Compiled by GayToday
Courtesy of Worldwatch Institute
A world powered by hydrogen-the lightest and most abundant element in the universe-is the stuff of Jules Verne's 19th century science fiction. But it is also on its way to becoming 21st century reality, reports the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental research organization.
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The shift to clean hydrogen is being driven in part by rapid improvements in the fuel cell-which uses hydrogen to produce electricity, with water as a byproduct-and by the billion-dollar bets that leading multinationals are now placing on this technology. The move to hydrogen is also motivated by the need to address three of the world's most pressing energy-related problems: worsening urban air pollution, rising geopolitical instability due to oil import dependence, and accelerating climate change from fossil fuel combustion.
"The critical question is no longer whether we are headed toward hydrogen, but how we should get there, and how long it will take," said Seth Dunn, research associate and author of Hydrogen Futures: Toward a Sustainable Energy System. "Market forces alone will not move us along the best, fastest route to a hydrogen economy. Just as the government catalyzed the early development of the Internet, there is a critical role for governments to play in speeding the creation of a clean hydrogen economy."
Much of the recent ferment over hydrogen and fuel cells has taken place in the auto industry. DaimlerChrysler has committed $1 billion over 10 years to fuel cell development, and is working with Ford and Ballard Power Systems to put transit fuel cell buses on the road in Europe in 2002.
There will be substantial commercial, political, and environmental benefits to the companies and countries that are first to market hydrogen technologies. Fuel cells using hydrogen could replace not only internal combustion engines, but also central power plants and batteries in portable electronics-like laptop computers and cell phones. Some of the countries leading the race to hydrogen include:
"Just as the aggressive tapping of oil enabled the United States. to eclipse Great Britain and become the economic and political power of the twentieth century, nations that move first to harness hydrogen could potentially erode U.S. competitiveness," said Dunn. As other countries step up support for what scientists call "tomorrow's petroleum," the U.S. risks lagging behind.
The Bush Administration's May energy policy report describes hydrogen merely as "an important fuel of the distant future," and the federal budget for the Energy Department's hydrogen program is currently about one fifth the amount proposed for clean coal technologies, and one tenth that for nuclear energy.
As the shift towards hydrogen accelerates, one of the most important outstanding issues is how to pick the quickest, least expensive path from today's fossil fuel-based economy.
Today, about 99 percent of the world's hydrogen is extracted from fossil fuels most of this by treating natural gas with steam. In the long run, hydrogen will be derived from renewable energy through electrolysis-using electricity from the sun, wind, and other sources to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, thereby eliminating the use of fossil fuels altogether.
Honda recently unveiled a solar-hydrogen production and fueling station in Torrance, California-the first such station to be established by a major car manufacturer. Dunn's research suggests that, in many instances, the best route to a renewable energy-based hydrogen economy would be to pipe natural gas to fuel stations, and turn the gas into hydrogen at the station for use in fuel cell vehicles.
This infrastructure could then be converted to handle hydrogen produced from renewable energy. But despite the apparent advantages of this natural gas-to-renewable hydrogen route, industry and governments are currently devoting substantially more resources to extracting the hydrogen from gasoline or methanol on board the vehicles-a path that will cause the transition to hydrogen to be more incremental, more polluting, and ultimately more expensive.
The study lists ten general policies that governments can introduce to help build a hydrogen economy. These steps include offering tax incentives to buyers of fuel cell vehicles, phasing out the roughly $300 billion spent annually to subsidize fossil fuel use worldwide, and boosting support for research and development aimed at improving hydrogen production and storage and cutting fuel cell costs. "Governments should hasten the hydrogen transition by promoting innovations that have potentially enormous long-term benefits-just as the U.S. government did with transistors, computers, and the Internet."
Order Worldwatch Paper 157:
Hydrogen Futures: Toward a Sustainable Energy System.