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Hydrogen Burble

The slow, grudging move to respect

By Novella Carpenter

Schwarzenegger promised a hydrogen highway in April 2004 and then we all promptly forgot about it. At least I did. But just as I'd dismissed the fuel and moved on with my life, I wondered if I should revisit the technology when I got wind of the National Hydrogen Association's 17th annual Conference and Expo in held in Long Beach, Calif., last week.

Not that I attended--but I got the second-best thing: Patrick Serfass, the director of technology and program development at the National Hydrogen Association, on the phone. He was my hydrogen conference version of Cliffs Notes.

Serfass' voice expressed the giddy delight that these kinds of conferences can spawn. Though he probably wanted to tell me all about the little details--new compressors and break-away valves--I wanted the big picture.

The theme of the meeting was Global Progress Toward Green Energy, he told me, and attendance was up, with 25 countries representing, and representatives from 44 out of 50 states: the EU! China! Singapore! Canada! China promised to start running 20,000 hydrogen buses by 2020. Polynesia's President Temura expressed his island country's interest in developing a hydrogen economy. Serfass pointed out this had to do with economics--on an island without natural resources, hydrogen makes sense.

But why should you care if, as I've written in the past, hydrogen seems to be so sucky. Sucky in that it'll take too long to get to the consumer; sucky as it's only as clean as the technology that makes the hydrogen itself; and sucky because a wonk like Arnold is behind it. But like everything in life, there's some areas of gray.

It is true that hydrogen has mostly been made from a nonrenewable resource, natural gas. But Serfass pointed out that this is because in the past, H2 was being made to clean sulfur out of gas, or make ammonia for fertilizer. In industries like that, they've got access to natural gas, and are less likely to try alternative, clean methods like solar 2 an oil rig powered by the sun? How silly!

But if using natural gas to generate hydrogen is the cheapest method, why would a company do something different? Serfass pointed out that in places like California, our goal is to improve air quality by reducing emissions, so this may guide the direction of hydrogen production.

Another point is that hydrogen can be made by electrolysis: splitting water. And the energy to power this process could come from wind or solar power (or in the case of Iceland, natural-steam power). In Scotland, there's an adorable green car running on wind-power-generated hydrogen, for example. The Pure Energy Center vehicle zooms around in Shetland, Scotland, the land of wool and wind. The area has always generated excess wind energy but the problem was storage. Now the energy goes into electrolysis, which makes hydrogen to power up fuel cells.

I had also previously pooh-poohed the concept of hydrogen fueling stations--where would they go? Just one look at the Hydrogen Highway website (www.hydrogenhighway.ca.gov), with its map of all the hydrogen fueling stations nationwide, offered some hope. While, for the most part, they are centered in the Bay Area and the Los Angeles area, at least it's a start.

Though Serfass tempered my enthusiasm by saying it won't be until 2015 that passenger cars powered by hydrogen will be widely available, he thinks the industry might speed that prediction up a bit. In 2010, GM and BMW are planning on releasing hydrogen cars to the public.

Along those same lines, a few companies like Hydrogen Car Company (www.H2carco.com) convert vehicles, called H2ICE (hydrogen internal-combustion engines) to simply burn hydrogen. This is different from a hydrogen fuel cell system, which releases H20 as its only waste product. The H2ICE cars don't release any carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide, but do let out some NOx (a precursor to smog). So, not perfect, but still a move in the right direction, and probably cheaper than a fuel cell vehicle.

Let the record, show, then, that I'm cautiously stripping off my hydrogen cynicism, and opening myself up to the wonky world of the hydrogen molecule.

Gone to the dark side, or just getting older? E-mail Novella at [email protected]

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From the March 22-28, 2006 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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