Experts herald hydrogen as future of clean power

Hydrogen fuel cells have been championed as the future of clean energy development at the 13th World Clean Air and Environmental Protection congress in London this week.

Speaking at the congress, Dr Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute in the US said that, although road transport was generally considered the most intractable part of climate change and air pollution problems, a clean solution could quickly and easily be achieved.

“The future of the world’s energy will be down to choice, not fate. Hydrogen is a vital part of this development, as hydrogen fuel cells are viable, efficient and do not generate any air or noise pollution,” he said. “Cars can only become super-efficient once hydrogen technology is employed.”

Dr Lovins said he was confident that, by widely employing sustainable alternatives, the US could become completely oil-free by the year 2025, as outlined in his report, Winning the oil endgame, due to be published next month.

His figures showed that two thirds of energy in the US was already generated using hydrogen, and only the remaining third currently running on carbon needed to be replaced. He pointed out that hydrogen fuel cells were very versatile and could be produced by anything from vegetable oil to wave power, allowing carbon burning to be completely eliminated for power generation.

“The transition beyond oil can be led by business, rewarded by profit, driven by customers and accelerated by innovative public policies,” Dr Lovins told the congress. “Super efficiency should be a by-product of breakthrough technology. Hydrogen fuel technology must be developed to be better commercially than its alternatives, so that rather than forcing the technology on consumers, they choose it as an upgrade – like switching to digital from vinyl.”

Dr Jonathan Frost, director of British firm Johnson Matthey, also told the congress he believed that hydrogen technology could offer a tangible option to dirty fossil fuels. He stated that hydrogen fuel cells would eliminate around three quarters of harmful gaseous emissions, as their only end product was water.

He said: “We must remember that hydrogen fuel technology is at the start of its development cycle, but it is already a totally reliable and sustainable form of energy production. It is simple but effective, and as the technology is developed over the next few years it will just become more viable.”

The main problem, according to Dr Frost, was making the technology attractive, not just to consumers but also to potential investors who were necessary to fund research and to push it forwards.

However, he predicted that over the next 10 to 15 years, largely driven by public policies, prices for hydrogen fuel cells would drop, allowing them to become a commercial reality, powering cars, computers amongst other things.

“This technology will be driven by a progressive, legislative regime, but society must ask for what it wants,” Dr Frost said. “Persistently and consistently we only legislate for what we think we can achieve. We need to push authorities into aiming higher by demanding more. Then the innovation process can truly begin.”

By Jane Kettle

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