PRESIDENT BUSH HAS PROPOSED a federally-funded, five-year, $1.7bn plan to develop hydrogen-powered fuel cells, a hydrogen infrastructure and advanced automotive technologies. The European Commission (EC) has also said it plans to spend close to $2.3bn on hydrogen-related research over the next four years and General Motors (GM) is spending more than a quarter of its research budget on fuel cell vehicles.
But while the concept of hydrogen-powered fuel cells is getting a huge boost from politicians and the press as the best way to supply the world with fuel-efficient vehicles, many experts in the energy industry doubt that it is a genuine solution to the energy crisis. Some contend that the process of producing the technology can be as expensive and harmful to the atmosphere as fossil fuels. Others go further, saying the promotion and subsequent nonperformance of hydrogen as an efficient energy source will ultimately be used to convince the public of the superiority of fossil and nuclear fuels.
Professor Michael J Prather of UC Irvine in California says, "It is surprising that all of the various groups examining a hydrogen economy are secure in the belief that H2 is a pure fuel, safe and harmless to the environment. That simply is not true."
While Lyn Harrison, editor of the trade industry publication, Windpower Monthly, says, "Make no mistake about it, the visions being mapped out for a hydrogen economy on both sides of the Atlantic provide an excuse for the revival of nuclear power and give environmental legitimacy to fossil fuels."
What typically gets lost in the hype about hydrogen as an all-purpose fuel source to replace hydrocarbons for fuelling the transportation sector, is the cost. That cost comprises establishing a completely new infrastructure to distribute hydrogen estimated to be at least $5,000 per vehicle, because transporting, storing and distributing a gaseous fuel as opposed to a liquid involves many difficult technical problems. Billions more dollars will be needed to develop hydrogen fuel cells that can match the performance of today's gasoline engines.
Hydrogen is not a fuel. It is an energy carrier. Just like electricity, it is only as clean as its means of production; and only renewables can make it sustainable. Today, hydrogen is derived mostly from oil and coal, a process that produces substantial carbon dioxide. Unless and until this carbon can be captured and stored, renewable (wind or solar) and nuclear power, with...