Hydrogen—Will the First Element be the Final Fuel?
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 11 Mar 1982, p. 315-330
Stuart, Alexander K., Speaker
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An alternative energy that does not depend on hydrocarbons still a priority: economically, strategically and environmentally. Teaching ourselves how to live without fossil fuels. Costs involved in this exercise. The rewards of success. Why we should be compelled toward alternative energy. The strategic and humanitarian concern of the Third World and how to supply it with energy. The factor of world population. An examination and scientific review of hydrogen and hydrogen-based energy from an economic, strategic and environmental standpoint. Canada's wide spectrum of energy options. Opportunities to develop hydrogen. Other countries that also have large hydrogen programs. The International Energy Agency in Paris: a significant medium for international collaboration and the exchange of technology.
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11 Mar 1982
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Full Text
MARCH 11, 1982
Hydrogen—Will the First Element be the Final Fuel?
CHAIRMAN The President,
BGen. S. F. Andrunyk, O. M. M., C. D.


Distinguished guests, members and friends of The Empire Club of Canada: Experts say that hydrogen is the most promising answer to the world's energy needs. It is nearly competitive in price with oil and natural gas; it is adaptable to almost all internal combustion engines, and it is non-polluting. According to some of these experts the age of hydrogen energy could arrive early in the next century, and an international race is on to be first with a technological breakthrough that will make hydrogen cheap to produce and store. At present West Germany is clearly in the lead and the United States is not far behind. Canada, well advanced in the new techniques of converting electrical energy into hydrogen, is also in the race but lagging behind due to lack of research funding.

One of the world's foremost leaders and authorities on hydrogen technology and its applications is our guest speaker today, Mr. Alexander (Sandy) Kyle Stuart.

Sandy Stuart is a native Torontonian. He attended Upper Canada College and after an interruption in his academic pursuits caused by his service in the Royal Canadian Navy during World War II, he entered the University of Toronto graduating with degrees in chemical engineering and business administration.

Mr. Stuart's father had developed a number of original hydrogen processes and in 1948 father and son founded the Electrolyser Corporation which has offices and a factory in Toronto. This company has become a major manufacturer of industrial hydrogen and oxygen gas plants for world markets, using the process of electrolysis of water. The company has built several hundred installations in over eighty countries and Mr. Stuart has had the experience of doing business on all five continents and under governments of every political complexion.

Based on this background in international trade, Mr. Stuart served two years as chairman of the Canadian Export Association and last month, after several years as a director, he was appointed vice-chairman of the Export Development Corporation--the Crown Corporation which finances and insures Canada's export trade. As an authority on hydrogen technology and its applications, he is Canadian delegate to the hydrogen program of the International Energy Agency in Paris. He will be the chairman of the World Hydrogen Energy Conference when it meets in Toronto in July 1984.

The Electrolyser Corporation has worked with Noranda Mines Limited for several years to develop improved methods for generating hydrogen and oxygen gases from water. Mr. Stuart is the president of the joint company which has emerged, Electrolyser Inc.

Mr. Stuart and his wife Mary Alice, who is chairman of CJRT-FM, have a daughter and three sons. Their sheep farm in the Beaver Valley is a strong family interest. As an enthusiastic conservationist, Mr. Stuart is this year's chairman of the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is my pleasure to invite Mr. Sandy Stuart to address us on the subject of hydrogen energy.


Mr. Chairman: I owe the great honour of this opportunity to speak to the Empire Club on my rather esoteric specialty, hydrogen, to some of my good friends in the club, particularly Marvin Gelber. After listening to me for several years on how hydrogen, as an alternative energy, can bring peace and everlasting prosperity to the society of nations, Marvin broached the idea of this talk and your brave president, showing the considerable courage of his military background, extended the invitation. That took courage because, almost every week since then the world oil price has dropped yet another notch or even two notches, or some substantial new hydrocarbon energy discovery has been unveiled.

Against this background, to talk about an alternative energy, one that does not depend on hydrocarbons, might seem to be a receding priority. Well, I'm here to argue that it's not, and the vital reasons are economic, strategic and environmental. I am here to make the case for rebuilding the energy roof even though it's not raining quite as hard today, because fixing that enormous roof permanently is essential, and it's going to take a very, very long time to do it. I argue that we and the world should start now to move more effectively and more resolutely towards a massive long-term objective to reduce the dependence of every nation on the fossil fuels--oil, natural gas and coal--in that order. Not to eliminate that dependence (except perhaps in the very long future), just to reduce it, to contain it; and to teach ourselves how to live without fossil fuels while we still have them with us.

