Is the Hydrogen Age Just Around the Corner?

Hydrogen fuel cells will never be a practical source of power, right? Wrong. The technology is set to take off sooner than you think.
You may think hydrogen power is some futuristic fantasy, fit only for science-fiction writers. Or, at best, you might consider it a promising technology that won't be ready for prime time for another 40 to 50 years. If so, think again. In a special edition on "Best Inventions 2006," Time magazine praises the decision by Shanghai-based Horizon Fuel Cell Technologies "to design and market the H-racer, a 6-inch-long toy car that does what Detroit still can't. It runs on hydrogen extracted from plain tap water, using the solar-powered hydrogen station."

Hydrogen vehicles are not mere toys. More than 500 are on the road today. A BMW prototype with a hydrogen internal-combustion engine attained a top speed of 186 miles an hour. Mazda, Ford, Honda and GM are developing a variety of hydrogen-powered engines. Perhaps most exciting, Honda is now powering zero-emission vehicles with hydrogen derived from tap water in small stationary units that drivers can keep in their garages.

We believe the rapid pace of invention, testing and commercialization of fuel-cell technologies is a strong sign that we are entering the early stages of a hydrogen revolution. Instead of waiting half a century as critics suggest, the large-scale production of hydrogen fuel-cell cars could begin very soon. We have come to a crossroads where a single, courageous decision by a few world leaders could launch a new era of progress. That decision is, of course, to shift from our dependence on environmentally damaging fossil fuels to plentiful, renewable and clean-burning hydrogen fuel.

Not everyone sees the bright future of the hydrogen age. Some well-informed energy experts contend hydrogen will be viable only after 20 to 30 years of development. The respected environmental think tank Worldwatch Institute, cautions, "Despite recent public attention about the potential for a hydrogen economy, it could take decades to develop the infrastructure and vehicles required for a hydrogen-powered system." Joseph Romm, author of The Hype About Hydrogen, states that, "Hydrogen vehicles are unlikely to achieve even a 5 percent market share by 2030."

These predictions are needlessly pessimistic, based on common misconceptions about the cost, efficiency and technology of hydrogen. If we make hydrogen a national and international priority, as outlined below in a strategy for launching the hydrogen economy, we foresee the first affordable hydrogen fuel-cell cars coming to market starting between 2010 and 2012, and achieving 5 percent of the new car market share by 2020 or sooner.

Let's examine the critics' misconceptions about hydrogen.

Myth No. 1: A hydrogen industry needs to be built from scratchThe production of hydrogen is already a large, mature industry, and the global hydrogen industry annually produces 50 million metric tons (50 billion kilograms) of hydrogen, worth about $150 billion. To put that into perspective, the current global output of pure hydrogen has the energy equivalence of 1.2 billion barrels of oil, or about a quarter of U.S. petroleum imports. The hydrogen industry is growing at 6 percent a year, thus doubling every 12 years. All this is happening without the incentives that would be provided by a growing fleet of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles in need of fuel. If the hydrogen industry can expand so quickly "below the radar," it will have no problem expanding quickly enough to fuel the needs of hydrogen fuel-cell cars in the future.

Myth No. 2: Hydrogen is too dangerous for common useThis myth begins with the hydrogen-filled German zeppelin, the Hindenburg, which blew up at Lakehurst, New Jersey, in 1937. Recently that event was revisited in a detailed analysis by National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) scientist Addison Bain. He found that it was not the hydrogen that originally combusted, but the dirigible's outer coating, a highly flammable material similar to that used in rocket propellants. In reality, the hydrogen industry has had an excellent safety record for decades. In 30 years, liquefied hydrogen shipments have logged 33 billion miles. During all this time, no product losses or fires were reported. Gasoline, our automotive fuel of choice, is 22 times more explosive and has a dismal safety record in comparison.

