Tag: technology

Hydrogen Part 1 Today

Bill Gates wrote an insightful new blog post: “To cut emissions, use this Swiss Army Knife.” [1] He explains why hydrogen is essential now, how we might produce it without carbon dioxide, and why it may be more critical in our future. It’s worthwhile reading. My friend Christopher recently talked to me about future uses of hydrogen. Christopher and Bill Gates are both on to a good idea; they triggered me to start thinking more about hydrogen.

When I think about hydrogen, three things spring to mind: Lots of energy, easily made from water and electricity, and very dangerous. These were lessons I learned more than fifty years ago.

The energy available from hydrogen propelled the Apollo moon program. The Saturn V second and third-stage rockets used liquid hydrogen fuel; that was a lot of liquid hydrogen! I found that hydrogen was easy to make in my high school chemistry lab using electrolysis. The collected hydrogen would burn with a bit of pop.

I had seen proof of the dangers of hydrogen. A friend owned a melted piece of structural aluminum from the Hindenburg; this hydrogen-filled dirigible had burned while mooring in 1937. A more memorable use: the hydrogen-oxygen fuel cells on Apollo 13. The explosion of one of these fuel cells almost killed the crew and led to a remarkable space rescue effort. 

After reading Bill’s article and talking with my friend about the future of hydrogen, I decided it was time to upgrade my knowledge of hydrogen. I decided upon a four-part plan: How do we make hydrogen today? What are the current applications of hydrogen? How might we use hydrogen in the future? Finally, how would we produce hydrogen in the future? I divided this blog into two. The first part covers hydrogen production and application today; the second will address the future. My goal was to teach myself a bit more about hydrogen, and hopefully, it will interest readers.

So, how do we make industrial quantities of hydrogen today? I found an explanation from the Department of Energy of one method of making hydrogen. [2] Hydrogen is primarily made via a Steam-Methane Reforming reaction (SMR). Methane gas reacts with steam and heat to produce hydrogen and carbon monoxide:
CH4 + H2O (+ heat) → CO + 3H2
The remaining carbon monoxide reacts with steam in the Water-gas Shift (WGS) reaction. It produces more hydrogen and carbon dioxide:
CO + H2O → CO2 + H2 (+ heat)

Another method used to produce hydrogen is coal gasification. [3] In this process, oxygen combusts carbon in coal to produce carbon dioxide:
C + O2 → CO2 ( + heat)
The CO2 and heat react (gasification) to produce carbon monoxide:
C + CO2 (+ heat) → 2CO
The Water-gas Shift (WGS) reaction produces hydrogen and carbon dioxide:
CO + H2O → CO2 + H2 (+ heat)

In 2020, the world produced 70 million tons of hydrogen. According to the US Department of Energy, 76% of global hydrogen comes from the Steam-methane reforming reaction, 22% more from coal gasification, and 2% from electrolysis. [4]

Why change these processes? Bill Gates said that industrial hydrogen manufacture produces 1.6% of CO2 emissions. The  International Energy Agency (IEA) estimated that hydrogen generation would generate about 900 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2020. [5] Hydrogen produced from uncontrolled fossil fuels is referred to as “grey” hydrogen, as defined by researchers at Columbia University. [6]

I was surprised that petroleum refining is today’s most important use of hydrogen. The hydro-desulfurization reaction lowers the sulfur content of fossil fuels, thus using more than half the world’s hydrogen. The manufacture of ammonium nitrate fertilizer via the Haber process uses lots of hydrogen. Metal refining, chemicals  (acid, methanol, hydrogen peroxide), and hydrogenated oil food production also use hydrogen. [7]


[1] Gates, Bill. THE OTHER HYDRO POWER: To cut emissions, use this Swiss Army Knife. GatesNotes The Blog of Bill Gates, 21 June 2022.  Accessed 22 June 2022.