Travelling this road will be costly; it will require some new fuels along the way (all of which, incidentally, will contain hydrogen!) and it will require a much larger proportion of our resources, both economic and intellectual, than energy supply has required of us in the easy past. But success will reward us with a cleaner world and a more peaceful one, where energy resources will be more evenly distributed among the nations and where we will not, therefore, be at each other's throats over the dwindling resources that remain in the hands of the fortunate.

I mention that this journey will be costly. But if we conduct ourselves intelligently, the challenge can be converted into opportunity--economic opportunity, as well as social and environmental opportunity. Canada has the chance, and the reasons, to be early on this scene, and today I intend to describe some of these challenges and opportunities to you.

First I would like to talk about some of the strategic concerns which should compel us toward alternative energy. A document which impressed me immensely was published by the Shell Oil Company in 1971, before the birth of OPEC. This document showed that the lines of oil supply from the Middle East in 1970 will virtually become rivers in 1985.

The message is still as clear as ever: first, that the issue of energy supply will underlie, and at times nearly dominate, the affairs of the nations of the world; and, second, that it would be in the interest of everyone, both oil rich and oil poor, for an alternative, better distributed and more sustainable energy supply to be found and applied to the service of man.

Even with the reduced flows of 1981, OPEC provided fifty-five per cent of the Free World's oil. The strategic peril of this is obvious and hardly tolerable. But it will remain until the countries of the Free World develop effective alternatives; and until some of these alternatives are in place and demonstrated, it will be difficult to set a limit on oil price demands.

But look at the matter also from the side of the oil rich. The rate of oil output which the West requires from the Middle East, for example, is likely to exhaust their resources within one lifetime, and that will be before the Arab nations have achieved an alternative basis for their economy. This enters into their determination to earn all they can for what they have. While there is heavy pressure on OPEC to sell oil to finance their ambitious investment plans, I believe that the fifty-five per cent supply position will give them the ability to restore price discipline, especially when the West emerges from recession, and they will then be able to meet their income needs with less oil at higher prices over a much longer period of time. If these higher oil prices keep us on the long trail towards alternative energy, I think, in the end, it will be in everybody's interest.

My final strategic concern is also a humanitarian one--the Third World, its energy supply and the implications for the rest of us. Let me cite a few disturbing figures. If United States per capita energy consumption be taken as one hundred, Canada is close at about ninety. The world average is only eighteen: India is only 1.6; China, with a colder climate, is 6.4 and Bangladesh, the lowest that I could locate, is only .4--that is, about 1/250th of the average North American per capita energy consumption.

Add to that the factors of world population. Now four billion, this is expected to expand to ten billion before levelling off, with most of the growth in the poorer regions; just to maintain the present miserable per capita consumption of energy, global supply has to increase by more than fifty per cent over the coming twenty years. Bear in mind also that the developing countries, as a group, depend more upon oil energy than do the industrial nations. No matter how much the industrial countries conserve, there will not be enough to meet the most moderate needs of the Third World, much less to enable them to improve their lot.

And there is yet another problem. Take the case of India. India has become the world's tenth industrial power and fortunately is moving into food surplus, but the import of oil requires seventy per cent of its im-

port budget. This is typical for many of the non-oil developing countries, where the need to import oil reduces the import of other vital goods, thereby causing hardship and retarding progress. The non-oil Third World is not very good at recycling petro-dollars and its debt is growing. This has implications for our future exports and the whole world trading system. Even if the price of oil should remain low, the developing countries cannot go on importing as much expensive energy, even if it is available in the quantities they require. I am not sure any nation can. Each nation is going to have to increase its reliance on a sustainable alternative energy supply from its own resources using local currency, even if the cost is higher than the world price. Coal, oil and natural gas are poorly distributed in the world and, in this transition from imported to indigenous energy, hydrogen can play an important role, in rich and poor countries alike.

Which brings me--at last--to my main subject. What I have to say was ably described by Jules Verne in 1867, in his novel The Mysterious Island:

Water decomposed into its primitive elements, and decomposed doubtless by electricity, which will then have become a powerful and manageable force ... Yes, my friends, I believe that water will one day be employed as fuel, that hydrogen and oxygen, which constitute it, used singly or together, will furnish an inexhaustible source of heat and light of an intensity of which coal is not capable . . . I believe, then, that when the deposits of coal are exhausted, we shall heat and warm ourselves with water. Water will be the coal of the future.

