Towards a hydrogen economy

Over the millennia there have been three ages of energy. First there was the epoch of wood burning, lasting up to the eighteenth century when it was gradually supplanted by coal. The early twentieth century saw a gradual shift from coal to oil. The fourth energy age is dawning and will focus on hydrogen. Its drivers will be concern about security of supply of fossil fuels, anxieties about the environment especially global warming and, finally, advances in technology.

The concept of a hydrogen economy emerged from a group of General Motors engineers in the 1970s. However, at that time there was little incentive to switch from hydrocarbon fuels. Now things are different for a range of reasons.

The year 2001 marked the point at which the Gulf States controlled over 35% of world oil production. The significance of this figure is that it is said to be at a level at which a cartel of producers can control world oil prices. In the 1970s the world experienced two oil shocks engineered by the oil producers. The UK government has been warned that another similar oil shock could trigger a stock market collapse or even war. Since the September 11 outrage, that possibility has loomed larger.

All this makes hydrogen the most attractive option as the energy carrier for the future. Used for powering a fuel cell, its only by-products are heat and water. Even the Executive Director of GM Cars has conceded that 'our long-term vision is of a hydrogen economy'. To reinforce this his company, together with Ford, Daimler-Chrysler, Honda and Toyota, competed to be the first to market a fuel cell car by 2004. Time has proved this timescale to be optimistic. More realistic is the statement by a Vice President of Daimler-Chrysler, Professor Herbert Kohler, that for the next 20 years there will be a 'wider use of hybrids.. .After that, by about 2025, fuel cell technology will be widely available at competitive prices'. The President of Texaco Technology Ventures informed a US Scientific Committee of the House of Representatives that: 'Market forces, greenery and innovation are shaping the future of our industry and propelling us inexorably towards hydrogen energy'.

The viability of a hydrogen economy is also linked inexorably to the fortunes of the fuel cell. This is why enormous research resources are directed towards reducing the unit cost and raising the efficiency of all types of fuel cell.

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