Are you sure?

Is hydrogen really the fuel of the future?

The Statoil petrol station in the Stavanger (Norway) suburb of Forus is on first impressions unremarkable.

But if you look carefully, you'll notice that on one side of the forecourt, away from the cars filling up with petrol, is a pump that stands seemingly unnoticed. If the forecasters prove correct, the gas this pump dispenses – hydrogen – is set to take centre stage in the global fight against climate change The only emission from the exhaust pipe of a hydrogen-powered car is water. There’s no carbon dioxide, no particulates and no sulphur emissions.

It's this clean-burn nature that’s firing the interest of growing numbers of oil multinationals, car-makers and energy companies. The hydrogen filling station at Forus, the first in Norway, was opened last August and will be joined by a further four on the main road that hugs the country's southern coast. Eventually these stations will form a 360-mile long “hydrogen highway” stretching from Stavanger to Oslo.

“The goal is that by 2009 it will be possible to drive a hydrogen-powered car along the entire route,” says Anders Hermansen from Statoil, Norway's biggest oil company and one of 40 partner organizations involved in the project, called HyNor. “This is very much a ‘learning by doing project’, as we want to increase our knowledge of hydrogen as well as stimulating wider interest in more environmentally friendly fuels.” Thirteen Toyota Prius hydrogen cars have been acquired for HyNor at an eye-watering cost of $120,000 (£60,000) each. These are the only hydrogen cars in Norway, and are leased out to Statoil and local government groups, which are also partners in the project.

The cars are powered by a regular engine that has been adapted to run on hydrogen, with backup being provided by a battery-powered motor. They have a range of around 80 miles before they need to be refueled. The number of hydrogen cars driving along the highway is expected to steadily increase as the project develops. It's thought that a further 20 cars will be on the streets of Oslo when a hydrogen station opens there later next year.

Bjønar Kruse from the Oslo-based environmental group Zero, another HyNor partner, believes that the growing awareness of climate change in Norway is making people more aware of alternative fuels. “There's been a dramatic change in people's attitude towards climate change in the past 12 months,” says Kruse, “and this makes it easier to mainstream hydrogen technology. I'm already receiving inquiries from people wanting to buy hydrogen cars.” But there is some bad news.

While hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, it rarely exists in its pure form in the environment, preferring instead to bond with other elements such as oxygen to form water and carbon to form hydrocarbons such as oil and gas. To create pure hydrogen, energy is needed to break these bonds. Because an external energy source is needed to produce it, hydrogen strictly speaking isn't a primary energy source like coal, sunlight or wind, but instead is generally referred to as being an energy carrier like electricity.

Hydrogen's critics claim that since its production invariably involves natural gas, hydrogen's energy budget doesn't add up. And with CO2 being produced every step of the way, hydrogen, it's claimed, isn't very green at all. Ulf Hafseld, HyNor's project manager, accepts that making hydrogen using fossil fuels isn't sustainable. “The answer is to produce hydrogen from water using electricity from renewable energy, which is very easy,” he says. “This is already happening in Berlin, where a small electrolyzing plant at a filling station is generating the gas from water, using 100% renewable energy from a hydroelectric plant in the Alps.

“It produces no CO2 emissions at all.” Along with using renewable energy to produce “green hydrogen”, Hafseld believes that the increasing use of hydrogen-powered fuel cells in cars are crucial for maximizing hydrogen’s potential. “Fuel cells are about twice as efficient as internal combustion engines so can help compensate for any energy loss in the gas’s production.” Scandinavia is now emerging as a champion of hydrogen technology, following the launch last year of the Scandinavian Hydrogen Highway Partnership. The scheme unites existing hydrogen highway projects in south-west Sweden and Denmark with the project in Norway.

“The vision is to make Scandinavia one of the first regions in Europe where hydrogen is used in a network of refueling stations,” says Hafseld. “There are already plans to use surplus electricity from Denmark's wind farms to produce green hydrogen.” After a slow start, the UK is finally getting in on the act with the news that up to 600 hydrogen-powered buses could be serving the streets of London by 2012, after a successful trial earlier this year.

There's even greater interest in the US where concerns over the security of oil supplies has seen President Bush recently spend $1.7 billion (£845 million) turning the States into a world-leader in hydrogen-powered cars. In California, Governor Schwarzenegger has launched a hydrogen highway network and aims to build up to 200 hydrogen-fuelling stations by 2010. With global interest in hydrogen on the rise and with most car-makers pouring millions into developing hydrogen vehicles, when can we expect to see the mass production of affordable hydrogen cars?

“Our target is to produce a hydrogen fuel-cell car for $50,000 by 2015,” says Peter Froeschle, a senior manager at Daimler AG, which has already spent more than $€1 billion (£675 million) developing its fleet of prototypes, “though we don't expect the operation to be profitable until 2020.” While nobody is claiming that hydrogen and fuel cells are the solution to our energy needs, there's a growing consensus among oil companies, car manufacturers and environmental groups that it will play a key role in our future mix of low-carbon fuels.

Summary of Facts

Fuel cells produce electricity from a chemical reaction involving hydrogen and oxygen. They emit no carbon, although it may be released when producing the hydrogen itself. Fuel cells will be at the heart of any future hydrogen economy. Their supporters claim that they potentially offer a carbon-free alternative to fossil fuels. While fuel-cell cars are expected to reach mass production by 2025, some believe that we will see widespread use of fuel cells in everyday applications within a few years. Anticipated uses of fuel cells include mobile phones, laptops, home heating and power plants. (petrolplaza)