So, once again, there is nothing really new under the sun--we just rearrange our priorities from time to time. Hydrogen is the simplest, the lightest and the most abundant element on earth. Pure uncombined hydrogen does not exist in nature to any extent. It exists as part of the fossil fuels, coal, oil and natural gas, but its most abundant combined form is, of course, water which is H2O, two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen, and it is this water form of hydrogen which should concern us most, today and in the future.

For some people, the word "hydrogen" conjures up images of the Hindenburg and the hydrogen bomb. This is undeserved and in fact unrelated. As a fuel, about the only equally hazardous equivalents I can think of are the ones we now use every day--gasoline, propane and natural gas. The fact is we have learned to use these safely and we can do the same with hydrogen. Hydrogen even has some safety advantages. Unlike the heavier fuel gases, when hydrogen escapes it is so light it leaves the area immediately. Hydrogen does ignite very easily but it burns invisibly and does not "cook" its surroundings by radiant heat. Like any useful fuel, hydrogen has to be handled properly and with respect; but its excellent industrial safety record testifies that this can be done.

As Jules Verne said, it requires energy to release hydrogen from water (more energy than the hydrogen itself will contain) but, as I will illustrate, the kinds of energy that can do this job will be with us to the end of time. Once liberated from water by the process called "electrolysis," hydrogen becomes an energy carrier which potentially can perform most of the tasks for which fuel energy is required, such as the powering of machinery and transportation vehicles, or the provision of industrial and domestic heat.

- The kinds of primary energy--that is, energy found in nature--which are suitable for making hydrogen are, or can be, fairly equitably distributed in one form or another throughout the globe. They are, of course, solar energy and its indirect forms of hydro-electric power, wind power and vegetation energy (called "biomass"); geothermal energy from the molten magma beneath the earth's crust, gravitational energy in the form of tidal power; and last, but decidedly not least, nuclear energy as electric power. With the exception of biomass, all of these sustainable primary sources exist as energy of motion or as heat energy, and about the only way we know to make them recoverable and more broadly useful is to convert them into electricity. Such electricity can of course perform many, if not most, energy functions directly but it cannot perform them all. The only practical way electricity can be economically stored in bulk, transported very long distances or fully used in all the ways that fuel is used, is to follow Jules Verne's advice and apply it to electrolyse water into its "primitive elements, hydrogen and oxygen."

Electrolysis of water is in fact the only known practical way to convert electricity into fuel. Fortunately this can be done at high energy efficiencies--eighty to eighty-five per cent by today's technology, and probably rising higher with further research. Electricity sources are relatively abundant and the energy problem of the world is essentially a fuels problem. For many countries, electrolytic hydrogen will therefore be an important part of the answer.

With a hydrogen advocate like me, it is an established tradition to be long on concept and short on costs. Today I won't betray that fine tradition. But I will refer to the report just published by the Ontario Hydrogen Energy Task Force, appointed by Energy Minister Robert Welch and chaired most ably by Dr. Arthur Johnston. This report in nine volumes is probably the most comprehensive document ever produced on hydrogen energy, and explores all aspects from production to utilization, particularly in the Ontario context.

Electrolytic hydrogen is already competitive on a decentralized basis, but the Task Force projects that hydrogen, produced from CANDu electricity in large centralized quantities, will be competitive with hydrogen made from hydrocarbon fuels by the mid-1990x; it could become competitive considerably earlier, depending upon hydrocarbon energy prices.

In support of this, it is interesting to compare the cost of a CANDu nuclear station with that of a tar sands plant. Ontario Hydro's Bruce "B" Nuclear Station will be completed at Kincardine, Ontario, in 1987 at an estimated cost of about $1,200 per kilowatt, or unit energy capacity. The Alsands plant in Alberta, which we so desperately need, at fifteen billion dollars will cost approximately $1,500 per equivalent unit of energy capacity--some twentyfive per cent higher. I hasten to state that this is not a fair comparison; the Alsands figures include a much higher inflation factor because the project will be completed later. On the other hand, Bruce "B" will be producing electricity right here in Ontario and its energy production cost will increase only very slowly over the life of the plant, because so much of that cost is the fixed charge for debt. Alsands, on the other hand, will be producing crude oil in Alberta, which must be transported and refined, and the price over time is expected to move in relation to OPEC oil prices.

What I have suggested about the eventual competitiveness of electricity and hydrogen in Ontario will apply sooner in other regions of Canada and the world, where electricity is now abundant and hydrocarbon is less available. What opens, therefore, is the possibility of a society which could gradually turn to electricity and hydrogen, as fossil fuel supplies diminish.

Having discussed the strategic and the economic, let me now consider the environmental implications of all this.

