The United States has less than 3% of the World’s oil reserves, but accounts for more than 25% of the global demand. Further more, oil provides for more than 40% of Americas total energy demands, and more than 99% of fuel for automobiles. On an average, 58% of that oil is imported grossing to an astounding $102.7 billion per annum and, due to OPEC’s inflated oil prices, over the last 30 years the net expenditure on oil has reached about $4-14 trillion. Despite all these facts, US is ranked 12th in its reserves for oil. The picture I am trying to portray is very simple-albeit spending ridiculously high amounts on imports of oil, the ranking of oil reserves for US is astonishingly high. Then one can imagine the political and financial power possessed by those who are higher in that oil reserve chart and the monopoly they have over the oil market. It is not only humbling, but also extremely dangerous for a superpower like the US to be in such a situation when it comes to the basic requirement of energy production when it is the largest consumer of energy in the world( an estimated 96.95 quadrillion Btus of energy consumed in 2001). But this is just the political and financial aspect of the lack of energy independence.
Oil is still a non-renewable source of energy. The total US oil reserves are estimated at a mere 22.7 billion barrels, which would not last more than eight years. Aside from this fact, the air pollution due to not only crude oil and gas production, but also coal mining and stone quarrying is devastating. Suspended particulate matter (SPM), sulphur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen and volatile organic compounds are some emitted pollutants. It is not even feasible, in terms of the limitations of this paper, to go into the damage caused by these pollutants. Therefore, if not now, then later, an alternate source of energy will have to be found. It is an inescapable truth and thus, it is imperative that the US government undertakes large-scale research to achieve energy independence.
Considering the given facts, one of the most promising alternate sources of energy is Hydrogen. In its different forms-liquid and gaseous-hydrogen displays the potential of sustaining not only transportation, but also providing thermal energy and electric power. Using hydrogen not only solves the “energy problem”, but also, in a multifaceted way, solves the current pollution problem worldwide. Not only that, hydrogen is one of the most plentiful gas on the planet-however, it doesn’t exist on its own and thus the need to produce hydrogen arises. Steam reformation, Partial Oxidation (POX), Thermal Cracking, Biomass gasification and electrolysis are few of the various hydrogen producing techniques.
However, most of these techniques involve the emission of CO2 and hence become environmentally hazardous. Biomass gasification and POX seem to be the most dangerous in this regard. Electrolysis, though, seems to be promising-especially Solar Photovoltaic, Solar Antenna powered Conversion and Wind Electrolysis. But, despite these facts, natural gas reforming is the most vastly used production technique of hydrogen. According to the statement by Susan Hock, at the Renewable Hydrogen Forum in 2003, 95% of the hydrogen produced in US, and 50% in the world, is done using this process. Natural gas reforming, however, is not cost efficient and in the near future, it is predicted that its efficiency will reduce. On the other hand, Electrolysis only forms 4% of hydrogen production-worldwide. All these technologies are quite expensive today, but simulations have shown that they have the potential to be cost competitive in the future. This is a clear indication that US needs to undertake research in this field.
One form of using hydrogen as a fuel is already used in fuel cells. This is the result of research that took place over that later half of the 20th century. The applications of such fuel cells are vast. Ranging from providing primary or back up power in building to transportation-fuel cells are becoming one of the most reliable, alternative sources of energy. According to statistical analysis, the US uses about 20 million barrels of oil a day at a cost of $2 billion a week. If only 20% of the cars in US used fuel cells, oil imports could be, theoretically, cut by 1.5 million barrels a day. Aside from this, systems dependent on fuel cells achieve 40% fuel-to-electricity efficiency today. Further more, systems fueled by hydrogen consistently achieve 50% efficiency. These facts illustrate a fraction of what the actual potential of hydrogen is.
Quoting Spencer Abraham, Secretary of Energy-“A hydrogen economy will mean a world where our pollution problems are solved and where our need for abundant and affordable energy is secure...and where concerns about dwindling resources are a thing of the past."
Greenhouse gas emissions are another problem associated to our current energy consumption. The gasses emitted by cars, the light and heat generated in homes cause this phenomenon which is responsible for the climatic changes worldwide. But the by-product of hydrogen consumption is water-which is, the least to say, not at all a concern-environmentally. Thus, using hydrogen as a source of energy solves the pollution problem which was mentioned earlier.
“Technology advancements could make solar-derived hydrogen, with its potential for near-site delivery, cost-competitive.”- Margaret K. Mann and Johanna S. Ivy.
Till now hydrogen seems to be a viable option as an alternative energy source, which would ultimately fulfill the goal of energy independence. But is it cost effective? Can funds be allocated to research and development for production of hydrogen? The answer lies in the fact that hydrogen production is already undergoing research, but the direction needs changing. The current aim seems to be bulk production of hydrogen. But the problem that arises is transportation of the produced hydrogen. Unless large quantities of hydrogen are purchased, the delivery cost would ultimately become higher than the production cost. To solve this, one must reduce the need for transportation of hydrogen. Distributed production of hydrogen would reduce the need for transportation and hence bring the cost down. But this solution is for a situation when hydrogen production has already undergone large scale research.
For now, the US must focus on providing the means, or incentives, for research in this field. An initial investment in research would prove beneficial as small advances would ease the imports on oil. The money thus saved could be invested in further research and thus creating money-saving, technology-enhancing cycle. The question is how to get the ball rolling? According to the Department of Energy Appropriation Account Summary for the period 2004-2006, Defense Nuclear nonproliferation has gone a budget increase of +15.1%. If this increase was to be cut to +10%, the 5.1% difference would provide sufficient funds to at least start on the research.
One thing that must be kept in mind is that this project would require an initial investment. Once started, it has the potential to survive on its own-using a portion of the profits provided by its own results. This is reason enough to make certain budget allocations to R&D for hydrogen production.
The current US oil reserves, as mentioned earlier, would only last 8 years. If the US was to survive without imports, then by 2013, the worlds most powerful and influential country would not be able to sustain itself. This is a cause of concern for any country-and US is certainly no exception.
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