process takes about 55 years or at least till the end of the current Kondratiev. In the next cycle, commercial penetration starts and reaches a certain level at the end of the cycle. In the cycle after that, penetration will be complete. As everyone knows the history of the automobile, this is easy to frame within a temporal scheme of this kind. Today, the use of hydrogen as the main vector for energy is certainly a basic innovation; it was born in the right period within the previous Kondratiev that started in 1940. It should flourish now with the current cycle that began in 1995 and will end in 2050.
As to how the concept developed, I have been “swamped in hydrogen” since the beginning of the 1950s when I was working to develop processes to produce heavy water. These processes are based on the fine differential chemistry of hydrogen isotopes, and I had to learn about all the ticks and tricks of the hydrogen molecule. Working in a nuclear context at a time when there was blind enthusiasm for everything to do with nuclear, I was tinkering around with what to do about the production of food. Agriculture is a big machine with enormous territorial, political, and especially ecological impact. But chlorophyll is central to the biosphere because it produces hydrogen by splitting water using solar light. If nuclear could shut down the coal mines that have been so damaging to humanity, why couldn’t for the toils and spoils of agriculture do something similar?
the time adenosyntriphosphate (ATP) was emerging as the general energy carrier
in living things. I thus started looking at ways of recharging adenosindyphosphate
(ADP) electrolytically. This may work,
but as I studied the process of photosynthesis, I saw that ATP is produced
together with H2 and that, together, they run the energy of the
plant. As the solutions that nature has adopted tend to be the final
product of a stringent selection process, H2 did appear to be the
candidate energy vector. A simple search showed that hydrogen studies had
penetrated all sorts of areas where energy is used. Absolutely incredible: no
stone had been left unturned. Even a phosphorous had been developed to
fluoresce in air when some hydrogen is present. Obviously much of the
attention was on transportation; after all, there were precursors—the diesel
engine of a Zeppelin had been fed with air enriched with H2 from the
ballast in 1927 when crossing the Mediterranean, and a German inventor, Erren,
had rigged up trucks to run on hydrogen during WW2 in
However, there were some missing pieces in the jigsaw puzzle. The first one was in trying to create a system where all the pieces fit together in space and time. Trying to do that showed the very limited number of ways of producing H2 on an extremely large scale without possibly using fossil fuels. We were at the end of the 1950s when I went to Euratom to direct a research division in Ispra. Being in a nuclear environment I sold the argument that nuclear energy could not be the real primary energy source that everybody then thought it could be, if it was limited to electricity production, because electricity could end up absorbing half the primary energy. With total energy consumption then doubling every 25 years or so, nuclear would spare just one doubling (i.e., delay primary energy problems by just 25 years).
that people tinkering with energy problems do not seem to have realized is
the sheer size of the subject. Energy is by far the largest industry in the
world in every way. Half the ships currently navigating the oceans carry fuels,
coal, oil, and gas. As two- thirds of humanity will try to
follow the first one-third, in a few years their consumption will have
increased by an order of magnitude. Think of
These general considerations strongly limit the technological choices we are left with. Nuclear as a primary energy source appears inevitable. It is very dense in terms of volume per kilowatt (kW), and it is always there working at full steam, reactors can have now 95% availability, and it is cheap as it scales. At the beginning of the nuclear age when costs were transparent, nuclear plants did scale according to the square root rule, like chemical plants. So if the specific cost per kW of an X4 plant are reduced by one-half the costs of an X1 plant. My friends at General Electric and I did sketch high- temperature reactors (HTR) 100 times larger than the present ones with, in principle, no stops. In the 20 years or so I spent with nuclear institutions I used to tease electrical engineers designing generators by asking what, technically, was the maximum size possible. I always got the same answer, double the present one. But in these 20 years reactors actually grew almost eightfold. Incidentally, the Edison Jumbo Dynamo had a power of about 10 kW, and a little more than 100 years later, the current electric generators are one million kW. Curiously, the overall size is not very different; the densification of power is monstrous. My simple criticism of renewables is that in comparison they are thin and unreliable. Incidentally, as we will see, the energy island scheme puts nuclear in the club of renewables.
