Hydrogen:Fuel of the Future

Editorial urges US wearn itself from oil.

Published: 02-Jan-2003

The Bush administration announced plans earlier this month to increase fuel-economy standards for sport utility vehicles, minivans and light trucks. The 1.5 miles per gallon increase in fuel economy for SUVs and minivans will save 2.5 billion gallons of gasoline a year, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Environmentalists called the increase "miniscule," compared with what they say is needed to halt global warming. Automobiles account for about one-fifth of the carbon dioxide emissions linked to climate change.

In a related development, the World Meteorological Association, a United Nations agency, also announced this month that 2002 was the second-warmest year on record. The U.N. scientists said the global warming phenomenon has increased in the last quarter-century and blamed human-caused greenhouse gases, specifically carbon dioxide, for the increase.

While there is still some debate among scientists about whether the recent increase in global temperatures is a natural phenomenon or human-caused - temperature records only date back to 1860 - there is little disagreement that fossil fuels cause pollution by emitting greenhouse gases and other noxious fumes, and exist in a finite supply.

Moreover, at present our economy and that of all other industrial nations depend entirely on carbon-based fossil fuels to keep the engines of capitalism running. That is not entirely a bad thing as petroleum has led to enormous gains in standards of living throughout the world. Without oil and gas, however, transportation systems would collapse, factories would shut down, lights would flicker out, homes and offices would lose heat and air conditioning. We have become completely dependent on fossil fuels to make life - at least by present standards - possible in many parts of the world, including South Dakota. Try to imagine a day without gas or coal - the depredations that would quickly ensue are frightening to contemplate. Like it or not, petroleum and coal are the lifeblood of modern civilization.

Add to this the fact that about one-third of the world's proven oil reserves, which are about 1 trillion barrels of oil, lie underneath just two Middle East countries: Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Both countries are supporters of terrorism - Iraq openly and Saudi Arabia surreptitiously. Since Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. oil companies have cut back on imports from the Persian Gulf, but still 18.6 percent of oil imports in September came from that region. So long as the U.S. and other industrial nations are dependent on petroleum to fuel their economies, Western currencies will flow to countries that support terrorism.

What can we do about this? We can conserve energy by using less energy and buying more energy efficient products - whether they are automobiles or refrigerators or furnaces. We can produce more ethanol, which will save about 10 percent on gasoline consumption.

But one of the biggest investments that the U.S. can make to wean its economy from over-dependence on fossil fuels is to develop hydrogen fuel technology. One year ago, the Bush administration announced plans to work with automakers to build a hydrogen fuel cell car by the end of this decade. This past summer a prototype fuel cell car made a historic cross-country trip from San Francisco to Washington. The car ran on fuel cells powered by hydrogen converted from methanol. The hydrogen combines with oxygen in the air to produce electricity that powers the engine, with water as a non-polluting byproduct.

The car cost $1 million to build, so don't look for it in the showroom anytime soon. Then again, the first horseless carriages were novelties only the rich could afford. Other drawbacks to fuel cells are the reliability of the technology, which at present is only about one-fifth that of the internal combustion engine, and the efficiency of hydrogen fuel. Hydrogen itself is abundant but usually is attached to other molecules. Detaching the hydrogen costs more energy than the free hydrogen produces in fuel cell power. Then there is the fact that about $1 trillion is invested in petroleum-based infrastructure that will have to be modified or scrapped. Right now, petroleum fuel is cheap to produce and available at any corner gas station.

If science can solve the problems of affordability, availability, reliability and efficiency of the hydrogen fuel cell, our economy would have access to a limitless source of energy that doesn't pollute and isn't concentrated in regions that are hostile to our capitalistic and democratic institutions.

The U.S. government has so far spent about $1.5 billion on hydrogen fuel technology, and while we do not see the need for a Manhattan Project for hydrogen energy, more could be done to help speed the eventual development of what many scientists see as the fuel of the future.

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