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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Hydrogen: Clean Fuel of the Future?

Air Date: Week of

Alex van Oss reports from Washington on the push to develop hydrogen as a clean, cheap and abundant fuel source for the future. Supporters say hydrogen fuel could be generated by using solar and wind power to split water into oxygen and hydrogen.


CURWOOD: Writing The Mysterious Island more than a century ago, science fiction writer Jules Verne made a dramatic prophecy. "My friends," predicted Verne, "I believe that water will one day be employed as fuel - that hydrogen and oxygen which constitute it will furnish an inexhaustible source of heat and light. When the deposits of coal are exhausted, we shall heat and warm ourselves with water." Today, some engineering planners are trying to turn Verne's science fiction into fact. Using the power of the sun, and other energy sources of electricity to break water down into its elements, they are foreseeing a large role for hydrogen in the years ahead. And as Alex Van Oss reports from Washington, some of them see the broader use of natural gas as the first step toward a solar hydrogen economy.

VAN OSS: The next time you come to DC and hail a cab, you may get one with a couple of big tanks in the back - tanks of compressed natural gas that get filled up at a pump, like this.

RUELL: Right now we're at about a little over 2000 pounds. The day is warmer today, so we should get about 2500 pounds fill, which'll take us about 253 miles.

VAN OSS: Todd Ruell is president of the Clean Air Cab Company, which may become the nation's first natural gas taxi service, if the DC government gives its permission. Natural gas is becoming the fuel of choice for more and more companies and federal agencies looking for cleaner, more environmentally benign ways of going about their business. And alternative fuels are in, as Todd Ruell discovered in January, when his natural gas cab took part in the Inauguration Day parade.

RUELL: When we went by the Presidential reviewing stand, President Clinton and Vice President Gore freaked when they saw the taxi cab. And both of them crouched down, looked at it, and gave the cab two thumbs up.
VAN OSS: Yes, but did they point at you after the thumbs-up?
RUELL: Absolutely, absolutely.

VAN OSS: Natural gas can be used for cooking, or heating, or for transportation. It's a clean fuel, or cleaner than gasoline in cars, but it's bulky, even when compressed. There's a more efficient way of using gas than squeezing it into a tank, and that involves a spin-off from the space industry and submarine technology - an energy source called a fuel cell. The fuel cell is a kind of compact, long-lasting battery that uses natural gas to generate electricity to move the car. The cell can also use as a fuel - and this is where environmentalists get really excited - not just natural gas, but one of nature's most plentiful elements: hydrogen. Hydrogen could become the basis of a revolutionary new economy, say proponents, and the development of natural gas is the bridge to hydrogen.

MACKENZIE: Hydrogen is the primordial and future source and carrier of energy.

VAN OSS: James MacKenzie is senior associate with the World Resources Institute.

MACKENZIE: It is currently locked away in water, and in fuels, and so forth. It is waiting to be released and its introduction, in my view, is inevitable.

VAN OSS: The question is, how to unlock hydrogen most efficiently and cleanly. It can come from biomass, or from fossil fuels, like natural gas. The most abundant source is water, which can be split apart into hydrogen and oxygen by electricity, generated by wind, water, or solar thermal plants. Like all fuels, hydrogen can be dangerous - it's flammable and can ignite. But modern pipelines and tanks allow its safe transport and storage. What's crucial for hydrogen is the timing. Officials say decisions made now will define the nation's energy economy during the 21st century, which is only seven years away. Transitions to hydrogen may come soon, says advocate Sandy Thomas, who's co-authored a study on renewable hydrogen with Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa. Thomas says to keep an eye on California, which has a new law on the books which says that two percent of their vehicles by 1998 must have zero emissions. Right now, to most people, zero emissions means battery-powered electric cars. But Sandy Thomas says hydrogen-powered vehicles could well meet the standard.

THOMAS: California is going to require manufacturers to produce zero-emission vehicles, so that is the mechanism whereby you create a demand for hydrogen. through zero-emission vehicles. Once you have that demand, then people start producing hydrogen, and then hopefully the market forces will take over at that point.

VAN OSS: Other countries have been researching hydrogen vehicles for years: Mercedes Benz and BMW in Germany; Japan's Mazda displayed a hydrogen HRX concept car in Toronto last month; and a company in British Columbia has a hydrogen-fueled bus up and running. Meanwhile in Florida, a company called Energy Partners, Inc., hopes to introduce to the public this spring its new hydrogen "green car."

But say we had the cars and the technology, how would hydrogen itself be shunted around the country once it's produced? Wind, water, or solar thermal energy could generate electricity and that electricity then split water into oxygen and hydrogen. The best way to ship that hydrogen is through pipes, just like natural gas. In fact, you can use the already existing natural gas pipelines and, up to a point, mix hydrogen right in with the gas. Opponents to hydrogen say there's still a lot of work to be done - models to be tested, and economic uncertainties. Ironically, some of that concern comes from wind companies who fear they might be overlooked and even displaced in a national transition from oil to natural gas to a hydrogen-based economy, especially if gas is used to power electric utilities. Jack Danforth is business development director at R. Linette and Associates, a wind turbine company in Washington state. Wind is just fine already, he says, for producing cheap, plentiful electricity in the region. Danforth doesn't want a major shift if government support to go just to natural gas, hydrogen future or no.

DANFORTH: I agree that we need to bridge to a hydrogen-based economy. Now the problem is, if natural gas is the bridge to that future, and we meet all of our electric needs with this natural gas capacity, those plants will be generating electricity for the next 30 years. So it's a very long bridge.

VAN OSS: Last October, President Bush signed an energy policy act approving several hydrogen research programs. The task now, says Senate legislative assistant Sandy Thomas, is educating Congress about renewable hydrogen and upping its budget in the Department of Energy. It now gets four and a half million dollars out of a DOE budget of 18 billion dollars. Thomas would like to increase that to a hundred million dollars.

THOMAS: Which would bring it close to nuclear fission, which gets 200 million every year, nuclear fusion gets 500 million every year, the nuclear weapons part of DOE gets 13 billion dollars every year. So what we're saying is we're totally out of whack in terms of priorities in our judgment.

VAN OSS: Hydrogen advocates say that priorities include getting government to shift its subsidies from fossil to renewable fuels, including hydrogen; also to boost research, and make more demonstration vehicles, and then buy those vehicles to jump start the hydrogen economy. Some of this may take shape this month in Congressional hearings and two major conferences, all focusing on hydrogen. For Living on Earth, this is Alex Van Oss in Washington.



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