The Latest Discussion on the Future of Fuel: Where Were You, Mainstream Media?

While in Iceland last October, I had the privilege of meeting with "Professor Hydrogen," or Dr. Bragi Árnason, a professor of chemistry at the University of Iceland in Reykjavík, who is spearheading the movement to transform Iceland into the very first hydrogen-powered economy.

For Iceland, he said, the move is both logical and relatively easy. At their most basic level, hydrogen fuel cells combine hydrogen with oxygen and produce electricity, which can be used to power motors. Though far from the only alternative fuel source, said Árnason, it's highly desirable because it is simple, clean, and in the long run, cheap -- it produces energy without fossil fuels, it is renewable, and its only emission is water.

Iceland, said Árnason, is an "ideal pilot country" for several reasons. It already depends on hydroelectric and geothermal power, which means that renewable resources are already a predominant source of energy, and hydrogen can be diverted for this use.

An additional advantage is the country's Ring Road, which runs the circumference of the island and which Árnason said will require only five additional hydrogen fuel stations, in addition to the one currently in operation on the outskirts of Reykjavík, in order to make travel around the country possible. By adding just handful of hydrogen-fueled buses and cars a year, (Árnason said approximately 35 cars will be added by 2007) the country, which sports a population of just over 300,000 people, could run on hydrogen vehicles in just a few decades.

But the move to hydrogen, said Árnason, is also cultural, because it's going to allow the Icelanders to model, in part, the lifestyle of their ancestors. "The Vikings were the first solar energy civilization," he said, because they depended on resources fueled in large part by the sun: wind, water, and plant life. In hydrogen fuel, he said, "we've found a way from fossil fuels back to that civilization."

Just like the Prius, Iceland's move has proven popular, a cutting-edge example of the alt fuel movement's desire to push environmental responsibility into everyone's garage. Everyone from The Reykjavík Grapevine to Rolling Stone has interviewed Árnason, and he's been visited by officials from Toyota, General Motors, DaimlerChrysler and more, all of whom are eager to pick his brain about the possibilities of hydrogen fuel.

But the growing cult of Árnason isn't the only thing that tells us that the buzz on alternative and renewable fuels is growing into a roar. Creeping gas prices, the status of the war in Iraq, and transformation of the color green into a lifestyle choice are all constant reminders that humans must take responsibility for their imprint on the world.

Why, then, did this week's gathering of some of the world's foremost hydrogen fuel cell experts not even register a blip on the radar screen of the mainstream media?

The third International Hydrail Conference, the third conference on hydrogen fuel cell technology this year, just wrapped up today in Salisbury, North Carolina, after two days of presentations and discussion by nearly 30 professors, researchers, and professionals from the U.S. and seven countries around the world who are experts in hydrogen fuel cell research. The focus of their applications, however, is applying the technology not to cars, but to trains.

The logic, say the experts, is simple: two of the biggest hurdles facing the mass development and standardization of hydrogen fuel cell technology are storage capacity for the fuel and the cost of implementing the technology. Applying the technology to trains, which have ample storage space for the massive hydrogen tanks, takes care of one of the problems, and time, they say, will help take care of the other. As the cost of fossil fuels rises, they say, the cost of hydrogen fuel cell technology continues to fall, and soon, the two will meet.

I'll give the media a little leeway because of their unfamiliarity with the word "hydrail" (which I myself didn't know until last year) - the phrase, which is the industry term for hydrogen-powered railway systems, was coined by North Carolina resident Stan Thompson, a staunch proponent of hydrogen technology who has been dubbed "the godfather of hydrail."

Still, ignorance is no excuse for absence from an international event on one of the hottest, and most prescient, topics of our time -- a quick Google search will tell you all you need to know about hydrail. That absence means the mainstream media missed a lot, which means, as a result, so did the public.

Unfortunately, there's no way to adequately cover two days of detailed reviews of the feasibility studies and design and production plans of some of the world's first hydrogen fuel cell and hybrid fuel trains (which sound a bit like science fiction but are quite real), but I'll do my best to arm you with a little of the latest information on hydrogen fuel technology by providing some highlights from day one. You'll find more information at the hydrail conference's Web site.

Dr. Seky Chang of the Korea Railroad Research Institute spoke of South Korea's plans to begin testing a three-phase project, starting with a bimodal tram, followed by light rail and a compact sub train, all of which currently runs either on electricity or diesel fuel, by 2012. The goals of the system, he said, is in line with two laws passed in South Korea in 2005 which promote public transportation and "movement of the weak," while also attempting to combat Seoul's growing pollution problem.

