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The hydrogen age

The carbon age is now officially living on borrowed time. While our dependency on fossil fuels will probably continue to increase for the next few decades, the peak of our consumption is in sight.

The carbon age is now officially living on borrowed time.

While our dependency on fossil fuels will probably continue to increase for the next few decades, the peak of our consumption is in sight.

Whether we’ll hit that peak in time to save the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve in Alaska, or spare the coast of B.C. from the sight of drilling platforms, or to avoid a complete meltdown in the Middle East, is doubtful.

Coal-power will continue to provide power for millions, wars will be fought over oil fields, and cities and towns will be choked with smog and pollution. Greenhouse gases and particulate will continue to accumulate faster than they can be degraded by natural processes, warming the planet and making us sick.

Still, you have to look on the bright side.

We now have the ability to convert hydrogen, the second most abundant element in the universe, into clean, pollution-free power. It can run vehicles and power homes and businesses. It’s portable, predictable and, thanks to some engineering, stable.

The problem is that it bonds a little too well with other elements, and has to be separated via a relatively power-intensive process, and as a result it’s generally manufactured using fossil fuels.

At the same time, scientists have discovered that a three metre by three metre pond loaded with primordial bacteria can produce enough hydrogen to power one home and the family car. Other scientists are trying to figure how the bacteria accomplish this, and to mimic the process artificially in the lab.

Abundancy is a problem, but maybe not for much longer.

Another problem is the fact that the infrastructure doesn’t exist for any kind of widespread hydrogen revolution. Los Angeles, California, is the first city to propose a permanent hydrogen refuelling station, although this would likely be in an area close to city hall to fuel the five hydrogen vehicles the city purchased for its employees.

One day it could be piped to homes like natural gas, but that day is likely a long way off unless demand can fuel the supply.

And that depends on us.

Honda to the rescue:

Honda recently announced the production of a new line of hydrogen powered fuel cell vehicles. They can go about 220 miles (340 kilometres) on a single tank of hydrogen, with a maximum road speed of 93 mph (148.8 km/h).

Mercedes is also producing a hydrogen car, although its specs still fall short of the standard set by Honda.

While they are aware that it will probably be another 10 years before they can be sold to the public – gas stations won’t be stocking hydrogen any time soon – it is available to institutions immediately. Government agencies with the right kind of funding and infrastructure to purchase and store hydrogen will be able to take advantage of the technology even sooner. Honda is also developing mobile hydrogen filling stations and could have a foothold in large urban areas in the next few years.

What are the benefits?

First of all, hydrogen vehicles release no emissions. Compressed hydrogen is mixed with oxygen to create electricity. The only byproduct of this reaction is heat and water.

Another reason is convenience. Companies are seriously considering installing back-up fuel cells to protect their computer systems from random blackouts and scheduled brown outs in many areas.

They are portable, and function as well in the woods as they do in a vehicle.

They are refillable, and have a long life.

They produce water and heat, which could be useful side benefits in some environments.

They are extremely quiet.

There are no moving parts to oil or maintain – unlike combustion engines – just the integrity of the overall cell. If they are built well, they could last a hundred years or longer.

They could be universal. A lot of the economic disparity that exists in the world’s haves and have nots could be eliminated by this technology.

They are not tied to fluctuating world resource markets, and could reduce or eliminate the world’s reliance on fossil fuels. While that may not create peace in the Middle East or restore democracy to Nigeria, it will eliminate the need for the world’s interventions in conflicts that are based on religion, territory, ethnicity, and greed.

The reaction takes place in compact fuel cells, which were first designed and marketed by Vancouver-based Ballard Power Systems. The design has been duplicated by other companies, but if every home, business and vehicle on the planet switches to this technology in the next 50 years, there’s more than enough customers out there to go around.

Governments around the world are supporting this technology, and Iceland has pledged to run the entire country by hydrogen by 2020. Other countries with oil businesses are also supportive, largely because it won’t be an abrupt shift – those companies can still cash in on the carbon age for a long, long time, and will likely provide the world hydrogen when we hit the peak.

They say a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Technologically speaking, hydrogen is still tying its shoes. Once they are tied, however, look out. Things are going to move fast.

Ballard Power Systems –

To learn more about Hydrogen Fuel Cell technology and Ballard Power Systems, visit the "be informed" section of the Web site.

Utne Reader Article –

For a more in-depth look at the potential of hydrogen power and the forces at work to thwart the natural progression to clean energies, the Utne Reader has assimilated a number of articles on the subject from other publications.

Fuel Cells 2000 –

This online fuel cell information centre includes explanations of the technology, a list of current and future applications, charts comparing fuel cell performance, frequently asked questions, and more.

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