Ecology And Environment

Alternative Fuels

Roy C Dudgeon's image for:
"Alternative Fuels"
Image by: 

Our society's dependence on fossil fuels is associated with a long litany of ecological consequences. From global warming to acid rain; from massive oil spills to the contamination of ground water and wells from leaking underground storage tanks at service stations. Add to that the fact oil exists in limited quantities, and that world oil production has been projected to peak and begin to decline within the next decade, and it is easy to understand why the discussion of alternate fuels has become so important.

Many alternatives are being discussed, or beginning to be implemented. Biodiesel, ethanol and natural gas have all been suggested as short term solutions. All are cleaner burning fuels but none are emission-free, since combustion of these fuels still releases carbon dioxide, thus contributing to global warming. And while natural gas is currently abundant, it exists in limited quantities like all fossil fuels, making it no more than a short-term solution.

Fortunately a long-term solution is on the horizon. Hydrogen. Unlike the biofuels (biodiesel and ethanol) hydrogen is also not just "cleaner burning," but /emission-free/ if implemented in a responsible manner.

While many people are not yet aware of it, all of the technologies necessary for implementing a hydrogen economy also already exist.

Many of those technologies were originally developed by NASA for use in the space program. NASA's rockets have run on hydrogen fuel from the beginning. Why? Because it contains more energy per pound than any other fuel, and they want to minimize the weight, or payload, which they are lifting into orbit. In other words, it is the most efficient fuel available.

When it comes to sustainability, hydrogen is also the perfect choice. Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe and one of the most abundant on earth.

There are two potential sources of hydrogen and two methods of creating it already available. The first, known as "steam reformation," is the one currently used by NASA to obtain fuel. It uses steam to split natural gas (CH4) into carbon and hydrogen. This implies releasing that one carbon atom into the atmosphere and contributes to global warming, just as /all/ combustion does, including combustion of the biofuels.

The other source is electrolysis - the splitting of water into hydrogen and oxygen with electricity. The technology is painfully simple. I recall splitting hydrogen and oxygen from water using a 12 volt battery in high school chemistry class some 30 years ago.

Ironically, steam reformation is currently cheaper. Why? Because natural gas is so cheap that no one has bothered to invest the money in commercial electrolysis production on a large scale.

The perfect technology for implementing hydrogen fuel was also developed by NASA. This technology is known as a "hydrogen fuel cell." They've been used to provide electricity on the space shuttle for decades now.

A fuel cell does not involve combustion of any kind. Rather, a fuel cell is an electrochemical device, similar to a battery, to which you add fuel (hydrogen). The fuel cell recombines the hydrogen fuel with oxygen from the atmosphere to produce three things: waste heat (just like an internal combustion engine), electricity, and water vapor (the only emission). Otherwise, fuel cell powered vehicles (which are already developed and tested) operate much like an electric car.

Combined with electrolysis using energy from clean and sustainable energy sources - such as solar and wind power - hydrogen and fuel cells can create a completely emission-free and completely sustainable energy cycle.

First you split water. You store the hydrogen, while oxygen (which we all need to survive anyway) is released into the atmosphere. When the hydrogen is utilized through a fuel cell it recombines with the same amount of oxygen to create the same amount of water. Nothing is ever "used up" in the process because the "fuel" is not combusted. It creates a continuous cycle like other cycles in nature. A continuous cycle of reuse which is infinitely renewable.

So why isn't hydrogen technology being implemented more rapidly? We already have the technology and the knowledge to make it work. In other words, it is already feasible at a technical level.

The first reason is that it is currently more expensive. In other words, while it is feasible it is not "economical." This could easily be changed by diverting the billions of dollars governments in Canada, the United States and elsewhere continue to put into subsidizing both fossil fuels and biofuels, and diverting those subsidies into the only infinitely sustainable, emission-free alternative we have - hydrogen technologies.

Any new technology is expensive to develop. There are research and development costs, and marketing expenses. The development of manufacturing facilities and other infrastructure are necessary. But once technologies and markets are established the price of new technologies tends to come down. (Think of personal computers, compact disk players, high definition televisions. It's a common pattern).

The second reason is that there are very powerful vested interests in the petroleum industry which oppose the transition. This is not surprising because once people realize it is possible to produce your own fuel in the garage using a wind turbine, an electrolysis machine and your local water supply, they stand to lose billions of dollars. And where is the profit in a system where the average person is no longer dependent on an energy supply which can be centrally controlled?

The main reason for the slowness of the move towards a hydrogen economy, then, is not feasibility but a lack of political will.

During the Cold War, for example, it was feasible for NASA to send men to the moon and return them safely to Earth. It is also clearly still feasible to do so now. Why don't we then? We now lack the political will which the Cold War provided historically. It was very important to the West at the time to beat the Soviets to the moon, and this provided the political will to invest the necessary money in order to do so.

It is exactly the same situation with hydrogen technologies today. The technology already exists. A hydrogen economy is feasible. If we are willing to pay the price.

And it's time to bring space-age technologies down to Earth. Where they belong.

Suggested readings/references:

Seth Dunn, "The Hydrogen Experiment," World Watch, November-December (2000), pp. 14-25.

Richard Rosentreter, "Oil, Profit$, and the Question of Alternative Energy," The Humanist, September-October (2000), pp. 8-13.

More about this author: Roy C Dudgeon

From Around the Web