When hydrogen is burned the product is water vapour, which is a natural constituent of the environment, and which is conveniently returned through nature's water cycle for re-use. When hydrogen is produced from water by electrolysis, the oxygen needed to combust it is automatically co-produced and there is no net consumption of atmospheric oxygen, as occurs with the burning of fossil fuels. Other than a controllably small quantity of nitrogen oxide which is produced when hydrogen is burned with air, hydrogen fuel itself makes no contribution to pollution. This environmental advantage of hydrogen may in the end prove to be its most valuable and important characteristic. Environmental concern on the part of the general public is, I think, here to stay--one of the better, if not the best, results of the political and sociological climate of the 1960s.

An awareness of this deep rooted environmental concern was shown in the remarkable report produced in Ottawa last spring by the Special Committee of the House of Commons on Alternative Energy and Oil Substitution. After reviewing all of the alternatives to oil which are available in Canada, this all-party committee concluded unanimously that, in parallel with oil sands and natural gas developments, we should move aggressively towards a long-term energy system based on electricity and hydrogen. This far-reaching conclusion has naturally attracted both praise and controversy, but has commanded international attention and respect, particularly for its urging that today's decisions in energy should reflect the very longrange concerns which will become decisive--sustainable supply and preservation of the biosphere in which we live. The report in particular emphasized that the world's present fossil fuel economy gives rise to major atmospheric pollutants. Dr. Kenneth Hare, Provost of Trinity College, is an internationally recognized authority on the atmosphere, and has stated that the sulphur dioxide/acid rain problem is now regarded as a regional international problem (for example between Canada and the United States); but that carbon dioxide--not yet officially accorded the status of a pollutant--could become a global problem, to be dealt with only on a global basis. The issue is complex and serious investigation is just beginning, but some authorities feel that the "greenhouse" effect of carbon dioxide on the world's climate may cause a warming trend to become evident as early as the year 2000; the adverse effects on the distribution of the earth's rainfall and the threat of an increase in sea level could be an important influence on the acceptance of hydrogen.

You may have noted that I have had no hesitation in including nuclear energy in the category of a sustainable and environmentally benign energy source. Sustainable because, compared to any other reactor design, the CANDU makes more efficient use of the world's uranium supplies; and when these eventually become depleted, the CANDU can be converted to use the very abundant element thorium as fuel, thus ensuring supplies of electricity for centuries; and long before then, unlimited nuclear fusion energy will be available.

There is insufficient time to embark fully on the nuclear controversy, but I regard the CANDu as environmentally benign because, if we allow the matter to be judged in a fair perspective, no other energy source capable of supplying the concentrated energy demands of an urban and industrial society can perform with as little ecological impact and with as strong a record of safety and reliability. The CANDU system is a Canadian scientific and engineering achievement on a world scale, of which we should be proud and which is serving us well. In respect to electric power, we are increasing our advantage over the United States. The energy policy of President Carter's administration became, in my opinion, badly distorted by an unrealistic assessment of the available energy options--too pessimistic about nuclear and too optimistic about solar. One result has been the U.S. emphasis on coal. In spite of cleaner coal technology, it seems likely that we will be experiencing the adverse environmental results of those decisions here in Canada for some time to come.

I would like to turn now to some of the earlier possibilities for using non-fossil derived hydrogen as fuel. Unfortunately the family car is not an early prospect, because the extreme flexibility required calls for better on-board fuel storage systems than we presently have, and also a hydrogen distribution infrastructure which could take years to achieve. Fleet vehicles are a better bet, where fuelling points can be predicted, and, as one example, the Urban Transportation Development Corporation has embarked on a major program to develop a hydrogen powered transit bus. Hydrogen will first be used where its characteristics offer some compelling economic or operational advantage. In certain locations, for example, electricity may be more available than imported fuel and hydrogen can be generated economically from it in quite small quantities for both engine fuel and heating; and there are off-road vehicle possibilities in agriculture, construction, forest operations and open pit mining.

Gasoline engines can be adapted fairly simply to use hydrogen, and energy efficiency gains have been claimed up to fifteen or twenty per cent, because of the better throttling techniques which are possible. Agricultural tractors can be converted and this could be useful in those Third World countries where electricity is available.

Researchers are seeking a simple compact lightweight means to carry hydrogen on board--some sort of "hydrogen sponge." For this INCO Ltd. has developed metal hydrides, which are improving steadily although still too heavy and bulky. Hydrides have an important safety advantage, being about as combustible in a collision as a pile of coal.

