More than 6,000 exhibitors from 70 nations gathered in Germany last month for the annual Hanover Fair (Hannovermesse), the largest industry and energy fair in the world. 114 of those exhibitors were part of the Hydrogen + Fuel Cells Group Exhibit, now in its 10th year.
Hydrogen fuel cells have had a downright leisurely developmental cycle by today's high-velocity R&D standards. Sir William Robert Grave invented the fuel cell more than 130 years ago, but the technology did not have any practical application until the 1960s, when General Electric developed fuel cells for use in the Apollo and Gemini space missions. Another 40 years later, affordable fuel cells for stationary or mobile applications generally remain lodged in the developmental and test phases, and arguments about their viability continue as well. Now, however, all that may be changing.
Fuel cell development (and the corresponding heat of the hydrogen debate) appears to be picking up speed all over the world, spurred on by rising diesel and gasoline prices, well-founded worries concerning access to foreign oil, and recent reports confirming the deleterious effects of air pollution on human health and the planet's climate. A recent Associated Press report noted that the U.S. is spending about $200 million on hydrogen research this year; Japan is spending about $260 million; Canada $400 million; and the EU is investing about $2.43 billion euro over the next several years.
The programs are varied. Canada's new Prime Minister, Paul Martin, for example, was recently in British Columbia to help kick off a project to build hydrogen fueling stations between Vancouver, Victoria and Whistler, B.C., just in time to show visitors to the 2010 Winter Olympics. “The destination may be Whistler by 2010,” he told area reporters, “but our ultimate destination goes far beyond that, lies in a society where our air is cleaner, our natural environment better cared for, our water purer and our quality of life superior to what it is today.”
This spring, the California Fuel Cell Partnership (www.cafcp.org) also announced its goals for 2004, including facilitating placement of up to 300 fuel cell vehicles into independent fleet demonstration projects over the next four years and building more hydrogen fueling stations. A voluntary group formed in 1999, the partnership counts DaimlerChrysler, Ford Motor Co., GM, Honda, Toyota, ChevronTexaco, ExxonMobil, Shell Hydrogen and more than 20 other companies, agencies and organizations as members.
It is Iceland, however, that may finally be the country to show the rest of the world how to create a functioning “hydrogen economy,” where everything from trucks to commercial fishing boats are powered by hydrogen fuel cells. In 2002, Icelanders announced their intention to eliminate the burning of fossil fuel entirely within 30 years. Instead, they hope to run 100% of the country's transport on hydrogen produced cleanly within Iceland itself, primarily by using their abundant hydroelectric and geothermal power to extract hydrogen from water.
Not everyone agrees that hydrogen is the solution for the future. Detractors recite a long list of unsolved problems. Others are simply betting on a different energy technology to save the day, such as electricity or biodiesel.
Whether or not hydrogen finally emerges as the solution to the world's power woes, it is tough to make a case for simply ignoring the energy issue anymore. It is time for everyone to come to the Fair and begin seriously testing our skills at the alternative fuels arcade. So much depends upon somebody, somewhere finally winning the prize.