[2] US Department of Energy.  Hydrogen Production: Natural Gas Reforming. Accessed 22 June 2022. https://www.energy.gov/eere/fuelcells/hydrogen-production-natural-gas-reforming 

[3] Allen, Jessica. Explainer: how do we make hydrogen from coal, and is it really a clean fuel?, The Conversation website, 13 April 2018.  Accessed 25 June 2022. https://theconversation.com/explainer-how-do-we-make-hydrogen-from-coal-and-is-it-really-a-clean-fuel-94911  

[4] US Department of Energy. Hydrogen Strategy, July, 2020. Accessed 22 June 2022. https://www.energy.gov/sites/prod/files/2020/07/f76/USDOE_FE_Hydrogen_Strategy_July2020.pdf

[5] Bermudez, Jose M.; Hannula, Ikulla et. al. Hydrogen – More efforts needed. International Energy Agency, November, 2021. Accessed 25 June 2022.    https://www.iea.org/reports/hydrogen 

[6] Ochu, Emeka; Braverman, Sarah; Smith, Griffin; and Friedman, Julio. Hydrogen Fact Sheet: Production of Low-Carbon Hydrogen. Columbia University,  17 June 2021. Accessed 22 June 2022. https://www.energypolicy.columbia.edu/research/article/hydrogen-fact-sheet-production-low-carbon-hydrogen

[7] Brown, Andy. Uses of Hydrogen in Industry. The Chemical Engineer, 16 July 2019. Accessed 25 June 2022. https://www.thechemicalengineer.com/features/uses-of-hydrogen-in-industry/ 

Book Review Army of None: by Paul Scharre

Book Review Army of None: Autonomous Weapons and the Future of War by Paul Scharre (reviewed 8 July 2019)

We are witnessing the evolution of autonomous technologies in our world. As in much of technological evolution, military needs drive much of this development. Peter Scharre has done a remarkable job to explain autonomous technologies and how military establishment embrace autonomy: past, present and future. A critical question: “Would a robot know when it is lawful to kill, but wrong?”

Let me jump to Scharre’s conclusion first: “Machines can do many things, but they cannot create meaning. They cannot answer these questions for us. Machines cannot tell us what we value, what choices we should make. The world we are creating is one that will have intelligent machines in it, but it is not for them. It is a world for us.” The author has done a remarkable job to explain what an autonomous world might look like.

Scharre spends considerable time to define and explain autonomy, here’s a cogent summary:

  • “Autonomy encompasses three distinct concepts: the type of task the machine is performing; the relationship of the human to the machine when performing that task; and the sophistication of the machine’s decision-making when performing the task. This means there are three different dimensions of autonomy. These dimensions are independent, and a machine can be “more autonomous” by increasing the amount of autonomy along any of these spectrums.”

These two quotes summarize some concerns about make autonomous systems fail-safe. (Spoiler alert: it can’t be done…)

  • “Failures may be unlikely, but over a long enough timeline they are inevitable. Engineers refer to these incidents as “normal accidents” because their occurrence is inevitable, even normal, in complex systems. “Why would autonomous systems be any different?” Borrie asked. The textbook example of a normal accident is the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant meltdown in 1979.”
  • “In 2017, a group of scientific experts called JASON tasked with studying the implications of AI for the Defense Department came to a similar conclusion. After an exhaustive analysis of the current state of the art in AI, they concluded: [T]he sheer magnitude, millions or billions of parameters (i.e. weights/biases/etc.), which are learned as part of the training of the net . . . makes it impossible to really understand exactly how the network does what it does. Thus the response of the network to all possible inputs is unknowable.”

Here are several passages capturing the future of autnomy. I’m trying to summarize a lot of the author’s work into just a few quotes:

  • “Artificial general intelligence (AGI) is a hypothetical future AI that would exhibit human-level intelligence across the full range of cognitive tasks. AGI could be applied to solving humanity’s toughest problems, including those that involve nuance, ambiguity, and uncertainty.”
  • ““intelligence explosion.” The concept was first outlined by I. J. Good in 1964: Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an “intelligence explosion,” and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.” (This is also known as the Technological Singularity)
  • “Hybrid human-machine cognitive systems, often called “centaur warfighters” after the classic Greek myth of the half-human, half-horse creature, can leverage the precision and reliability of automation without sacrificing the robustness and flexibility of human intelligence.”

In summary, “Army of None” is well worth reading to gain an understanding of how autonomous technologies impact our world, now and in the future.