The second inevitable choice for me was thermochemical watersplitting, a chemical process to decompose water using nuclear heat. As a chemical process it will scale, leading the technology to lower and lower costs. The most obvious solution, electrolysis, was discarded because it does not scale apart from the fact it is a two-level process with inefficiencies piling up. I keep referring to a global system. If somebody wants to produce hydrogen for his car using a windmill and an electrolyzer, I will applaud. Thermochemical watersplitting did not exist at the time—I’m talking about the mid-1960s and we had to invent even its name. So I asked one of my clever chemists, Gianfranco de Beni, to invent it. We had infinite discussion on thermodynamics but finally he came out with a process that we baptized Mark-1 after the British way of coding Jaguar models. The cycle was not very appealing but it did fit the constraints of using a heat source with a maximum temperature of 800°C and recycling all the chemicals used in the process. It was the process n1, and the prolific de Beni did invent another dozen schemes in the following years some of which are still being studied in various labs around the world.
In the meantime others had started working in the same direction, and in 1968 I felt there was sufficient material in existence to organize a roundtable on thermochemical watersplitting. [Full text, part1: scan PDF 974 Kb] [part2: scan PDF 1369 Kb] [part3: scan PDF 1552 Kb].
roundtable was a success as the participants were competent and enthusiastic.
We all left with the belief that the problems were tricky but solvable. The
central difficulty is that water is a hard molecule and requires a few thousand
degrees to crack thermally. This was really a free energy problem, and the
final solution may lay in identifying a molecule with a very large free energy
change with temperature. We found something of the kind in sulfuric acid
cracking that almost made it, so our research concentrated on processes to
close the cycle. The exergy required to close the
cycle is relatively small, but the chemistry is tricky and there are various
versions of it. So most of the work in Ispra was concentrated
on sulfur cycles. As I did publicize the work, other people became
interested, for example, General Electric and General Atomics. There was in
fact a rush of research in these years that later thinned out. Incidentally, we
found a precursor, Professor Funk of
the beginning of the seventies the president of JAERI, the Japanese nuclear
organization, did transit through Ispra and I had the honor of lunching and
chatting with him. The Japanese were developing a high-temperature reactor and
had the intention of carrying out methane steam reforming with the high
temperature reactor they were building as the Germans were doing with their
pebble-bed reactor. He was instantly excited at the prospect of reforming the
steam itself, and that was the beginning of a fruitful interaction with
Hydrogen and Energy,
Chemical Economy & Engineering Review, 5(1):7–15, January
[Full text, scan PDF 968 Kb]
contemplates an hydrogen economy based on energy islands located
on Pacific atolls. The islands export LH2 in cryotankers. Each island has an export capacity
comparable to that of the
spite of my secular view of the development of technology I was a bit
nervous about the fact that most research on hydrogen concentrates on end uses
and, in my opinion, precious little is dedicated to non-fossil primary energy
production. So I tried to suggest a hybrid that may start the process before thermochemical cycles come
on the market. The idea is simple. At a certain point a circuit for steam
reforming methane was added to the German pebble-bed reactor that Professor Schulten had been promoting for decades and that had an
excellent record of safety and reliability as a reactor. The original idea was to transport high
temperature heat by recombining somewhere the product of this reforming. But it
is the first part that was interesting to me, that is, a
proven technology of steam reforming associated to a HTR. So at a
I also took care to site the plant where carbon dioxide (CO2) could be sold for tertiary oil recovery. The paper was very well received but nothing happened.
The ancient used to look at the flight of birds or the liver of sacrificial animals to view the future. Less poetically, I look at my logistics that describe events faithfully from start to finish. At the beginning of my stay at IIASA in 1973 I stumbled upon a powerful description of the evolution of the energy markets using logistics, the full analysis of which is reported in this paper:
C., and Nakicenovic, N., 1979
The Dynamics of Energy Systems and the Logistic Substitution Model,
RR-79-13, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Laxenburg, Austria
[Abstract],[Full text, part1: scan PDF 1001 Kb] [part2: scan PDF 638 Kb]
In one of my fancy explorations I did look at the competition between H2 and carbon in the mean composition of primary energies in the last 150 years. It is well observed that the fuels we use become more and more “light” (i.e., richer in hydrogen) but my analysis was quantitative. The unexpected result was that hydrogen would penetrate the primary energy system logistically and reach the ratio of 4 in the next years. Because the highest ratio is in methane and is 4, this means that a new source of H2 is predicted starting from a non-fossil fuel source (i.e., water).
And here we are. When the system speaks, things happen.