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Thursday, July 17, 2003

NATURAL SELECTIONS

Safe hydrogen power needs nuclear energy


Herbert Hoover, the 31st President of the United States, said in 1928 that "the slogan of progress is changing from the full dinner plate to the full garage." Soundbite culture had taken hold even then, and Hoover's words were quickly paraphrased as "a car in every garage and a chicken in every pot."

News photo
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi takes a spin in a hydrogen-powered Honda FCX.

Americans took heed like no one else. Today there are 210 million vehicles in the U.S., releasing 1.5 billion tons of greenhouse gases a year; almost 20 million barrels of petroleum are used per day. And as we all know only too well, the current U.S. president is crazy about oil, opting out of the Kyoto Protocol and (if many commentators are to be believed) going to war for oil.

Which makes this statement all the more surprising:

"I'm proposing $1.2 billion in research funding so that America can lead the world in developing clean, hydrogen-powered automobiles."

Amazingly, these are the words of President George W. Bush, delivered in his State of the Union address earlier this year. "The first car driven by a child born today," Bush added, "could be powered by hydrogen, and pollution-free."

Hydrogen-powered cars are already being driven in California and Japan. There's the Honda FCX and the Toyota FCHV-4, both using compressed hydrogen fuel cells (the Honda FCX, a "zero-emission" car, can be rented in Japan). The principle on which hydrogen-fueled vehicles work is so simple I can quote Bush again on it:

"A single chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen generates energy, which can be used to power a car -- producing water, not exhaust fumes," the president said.

Hydrogen is fed into the negatively charged part of the fuel cell (the anode), where it is split by a catalyst into protons and electrons. The electrons then zip around a circuit producing electricity, while the protons pass through a membrane to the other side of the fuel cell. Here they and the electrons combine with oxygen (from the air) entering from the positive end of the fuel cell (the cathode). The product is water, and heat.

But forget cars for a minute: Many commentators see the next great world economy as powered by hydrogen. For many reasons (global warming, the depletion of fossil fuels, the concentration of oil in the politically unstable Middle East ) it is wise to switch from a fossil fuel-based economy to a hydrogen-based one.

Of course there is a snag, quite a big one: Where do we get all the hydrogen from? It's the most abundant element in the universe, but, being highly reactive, is almost always found in combination with something else. So it must be extracted before it can be used.

And extraction uses energy. Paul Grant, a science fellow at the Electric Power Research Institute in Palo Alto, Calif., says: "Unlike fossil fuels or uranium, more energy is used to extract hydrogen from its source than is recovered in its end use."

So, what have we got? We want to stop using fossil fuels, so we use hydrogen -- but to extract hydrogen we need to burn fossil fuels. This looks like a Catch-22 situation, but last week in Nature Grant wrote an article arguing that there is a way out: nuclear power.

The solution will cause many to grimace in despair, but according to Grant, "Its science is sound and solved, its technology mature and safe... Readers accustomed to the unscientific belief that nuclear power is inherently dangerous and forever unsafe should examine the facts, starting with the article 'The Need for Nuclear Power'." (A link to the article is given below.)

Grant accepts that changing to a hydrogen economy will take time. "Even with a Herculean effort on the model of the Apollo space program, the hydrogen economy will arrive slowly, as it will require vast investment over a long period of time," he writes.

Consider the problem with hydrogen-powered cars. The Honda FCX can travel 350 km before it needs more hydrogen, but no regular gasoline station can currently deal with that. (Researchers at Britain's University of Warwick, however, are working on a program called "Hydrofueler" to develop technology to connect gas stations to the normal natural-gas supply to fuel hydrogen-powered vehicles.)

Grant admits there are problems, but suggests that those with fossil fuels (and wind- and solar-derived electricity, which would require vast areas of land) are bigger.

"I believe that a resurgence of nuclear power is necessary for the continuing industrialization of world society with minimal environmental impact and eco-invasion, one in which hydrogen will supplant fossil fuels."

In 1964, the Canadian communications scholar Marshall McLuhan wrote, "The car has become an article of dress without which we feel uncertain, unclad and incomplete in the urban compound."

Unless we all want to go naked, hydrogen power and nuclear energy may be the best way forward.

Rowan Hooper welcomes comments at rowan.hooper@tcd.ie "The Need for Nuclear Power," by Rhodes and Beller is available here: www.foreignaffairs.org/20000101faessay4/richard-rhodes-denis-beller/theneed-for-nuclear-power.html


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