Hydrogen, while flammable, is generally more easily managed than hydrocarbon fuels. If hydrogen is ignited, it burns with a clear flame and only one-tenth the radiant heat of a hydrocarbon fire. The heat that is produced tends to dissipate much more rapidly than heat from gasoline or oil fires. The bottom line is that hydrogen-safety critics should turn their fire against gasoline, and agitate for the rapid adoption of hydrogen on safety grounds alone! Myth No. 3: Hydrogen can't be distributed via existing pipelinesThe transportation of hydrogen, one of the most frequently mentioned concerns of critics, is easily accomplished through pipelines. Creating a new pipeline network to move hydrogen is unnecessary; we can use the one already in existence. Some existing pipelines are already hydrogen-ready. The others can easily be modified with existing technologies by adding polymer-composite liners, similar to the process used to renovate old sewer pipes. Using existing pipelines creates no additional safety concerns. Already, hydrogen-refueling stations are appearing in California, Florida and British Columbia. Other regions are sure to follow.

Myth No. 4: There is no practical way to run cars on hydrogenHydrogen fuel cells have been used for space flights since 1965 and they were used in a passenger vehicle as early as 1966 (GM's Electrovan). Today, fuel-cell vehicles are undergoing rigorous testing and are far advanced. As of mid-2003, manufacturers had dozens of fuel-cell buses and upwards of 100 fuel-cell cars on the road. Fuel cells are being tested for military vehicles on land and sea; submarines have used them for years. Heavy trucks, which spend up to half their engine run time idling because they have no auxiliary power source, are also beginning to use fuel cells. FedEx and UPS plan to introduce fuel-cell trucks by next year.

With such a massive wave of research and trial, fuel cells are sure to advance quickly, as each successful application benefits from its predecessors' experiences. As a whole, mass production will drive down the price of fuel cells.

Myth No. 5: Hydrogen is too expensive to compete with gasolineDespite decades of U.S. policies favouring the use of petroleum, hydrogen technologies are already close to economic viability. When we consider system-wide life-cycle costs, hydrogen is already a desirable alternative to fossil fuel. The factor of greenhouse gas emissions makes hydrogen overwhelmingly preferable to gasoline. Even when hydrogen fuel is produced from natural gas, on a per-mile-driven basis, fuel-cell cars generate as little as 30 percent of the carbon dioxide produced by gasoline-powered cars.

Cost is the bottom-line factor for many consumers contemplating the adoption of new technologies. Research shows that small hydrogen generators could be manufactured by the hundreds and installed at service stations supporting a few hundred fuel-cell-powered cars using natural gas as a raw material at a cost of $6 per million British thermal units (BTUs). These would deliver hydrogen to cars at $2.50 per kilogram, since one gallon of gas is the energy equivalent of one kilogram of hydrogen. That is equivalent to $2.50 per gallon gasoline, less than we are paying now. Moreover, as current trends continue, we believe the days of $2.50 per gallon gasoline will be very fond memories.

Once these myths are dispelled, we can clearly see the environmental advantages of hydrogen power as well as the promising economic benefits. "Hydrogen could become a strategic business sector and an engine of global economic growth within the decade and for the remainder of the 21st century." That's the assessment of Julian Gresser and James Cusumano (one of this article's co-authors) in a 2005 report, "Hydrogen and the New Energy Economy," published in The Futurist.

It is well known that at critical times in history, certain industries have made key technological breakthroughs that have become dynamic engines of broader economic growth. Famous examples of the convergence of critical technologies and rapid growth include: the canals and railroads of 18th- and 19th-century England and, more recently, the convergence of computer hardware, software and Internet technology in late-20th-century America. Due to the tremendous public benefits realized through the success of strategic technologies and industries, governments have usually played a pivotal role in accelerating these technologies' development. California has already taken the national lead in implementing a "Hydrogen Highway Network Action Plan" to build 150 to 200 hydrogen-refueling stations, approximately one every 20 miles on California's major highways.

Similarly, Florida's state government has launched an innovative program to promote hydrogen as a strategic growth sector. Working within a broad alliance among private companies, state and local governments, universities and environmental groups, the Florida Hydrogen Strategy initially focuses on fuels cells, hydrogen storage and power-grid optimization. The strategy offers tax refunds, investment tax credits, performance incentives and enterprise-bond financing. Internationally, Japan, Germany, Canada and Iceland have major hydrogen programs underway. Leaders of these nations understand that, in addition to laying the foundation for independence from oil and creating a key industrial sector, the rapid development of hydrogen will accelerate innovation in related sectors, such as biotechnology, solar photovoltaics, ultra-light materials and nano-materials.

