Iceland strides toward a hydrogen economy
Global economic crises underscores urgency of the goal, even as it delays progress.
(Page 2 of 2)
The idea is to use electricity generated by geothermal (steam) and hydro plants to power cars. While plug-in electric cars might be sensible for Reykjavík commuters, long-distance travelers, fishermen, and aircraft pilots have power and range requirements that can’t be practically served by battery storage alone, says Bragi Arnason, the University of Iceland chemist who first conceived Iceland’s “hydrogen experiment.”Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
“You will use electricity wherever you can, but batteries do not have a sufficient range – maybe 200 or 300 kilometers [124 to 186 miles],” he says, requiring that the electricity be stored in another, more intensive form. “Most experts agree that hydrogen is candidate fuel No. 1, because it’s the cheapest and easiest to make.”
At the Shell station, an electrolyzer strips hydrogen from H20 molecules, which are later consumed in the engines of specially-modified internal-combustion Toyota Priuses. The hydrogen can also be turned into electricity in the fuel cells of Daimler A-Class electric cars. (Drivers here say the latter approach delivers far more torque and power.)
Critics say this entire approach is illogical. “If you have renewable electricity, why would you buy an expensive electrolyzer to throw away some of that electricity making hydrogen, buy an expensive tank to store it, and put it in a vehicle just to make it into electricity again?” asks Joseph Romm of the Center for American Progress in Washington, author of “The Hype About Hydrogen.” “If Iceland hasn’t figured out that electricity is their future, they will soon.”
Standing on the deck of the fuel-cell-equipped whale-watching vessel Elding, mechanical engineer Hallmar Halldors disagrees.
Mr. Halldors, founder of Icelandic Hydrogen, is Reykjavík’s main hydrogen mechanic, servicing fuel-cell vehicles and designing a network of a dozen small hydrogen filling stations that would one day provide full coverage across the country.
“You just don’t get the range with batteries, and you could never use them for fishing vessels,” he says, noting that the latter are out at sea for weeks at a time. “The fuel-cell vehicles have proven very reliable and people really accept them.”
The Elding’s captain, Vignir Sigursveinsson, uses his vessel’s fuel cells to power the ship’s electrical system, allowing him to shut down the diesel engines altogether while observing whales. “It’s totally silent,” he says. “Now when we stop the engines, we really realize how loud the old generator was.”
The system has received coast guard certification and the Elding’s customers – many of them British tourists – haven’t expressed concern with having hydrogen on board. Its only waste product is steam, which Captain Sigursveinsson would like to harness to make cappuccinos. “It’s technically possible,” Halldors notes with a smile, “but the safety certifiers are very cautious.”
Switching the country to hydrogen will be a long process, says Professor Arnason, who has been advocating the move since the oil shocks of the 1970s. “”If you look back in history, every change from one type of energy to another – wood to coal, coal to oil – it always takes 50 years,” he says. “I will only see the first steps, but when my grandchildren are grown, I am sure we will have this new economy.”