Renewed Hope for a Hydrogen Economy
American drivers now burn about 370 million gallons of gasoline a day in passenger vehicles, a number which is projected to grow to 433 million gallons over the next decade. Given the rising demand for gasoline around the world, chronic refinery under capacity and periodic weather and war-related convulsions in supply, the baseline price of gasoline is certain to rise until we find an affordable fuel to replace it.
One promising alternative to gasoline is hydrogen. A research consortium spearheaded by the Bush Administration called FreedomCAR promises do for fuel cells and hydrogen what the Manhattan Project did for atomic energy. It is very clearly a long-term project -- one whose outcome will likely be cars and trucks that are not only pollution-free but also cheaper to operate and maintain.
The main criticism of the project has been the difficulty of obtaining inexpensive hydrogen, which is abundant naturally in many molecules but has to be stripped away using another energy source to arrive at its elemental state for use as a fuel.
Until recently, there were just two commercial ways of producing hydrogen. The first uses natural gas and steam. It’s expensive (because natural gas is expensive) and still leaves the nation hostage a non-renewable fossil fuel. The other commercial method is through electrolysis, which costs three times more than the process using natural gas in that the hydrogen element has to be cracked from a water molecule using electricity.
So, should we give up on the FreedomCAR project? Not just yet. A new method of sourcing hydrogen looms on the surface of ponds. Believe it or not, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley recently discovered that pond scum, which is technically a form of green algae, produces hydrogen gas when deprived of sulfur during photosynthesis. A small pond could conceivably provide enough hydrogen to power about a dozen fuel cells cars on a continuous (renewable) basis.
Tests are now being performed to harvest the algae and commercially process it in large tanks in the manner of today’s oil refineries. The most promising of these is being conducted by a Pennsylvania company whose main business is developing diagnostic kits for infectious diseases. This firm has done a feasibility study showing that it could develop a bioreactor to process the algae into hydrogen using the company's patented bacterial culturing method that is the basis of its existing business.
The hydrogen economy got a further boost this year with the dedication of Syracuse University's Center of Excellence in Environmental and Energy Systems headquarters building, where hydrogen fuel research will be advanced and strategies developed to commercialize and mainstream hydrogen fuel-cells.
Anticipating the future, Governor Pataki became the first to lease two 2005 Honda FCX fuel cell vehicles for the state government fleet. Two hydrogen filling stations have been established in the Albany area to service them and a third station – to service several GM fuel-cell prototypes – will be opened in New York City next year.
Thanks to these and other encouraging developments, we are now poised to make an orderly, if not swift, transition to a hydrogen economy and a new era of clean skies, energy security and seemingly limitless prosperity.
Gene Zeltmann is Co-Chairman of the Electric Drive Transportation Association, President and CEO of the New York Power Authority and Chairman of the Electric Power Research Institute.
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