Life after gasoline: Harnessing hydrogen to power cars, and more

To consumers unconcerned about gas prices, Jeremy Rifkin would like to issue a wake-up call.

Recent data suggest that within a decade or two mankind will have expended more than half of Earth's oil, including known and estimated undiscovered reserves, says Mr. Rifkin, who heads the Foundation of Economic Trends, a public-policy research group in Washington.

"There are three major crises facing the human family, and they're all connected to oil," Rifkin said during a recent Monitor interview. Rifkin cites global warming, the mounting debt of poorer nations that control no reserves, and the Middle East conflict. "All three of these crises will worsen," he says, "when the global oil supply peaks."

The clear alternative to oil is hydrogen, argues Rifkin in his book "Hydrogen Economy."

The idea has seen flurries of political support. The federal government recently announced an agreement with major automakers to speed the development of fuel-cell vehicles. These cells would turn hydrogen into electricity.

Rifkin concedes that hydrogen may not replace fossil fuels as America's primary energy source for perhaps 50 years. But the element's assets, he says, make the transition inevitable. "The good thing about hydrogen is that it's everywhere. It's ... the basic element of the universe," he says. "When you burn it, you only get pure water and heat."

Carmakers have taken notice, and are now spending $2 billion engineering hydrogen-run cars. The technology, Rifkin believes, is best suited to meet California's requirement that cars sold in the state have near-zero emissions by 2009.

"Consumers probably won't see many hydrogen-powered cars on the market until 2009," he says. "Exactly how soon ... depends on the price of oil on world markets and the availability of hydrogen refueling stations, among other factors."

Another obstacle: Most commercial hydrogen is currently extracted from natural gas. Rifkin believes that in the future, renewable resources such as wind, hydro, and geothermal energy will be used to separate hydrogen from water.

If Rifkin's vision is realized, the automobile could become a mini-power station of its own.

"You could plug it into the home or office to provide electricity back to the grid," he says. "If 25 percent of cars are plugged in at any one time, the country wouldn't need power plants."

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