Three cheers for hydrogen!

“There is nothing new under the sun – which happens to be made of 70% hydrogen”, wrote Ecclesiastes in the Bible’s New Environmental Version.

In 1975, South African-born scientist John O’Mara Bockris described what a hydrogen-powered world might look like in his book Energy, the solar hydrogen alternative. In 2002, American economic and social theorist Jeremy Rifkin argued that the future of energy lay in hydrogen-powered fuel cells.

Hydrogen fuel is zero-emission when burned with oxygen. It can be used in electrochemical cells or internal combustion engines to power vehicles or electric devices. Unlike petrol or marine diesel, burning hydrogen does not produce harmful by-products. There is no air pollution and no greenhouse gas emissions to contribute to global warming. Another benefit is that hydrogen can be stored and transported easily and safely at scale.

But producing hydrogen is complicated. Even though it is the most abundant chemical substance in the universe, very little of it is freely available as a gas. Instead, it has formed strong bonds with other elements (e.g. with oxygen to create water). To break those links requires a great deal of electricity, which may not come from “clean” sources.

In “From German Trains to South Korean Buses, Hydrogen is Back in the Energy Picture”, posted on resilience.org (22 January 2019), Bianca Nogrady writes:

“Japan is planning to use the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games to showcase its vision for a hydrogen society and has invested US$348 million in establishing hydrogen refuelling stations and other infrastructure. Germany has launched the world’s first hydrogen-powered trains to complement a growing number of hydrogen refuelling stations across the country. Switzerland is purchasing 1,000 hydrogen-powered trucks, Norway has had hydrogen refuelling stations since 2006, and South Korea is investing US$2.33 billion over the next five years to create hydrogen refuelling stations, fuel-cell vehicle plants, fuel-cell buses and hydrogen storage systems. And Australia has seen both its national science agency CSIRO and chief scientist Alan Finkel separately report their visions for a hydrogen-powered nation and export industry.”

At the heart of what Bockris called the “hydrogen economy” is the use of electricity from renewable sources such as solar, wind, and hydropower to split water into oxygen and hydrogen. That “green hydrogen” can then be used in fuel cells to generate electricity, and the fuel cells can be used individually to drive vehicles or in stacks to support or to power a grid.

So the question is why the world is not moving more quickly and resolutely to green hydrogen? The answer lies in the powerful interests of the military-industrial complex (famously denounced by Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1961) and the profit motives of mega-corporations – especially the investment banks and the oil and gas giants, their owners and investors. And in what Naomi Klein in This Changes Everything (2014) calls “the three policy pillars of the neoliberal age – privatization of the public sphere, deregulation of the corporate sector, and the lowering of income and corporate taxes, paid for with cuts to public spending”, which have kept the fossil fuel industries obscenely profitable and relegated hydrogen fuel to the laboratory of the Absent-Minded Professor.

Move to hydrogen now! The world is running out of time.

Hydrogen

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Published by

Philip Lee

Writer and musician who tries to join up the dots.

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