Methanol and ammonia may be good chemical hydrogen carriers and liquid hydrogen is the answer for certain commercial applications such as buses and aircraft. As the lightest element, hydrogen has only forty per cent of the weight of conventional jet fuel for the same energy content. A liquid hydrogen powered aircraft could cover much greater distances at better fuel economy and, in advanced aircraft, there may be a further gain of up to thirty per cent by cooling some of the aerodynamic surfaces to reduce drag. Hydrogen-powered aircraft have actually flown, and Canadian interest is justified because the required fuel could be readily manufactured here and because our large defence task of aerial surveillance would benefit from the longer operating range.

The direct use of hydrogen as a fuel for engines has attracted the most attention, but in fact the much more immediate bulk energy application is to a less visible use--the manufacture of synthetic hydrocarbon fuels. The remaining enormous resources of low grade hydrocarbon such as tar sands bitumen, heavy oil, oil shales, residual oil and coal all require additional hydrogen for conversion to desirable light fluid products. The coupling of CANDU-based hydrogen, or hydroelectric based hydrogen, to the upgrading needs of our heavy oil and coal resources opens an enormous requirement in both eastern and western Canada. The by-product electrolytic oxygen can also be used to gasify the heavy petroleum ends, from which more hydrogen can be made; and also the oxygen can be applied to in-situ recovery and to environmental cleanup.

Another important potential application for both hydrogen and oxygen is to the production of methanol from wood waste or from coal, peat or lignite. The methanol thus produced can then, if desired, be converted to gasoline. However methanol itself will probably be a very important new fuel, especially in the Third World.

In the vital area of food production, the celebrated Green Revolution, which has changed the outlook of the entire Third World, depends upon nitrogen fertilizer which is made by combining hydrogen and nitrogen from the air. At present ninety-nine per cent of that hydrogen is made from fossil fuels. One of the early priorities for non-fossil hydrogen will be for fertilizer production, especially in the oil-poor countries using indigenous electricity.

Canada has a wide spectrum of energy options. We will need them all and it is, I think, a desirable national objective that there should be some balance by way of regional energy sourcing. Electricity and hydrogen represent an excellent opportunity for central Canada. Electricity is a job maker, a high technology job maker. Figures from EEMAC, the Electrical and Electronics Manufacturers Association, indicate that almost nine times as many jobs in Ontario result from expenditure on electricity compared to equivalent expenditure on natural gas; and even greater multiples apply in Quebec and Manitoba. I quote these figures, not for narrow provincial reasons, but to show how diverse energy sourcing can create diverse economic opportunity.

With an electricity base, Ontario and Quebec and Manitoba are all planning to develop the hydrogen opportunities that can lie ahead. Quebec is forming a council for Hydrogen Industries and Dr. David Scott of the University of Toronto has been appointed to organize the Ontario Institute for Hydrogen and Electrochemical Systems. The federal government has been sponsoring a major integrated hydrogen program for several years, with which my company, in partnership with Noranda Mines Limited, has been associated. Practical results are now emerging with respect to hydrogen production, which we hope will maintain Canadian leadership in this area of growing importance.

Other countries, notably France, Japan, Germany and the United States, are also carrying out large hydrogen programs, some parts of which are coordinated through the International Energy Agency in Paris, which is proving to be a significant medium for international collaboration and the exchange of technology.

The emphasis in the provincial and federal programs I have mentioned will be not only on hydrogen production but on the enormous technical challenges in hydrogen storage and transportation, fuel cells, synthetic fuels production and other hydrogen using and handling processes. While most other countries, including especially our good neighbour, are following on chiefly carbonaceous energy paths, we have the opportunity to develop here electrically based technologies which will solve our own problems and at the same time create exportable systems which the world is going to need. This can be the way we turn energy challenge into economic opportunity.

The thanks of the club were expressed to Mr. Stuart by H. Ian Macdonald, a Past President of The Empire Club of Canada.

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Hydrogen—Will the First Element be the Final Fuel?

An alternative energy that does not depend on hydrocarbons still a priority: economically, strategically and environmentally. Teaching ourselves how to live without fossil fuels. Costs involved in this exercise. The rewards of success. Why we should be compelled toward alternative energy. The strategic and humanitarian concern of the Third World and how to supply it with energy. The factor of world population. An examination and scientific review of hydrogen and hydrogen-based energy from an economic, strategic and environmental standpoint. Canada's wide spectrum of energy options. Opportunities to develop hydrogen. Other countries that also have large hydrogen programs. The International Energy Agency in Paris: a significant medium for international collaboration and the exchange of technology.