Hydrogen fuel is poised to be the new fuel of the future. This fuel emits no pollution and is the right fuel to fight against climate change.
A car running on hydrogen fuel does not emit any pollutant like carbon dioxide, sulphur or particles. The only emission from the exhaust pipe of a hydrogen-powered car is water.
This clean-burn nature of the fuel has attracted a number of oil multinationals, car-makers and energy companies. Hydrogen, which can be made from electricity and water and can be, produced in limitless quantities using nothing more than solar energy and water. If hydrogen burns, it leaves no trace in the air, except for a bit of water vapor.
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 exorbitant rate of £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.
"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."
In the western corner of West Sacramento, is the home of the California Fuel Cell Partnership. They are a depot for most of the hydrogen fuel cell powered cars in North America.
Honda's V-3 is one of the most advanced hydrogen fuel cell cars in the world. Honda's other models of fuel cell cars are the V-1, which uses a metal hydride fuel tank, and the V-2, which runs on methanol using a reforming device to convert the methanol to hydrogen. The systems on these cars are so big, particularly the reformer on the methanol car, that both versions are only able to have two seats.
There are many obstacles to over come before hydrogen can be used as fuel. 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.
Hydrogen may be ecologically and technologically the logical fuel right now for fuel cell cars, but there is no consumer distribution system in place. While methanol, a liquid, can be piped, trucked and stored in the existing network for gasoline with minor conversion costs, hydrogen will require an entire new fuel distribution infrastructure.
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 per cent 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 uses 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."