'Hydrogen Economy' Could Bring Radical Changes To What We Drive

Rifkin believes affordable hydrogen-powered cars in showrooms by 2006.

Published: 05-Feb-2003

The gas our children pump into their cars will likely be a totally different substance than the petroleum product we buy today at the corner convenience market.

Proponents of the so-called hydrogen economy say President Bush's State of the Union call for $1.2 billion in funding to develop a hydrogen-powered automobile may go down in history as the wake-up call for a new Industrial Revolution.

"President Bush's use of that word hydrogen will be looked on as a turning point," said author Jeremy Rifkin. "But it will go way beyond what he envisioned."

Rifkin, whose latest book is called "The Hydrogen Economy," predicts that the world's most common element will revolutionize American life. Cars, houses, personal computers, even the existing electric power grid, he believes, will be powered one day by fuel cells using hydrogen as a fuel and leaving only water as a byproduct.

He even believes your car will one day be a personal profit center, its fuel cell capable of generating electricity you can sell back to the power grid when you're not driving.

Bush called for the babies of today to be driving a hydrogen-powered car when they come of age. Few think that will be as difficult as putting a man on the moon was when President John Kennedy made it a national goal in 1961. "I think we'll see affordable [hydrogen-powered] cars in the showroom by 2006," said Rifkin in an interview. "At the latest, 2010."

Automakers and oil companies are all scrambling to find their niches in the hydrogen economy. The auto industry alone has already invested more than $2 billion in fuel cells, nearly twice the amount proposed by Bush.

A thorny obstacle is the fact that pure hydrogen does not exist in nature. It must be liberated from whatever it is combined with, be it water, natural gas, gasoline or even coal. That itself takes energy.

It seems redundant to generate electricity twice -- once to produce the hydrogen and again when it is consumed. But proponents note that hydrogen converts a much higher percentage of its energy to electricity than either internal combustion engines or conventional batteries.

Another problem is the lack of a hydrogen fueling infrastructure, the facilities that would replace that corner convenience market.

"I know where to send you for a tank of gasoline," said Bob Rose, executive director of the U.S. Fuel Cell Council, a 115-member Washington-based trade association. "I don't know where to send you to get a tank of hydrogen."

Iraq and possible war aside, many analysts believe the world is running out of oil. Some believe world oil supplies could peak as early as 2010. Others, like the U.S. Geological Survey, place the beginning of the end of the oil age at 2037. Once supplies reach their peak, it means the end of affordable gasoline.

"The bottom line is, we are consuming two barrels of oil for every barrel we discover," said Rifkin.

That gives hydrogen and fuel cells "a certain inevitability," said Rose.

"When we do get there, we will have achieved quite an extraordinary and beneficial change."

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