Hydrogen Hype

Surajit Dasgupta looks at the arguments of hydrogen advocates and skeptics starting with observations of the American Geophysical Union.

Published: 02-Jan-2005

Auto industry ads depict hydrogen cars as the vehicular route to clean, blue skies. President Bush and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger are among the biggest champions. Now Indian politicians appear as zealous as recent news reports in the Indian media suggest. The politicians' enthusiasm for the technology -- a leading proposal to solve global warming -- is shared by many scientists.

But some critics say reality could prove more complex. Among the problems detailed at the American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco on 14-20 December are: 1) Hydrogen is a very "leaky" gas (due to its small molecular size and volatility) that could emit from cars and hydrogen plants into the atmosphere. This could set off chemical transformations that generate greenhouse gases contributing to atmospheric warming; 2) The extraction of hydrogen for cars from methane, which is currently the richest available source of hydrogen, will generate carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas; and 3) Hydrogen can also be extracted from ordinary water via a process called electrolysis. However, using a technology called mass electrolysis of water will require intense sources of energy. If those energy sources burn fossil fuels, they, too, will generate greenhouse gases.

These problems are not necessarily showstoppers and can be overcome by technical innovations. Many scientists believe that environmental problems posed by hydrogen cars will be less severe than the problems generated by today's fossil-fuel-dependent cars. But experts have a word of caution -- a lot more research is needed before mankind "commits" itself to what has come to be called the "hydrogen economy".

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