Given the urgency of the energy and climate crises, we urge development of a broad political consensus around a strategy for transitioning to a hydrogen economy. This strategy would apply regulatory, financial and other market-driven incentives while drawing on the best available technology and talent. Under the leadership of a non-partisan National Hydrogen Task Force, political leaders in the U.S. and elsewhere should convene the nation's leading hydrogen scientists, engineers and inventors, along with top environmental lawyers, finance experts and specialists in public/private enterprises.

Their mission should be the development of a draft "Strategic Hydrogen Alliance Reform and Enterprise Act" (SHARE) that would create the statutory framework for accelerating the development of the hydrogen economy as quickly as possible, on par with the urgency that accompanies a state of war or a natural disaster.

The main stages of this transition plan for the U.S. are outlined below and include the following milestones:

Phase I (2007-2010):Deploy existing technologies and capabilities to expedite fuel-cell research and development and vigorously market smaller fuel cells to homes and businesses, while the hydrogen car runs on a modified internal-combustion engine that is cost-effective today.

Phase II (2010-2015): Introduce multiple varieties of fuel-cell cars that run on hydrogen generated from natural gas or electrolyzed from water.

Phase III (2015-2020): Embrace widespread commercialization of fuel-cell vehicles that operate on hydrogen generated by renewable energy sources such as solar- and wind-powered electrolysis.
Work would also begin on a national hydrogen infrastructure, including production facilities, pipelines and fueling stations built in metropolitan areas. The ultimate goal by 2020 would be the broad transition to clean and green hydrogen generated from non-fossil fuels -- wind, solar and possibly biological systems -- and minimum sales of a million hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles, equal to a 6 percent new-car market penetration. In parallel to these hydrogen milestones, the plan would require development of automobile engines that could function on a mix of plug-in technologies, renewable fuels such as ethanol or biodiesel and hydrogen fuel cells powered by electricity from the utility grid.

The path toward the hydrogen future is already being paved by private initiatives and government support in the U.S., the European Union and Japan. Like Gresser and Cusumano point out, "As hydrogen becomes a strategic economic driver for the United States and the major industrialized nations, it can serve this same function for many other countries, rich and poor." The size and risks of some hydrogen projects make it well-suited for international collaborations that can be pursued on the same grand scale as the Apollo Man-to-the-Moon Project in the U.S., the Marshall Plan in Europe and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Control projects.

As new countries enter the hydrogen consortium, each one can develop a special expertise and role based on its unique resources and skills. The financial foundation of the Hydrogen Plan could be an International Hydrogen Innovation Fund, initially capitalized with $5 billion provided by national and international entities. The fund would be managed by an international team of successful technology, business and social entrepreneurs, with the goal of achieving superior rates of return for shareholders within five years for funding early-, middle- and late-stage projects.

The hydrogen economy is the only reliable long-term solution to the energy and climate crises confronting civilization. No other known technology option can safely produce clean energy to power transportation systems and other infrastructure at levels that can sustain current levels of global prosperity, let alone increase these levels to improve the lot of the world's poor. This great transition will be profitable and beneficial for all stakeholders. The hydrogen revolution is one of the greatest legacies our generation could pass on to our children and children's children.

Horace Mann, a pioneering 19th-century advocate of free public education in the U.S., said, "Be ashamed to die until you've won some great victory for humanity." All who join in this grand enterprise to bring about the birth of the hydrogen age will participate in one of humanity's greatest victories: the creation of a safe, clean and sustainable future.

This article is adapted from Freedom from Mid-East Oil, written by Jerry Brown (a founding professor at Florida International University), Rinaldo Brutoco (founder and president of the World Business Academy) and James Cusumano (former director of research and development at Exxon). Find out more: http://www.worldbusiness.org/freedom-from-mid-east-oil
Sign Up!
Get AlterNet's Daily Newsletter in Your Inbox
+ sign up for additional lists
Select additional lists by selecting the checkboxes below before clicking Subscribe: