Getting the Word Out About Hydrogen

by James S. Cannon, Senior Fellow, INFORM, Inc.
“That was interesting. Too bad that nobody knows and nobody cares about hydrogen.” The words cut me to the quick. I had just finished taping a radio show for a National Public Radio station last November about my new INFORM book, Harnessing Hydrogen: The Key to Sustainable Transportation, when the commentator made this observation, thankfully out of microphone range.

It was painful, but uncomfortably close to the truth. Few people are aware of the depth of the problems we face due to our dependence on oil as our transportation fuel. An even smaller number recognize the promise that hydrogen holds to solve these problems now and forever. Yet, a fundamental change in personal transportation is not only inevitable, it is underway and hydrogen can and should be on center stage.

Most of the problems presented by the current regime stem from the presence of carbon in the oil molecule. Some 40 tons of carbon dioxide, implicated in global warming, spew from automotive tail pipes every second: carbon provides the backbone of most of the nastiest air pollutants from oil use, including toxic and carcinogenic emissions; and it is the carbon that marks the “fossil” in fossil fuel, defining it as limited and nonrenewable.

Hydrogen, which has no carbon, is the ideal fuel for vehicles of the future, providing the key to sustainable transportation. It can be made in limitless quantities from solar energy and it can be burned in conventional car engines or used in fuel cell-powered vehicles virtually without pollution.

Obstacles No Longer

Extremely rapid scientific breakthroughs in recent years mean that there are no longer insurmountable technological obstacles to the development of commercially viable hydrogen-powered vehicles. The infrastructure that is now being developed for natural gas vehicles can pave the way for a transportation system for hydrogen and natural gas is an attractive feedstock for hydrogen production until a solar-hydrogen industry is in place.

Similarly, there are strong synergies between hydrogen and electric-battery vehicle technology, so that the extensive electric vehicle research that has been conducted over the past decade can be applied to hydrogen as well. Because hydrogen systems are much lighter and smaller than batteries and refueling is quicker than recharging batteries, hydrogen used in hybrid electric configurations offers an answer to some of the most vexing concerns about applying battery technology in transportation.

The promise of hydrogen is among the truly exciting technological developments of our age. Thinking it over, perhaps my radio station friend wasn’t right after all. Perhaps the truth is that “Nobody cares because nobody knows.” If so, it is public education and constituency building that are the most important challenges hydrogen advocates face today.

It follows, then, that this NHA newsletter and the many other educational activities now underway—including a documentary film that will premier at the World Hydrogen Energy Conference this June and a new periodical, Hydrogen Transportation, to debut this summer—are important steps we can take to ensure hydrogen’s place in the sun. ©1996. All Rights Reserved. A Publication of the National Hydrogen Association.
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