Opinion » Cybernaut


The hydrogen age



The carbon age is now officially living on borrowed time.

While our dependency on fossil fuels will probably continue to increase for the next few decades, the peak of our consumption is in sight.

Whether we’ll hit that peak in time to save the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve in Alaska, or spare the coast of B.C. from the sight of drilling platforms, or to avoid a complete meltdown in the Middle East, is doubtful.

Coal-power will continue to provide power for millions, wars will be fought over oil fields, and cities and towns will be choked with smog and pollution. Greenhouse gases and particulate will continue to accumulate faster than they can be degraded by natural processes, warming the planet and making us sick.

Still, you have to look on the bright side.

We now have the ability to convert hydrogen, the second most abundant element in the universe, into clean, pollution-free power. It can run vehicles and power homes and businesses. It’s portable, predictable and, thanks to some engineering, stable.

The problem is that it bonds a little too well with other elements, and has to be separated via a relatively power-intensive process, and as a result it’s generally manufactured using fossil fuels.

At the same time, scientists have discovered that a three metre by three metre pond loaded with primordial bacteria can produce enough hydrogen to power one home and the family car. Other scientists are trying to figure how the bacteria accomplish this, and to mimic the process artificially in the lab.

Abundancy is a problem, but maybe not for much longer.

Another problem is the fact that the infrastructure doesn’t exist for any kind of widespread hydrogen revolution. Los Angeles, California, is the first city to propose a permanent hydrogen refuelling station, although this would likely be in an area close to city hall to fuel the five hydrogen vehicles the city purchased for its employees.

One day it could be piped to homes like natural gas, but that day is likely a long way off unless demand can fuel the supply.

And that depends on us.

Honda to the rescue:

Honda recently announced the production of a new line of hydrogen powered fuel cell vehicles. They can go about 220 miles (340 kilometres) on a single tank of hydrogen, with a maximum road speed of 93 mph (148.8 km/h).

Mercedes is also producing a hydrogen car, although its specs still fall short of the standard set by Honda.

While they are aware that it will probably be another 10 years before they can be sold to the public – gas stations won’t be stocking hydrogen any time soon – it is available to institutions immediately. Government agencies with the right kind of funding and infrastructure to purchase and store hydrogen will be able to take advantage of the technology even sooner. Honda is also developing mobile hydrogen filling stations and could have a foothold in large urban areas in the next few years.