Mike Ramage and the Road to the Hydrogen Economy

As chair of the National Research Council's committee on the hydrogen economy, this retired ExxonMobil executive and Purdue alumnus articulated for Americans the opportunities and obstacles inherent in a future powered by the universe's most abundant element.

When he joined Mobil Corporation in the 1970s as a young chemical engineer fresh out of Purdue, Mike Ramage (BSChE '66, MSChE '69, PhD '71) distinguished himself as a petrochemicals innovator. He helped develop the petroleum industry's first reforming model based on fundamental kinetics and went on to receive ten patents in refining technology and published over 20 papers in the field of catalysis and reaction engineering.

Three decades later, the retired executive vice president of the ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company—a member of the National Academy of Engineering and a 1996 recipient of a Purdue honorary doctorate—remains a force in energy innovation.

America's impetus toward a hydrogen economy got a $1.2 billion boost when President Bush announced in his 2003 State of the Union address an initiative to develop, by 2020, the technology for viable hydrogen–powered fuel cells for automotive, home, and commercial use. (Fuel cells combine hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity. Hydrogen's primary use as a fuel now is in the U.S. space program.)

Purdue Alum Putting Policy into Play

Ramage led the National Research Council's Committee on Alternatives and Strategies for Future Hydrogen Production and Use, which issued a 2004 report—"The Hydrogen Economy: Opportunities, Costs, Barriers, and R&D Needs"—providing recommendations to the U.S. Department of Energy. He also addressed the U.S. House of Representatives' Committee on Science about the subject.

"DOE leadership is critical to setting up a hydrogen economy for the future. The current DOE program has tried to establish activities in too many areas," Ramage says. "Also, the program's odds of success will be greatly increased if DOE partners with a broader range of academic and industrial organizations."

The study made 46 specific recommendations to the DOE on its hydrogen program, and the department has already implemented over 40 of them.

Hydrogen—Great Possibilities and Numerous Difficulties

A transition to hydrogen as a major fuel in the next 50 years could significantly reduce air emissions and expand domestic energy resources, but technical, economic, and infrastructure barriers need to be overcome. In the best–case scenario, the transition would take many decades, and any reductions in oil imports and carbon dioxide emissions are likely to be minor during the next 25 years.

"Our study suggests that while hydrogen is a potential long–term energy approach for the nation, the government should keep a balanced portfolio of research and development efforts to enhance U.S. energy efficiency and develop alternative energy sources," Ramage says.

Hydrogen can be produced using fossil fuels such as natural gas and coal; renewable energy sources such as wind, organic matter, and sun; or nuclear energy. Currently hydrogen is produced in large quantities at reasonable cost for industrial purposes by breaking down natural gas into hydrogen and carbon dioxide.

But to achieve widespread use of hydrogen, especially as a fuel for automobiles, it must be produced cost–effectively either in large plants or in smaller facilities at or near vehicle fueling stations. If the hydrogen is produced in large plants, infrastructure must be put in place to distribute it to fueling stations. And hydrogen storage technologies must be developed for vehicles that will give consumers the range between refuelings that they expect.

"We are facing a 'chicken and egg' problem that will be difficult to overcome," says Ramage. "Who will invest in the manufacture of fuel cell vehicles if there's no widespread hydrogen supply? At the same time, who will invest in facilities to produce hydrogen if there aren't enough fuel cell vehicles to create sufficient income for the hydrogen producers?"

—Lisa Hunt Tally