"This kind of problem can be solved by fuel cells," he said.

The trains, said Chang, will likely rely on a propulsion system that is a hybrid of hydrogen fuel cells and lithium batteries.

Prof. Tarun Huria of the Indian Railway Service of Mechanical Engineers and Head of the Department of Rolling Stock Technologies in Jamalpur, India, said that India has the world's largest railway system and a staggering number of commuters: 9.1 million per day. Hydrogen, he said, "has the highest calorific value of any fuel" and is ideal when applied to mass transit, which has a natural tendency to move people in groups instead of in individual vehicles. Huria said the country will have a hydrogen fuel cell hybrid locomotive in manufacturing by the middle of next year and hopes to have it in operation by 2010.

Cost, he said, is the biggest factor -- the price tag is $2.5 million to get the project up and running, verses $1 million to get a diesel locomotive in operation, but will pay for itself in 7 years.

Giovanni Pede of the Italian National Agency for Energy and the Environment spoke on the European Union's joint venture HyRail, which is currently exploring the possibilities of hydrogen fuel cell technology applied to the European railway system and will present a position paper on the matter in December of this year. The possibilities of transitioning to hydrogen fuel cell technology, he said, are magnified if you consider using hybridization as a bridge to alternative fuels. The paper will consider that fact along with the costs of construction, fuel storage problems, infrastructure, and synergies of the technology with other applications.

Antonio di Donato, a Ph.D. student at the University of Pisa, presented a feasibility study completed by the Italian National Agency for Energy and the Environment and promoted by Ferrovie dello Stato, Italy's national railway company. The study, he said, looked at shunting locomotives and regional trains which currently operate on electricity or diesel fuel. Several of those trains will likely be transformed into series hybrids, employing three different fuel sources: electric, diesel, and hydrogen fuel cells. As series hybrids, he said, it will give them the "freedom to choose how to split their power," or more fuel flexibility when moving at different speeds.

Robert Rose, executive director of the U.S. Fuel Cell Council who has been working with fuel cell technology since 1991, offered up a keynote speech on the history of fuel cell technology as well as our country's dependence on fossil fuels. Despite the fact that fuel cell research has been going on since the 1970s, the U.S., he said, hasn't advanced as quickly as it could with this technology because it has been primarily focused on its own fossil fuels supply instead of on the consequences of fossil fuel depletion for the world as a whole.

In addition, he said, the hydrogen fuel cell movement has been hampered by a number of factors in addition to storage problems and financial viability, including little to no research funding, a lack of customer and developer interest, and a lack of leadership (although Stan Thompson mentioned, in passing, one coup: the U.S., he said, will be putting out its very first hydrail train this year, a variation on the diesel and electric hybrid "Green Goat" locomotives already in operation in some areas of the country).

"In the U.S., still, diesel is seen as the fuel of choice (for trains)," said Rose. But, because of rising fuel costs and increasing regulatory pressure, the "hydrogen age" is coming, he said, and "the more comfortable we can make the transition, the better off we're going to be."

Peter Holt, Project Manager for The Fraser Valley Heritage Railway Society in Surrey, British Columbia, said that his organization is in the process of transforming a 1900-era inter-urban railcar into a hydrogen-powered vehicle in time to be part of the "hydrogen highway" on display for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, which will be held in nearby Vancouver. The organization is still deciding between a power system based on a hydrogen fuel cell and battery hybrid or an internal combustion engine that will run on a hydrogen and methane fuel powering generator.

The project, he said, which will cost between $2.25 and $3 million, is slated to be considered for funding by the City of Surrey during its 2008 budget process.

Jason Hoyle, a research analyst at the Energy Center at Appalachian State University presented on the Danish hydrogen train and wind hydrogen project on behalf of Denmark's Claus Torbensen. The train, known as Hydrail FuelT, will be Europe's first hydrogen-powered train, and will be tested on the Danish railway system, because the system has a high level of visibility, small trains, a flat landscape, and ready access to excess hydrogen as a result of nearby wind turbines and local energy companies who currently vent excess hydrogen into the atmosphere.

Rick Hudson, an instructor in Engineering Technology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and a member of the Hydrogen Economy Advancement Team (HEAT), discussed North Carolina's currently vacant Alcoa Badin Works, which he said would be a perfect facility to transform into a hydrogen fuel cell production plant. Alcoa, he said, wants to create jobs, and the state, which has in recent years lost them because of the dissolution of its textile mills, its furniture industry, and its tobacco industry, has lost them. Tommy Gibson of Alcoa said that, while the company is fielding a number of offers for the property, "we're open to the idea and encourage the interest."