'Governments must back hydrogen-powered future'

Posted: 10 September 2002

A world powered by hydrogen - the lightest and most abundant element in the universe - once the stuff of science fiction, is now also on its way to becoming 21st century reality, says a new report from the Washington DC-based Worldwatch Institute.

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 partly 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."

Fuel cell vehicles

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. General Motors aims to be the first car company to sell one million fuel cell vehicles, beginning mass production by 2010, and in June announced major investments in two companies specializing in hydrogen storage and delivery. Toyota recently sent shock waves through the industry by announcing it would start selling its fuel cell car in Japan in 2003.

The energy industry is also getting serious about hydrogen. Both Shell and BP have established core hydrogen divisions within their companies. ExxonMobil is teaming up with GM and Toyota to develop fuel cells. Texaco has become a major investor in hydrogen storage technology. Company executive Frank Ingriselli told a U.S. House of Representatives panel in April that "Greenery, innovation, and market forces are...propelling us inexorably toward hydrogen energy. Those who don't pursue it, will rue it."

There will be substantial commercial, political, and environmental benefits to the companies and countries that are first to market hydrogen technologies, says the report. 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:

  • Germany- leading the world in demonstrations of hydrogen and fuel cell vehicles, hydrogen fueling stations, and using renewable energy sources to produce hydrogen from water through electrolysis.
  • Japan-undertaking the most ambitious and comprehensive hydrogen initiatives in the world, with plans to spend $4 billion by 2020, starting with an $88 million budget over the next five years.
  • Iceland-partnering with DaimlerChrysler, Shell, and Norsk Hydro to make the island nation the world's first hydrogen economy, replacing petroleum in its buses, cars, and fishing boats over the next 30 to 40 years.
"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," says 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 programme is currently about one fifth the amount proposed for clean coal technologies, and one tenth that for nuclear energy.

Extracting hydrogen

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 per cent 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 subsidise 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 US government did with transistors, computers, and the Internet."

Links:

  • Worldwatch Paper 157: Hydrogen Futures: Toward a Sustainable Energy System
  • Read: Hydrogen Q&A
  • The Clean Car is Coming
  • Iceland shifts to hydrogen economy