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The Hydrogen Economy: Opportunities and Challenges

Ball, Michael and Wietschel, Martin (eds.)
Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2009
ISBN 0521882168 (pb)

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Reviewed by James Keirstead
Department of Chemical Engineering, Imperial College London

Cover of book This edited volume opens with a well-chosen quote from Jules Verne's 1874 novel The Mysterious Island: "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". That vision - based largely on theoretical appeal - has inspired engineers and scientists ever since but in the last decade, the hydrogen economy has also become a practical imperative. Concerns over climate change, the availability and affordability of fossil fuels, and local air pollution have helped to make a strong case for the use of abundant and clean hydrogen fuel.

Of course, the devil is in the detail and this is where The Hydrogen Economy seeks to contribute. Hydrogen is an energy carrier and its performance depends on the processes used in its production, the supply chains used in its delivery, and the technologies that convert the fuel into desired services. These issues are all covered by the book, although with a strong focus on the transport sector, "which is generally considered the major driver for [hydrogen's] introduction" (p. 2). Having committed the proverbial sin of judging the book by its cover, I expected to find more information on the hydrogen economy as a whole - industrial uses, stationary applications for heat and power, portable power for small appliances, and so on - but that said, the book does have a sufficiently broad scope to be relevant to those with interests outside of transportation. Its main themes are:

Ironically, given the navigational difficulties created by this somewhat haphazard chapter structure, the book is likely to be most useful as a reference. The chapters are illustrated with clear tables and figures that provide valuable data, for example, on well-to-wheel emissions for different energy chains, the costs of major technologies, flow charts of conversion and production processes, policy and technology roadmaps, and so on. As the authors note, the field is developing rapidly and some of this information may soon be out of date; nevertheless it provides an excellent starting point for research. However it should be noted that the book's usability as a reference is also impeded by the lack of lists of tables and figures and a poor index. Curious about the book's apparent European and American focus, I attempted to look up "Japan" in the index and found nothing, even though Japan's hydrogen initiatives are discussed at some length in Chapter 8.

Those with an explicit interest in the application of simulation modelling techniques to hydrogen systems may be disappointed. Chapter 14 provides a review of modelling efforts to date and highlights the use of life-cycle analyses, mathematical programming techniques, systems dynamics models, and agent-based models (three of nineteen citations). However the results presented in Chapters 14 to 18 rely heavily on mixed-integer linear programming with additional inputs from input/output, computable general equilibrium and systems dynamics modelling. The authors are aware of this limitation, noting that the optimisation of a single objective function for a whole system misses the heterogeneity of the individual actors that constitute the hydrogen energy system (policy makers, consumers, utility companies etc.). They therefore state that future research might examine "the transformation of the optimisation model to a multiagent system" (p. 400). Yet extensive work in this area is already available via the Next Generation Infrastructures Foundation and some reference to this literature would have been beneficial.

Overall, The Hydrogen Economy is a useful addition to the literature as it provides a strong overview of the issues surrounding hydrogen energy systems and collates valuable reference data for researchers, policy makers and others with an interest in achieving the hydrogen economy. The simulation modelling community however may prefer to take the book as a starting point and rely on other volumes for more detailed discussions of the methodological issues surrounding large infrastructure systems.


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