Experimental hydrogen-powered vehicles are hitting roads around the globe at a fast pace. Many observers say this earth-friendly renewable energy source could replace oil to become the automotive fuel of the future. President Bush's pledge of more than one billions dollars for hydrogen research this year has given a boost to the development of this clean fuel technology. VOA's Brent Hurd rode in the latest hydrogen fuel cell vehicle traveling the streets of the north Atlantic island of Iceland.
German chemist Thomas Werner, clad in a blue jump suit with tools in hand, climbs on top of one of Iceland's newest public buses to inspect a problem. After running diagnostic tests, he calls out to his partner, Icelandic technician Gunnar Thor to start the motor.
As Mr. Thor punches the throttle, pure water vapor billows out of the exhaust pipe. Strange sounds of flowing liquid are heard from the fuel storage area, located on top of the bus. Mr. Werner explains this is caused by air in the cooling system. After the air bubbles are flushed out, the bus returns to the road.
Mr. Werner works for the automotive company DaimlerChrysler. He is on a three-year assignment with Mr. Thor to service the world's latest generation of hydrogen fuel cell buses on the streets of Reykjavik -- Iceland's capital of more than 100,000 people.
Mr. Werner explained what happened today. “We got a road call. The driver had a red alarm, which means he had to stop as fast as possible. He called us and we told him to try to start again. The red alarm was still there. So we came and connected our computer to the bus, found the problem and fixed it. The problem is we need water to humidify the gas and one of the tanks was empty, so we are not able to humidify the gas. Then we cannot run the bus because we will damage the bus if the gas is dry.”
Mr. Werner says unpredictable problems like happen - it comes with the territory of testing new technology. After every road call, Mr. Werner sends the performance data to fuel cell specialists in Canada for full analysis.
More than 30 of these Mercedes-Benz Citaro hydrogen-powered buses are being tested around Europe. This E-U initiative brings together energy companies, automobile makers, national governments and universities to study the economic and social viability of environmental-friendly fuel cell vehicles. These buses will be field tested for two years in vastly different conditions: the cold Nordic winters, the heat of Spanish summers, in Dutch flatlands and the hilly regions of southern Germany.
Many analysts say hydrogen is the fuel of the future. It is the most abundant element in the universe and, like electricity, can be produced from a variety of sources. The hydrogen is stored in fuel cells, which are like big batteries that run cleanly for as long as hydrogen is supplied.
Jon Bjorn is executive manager of Icelandic New Energy, one of the key players in the new hydrogen bus project. He says the magic behind hydrogen fuel is that it produces no green gas emissions: “when you produce the hydrogen, you more or less run the electric current through water, and there is no pollution from that except oxygen. When you run hydrogen through a fuel cell engine, you get only one kind of pollution -- clean water. So in that sense, there is no emission what so ever in the whole energy chain by using hydrogen.”
But Mr. Bjorn says if fossil fuel is used to generate hydrogen, as it is sometimes in other countries, this creates some pollution. Iceland is unique in that it can produce hydrogen from clean, renewable sources it already uses for most of its energy needs. This is partly due to its geographic advantage.
Straddling the Mid-Atlantic ridge, Iceland is a hotspot of volcanic and geothermal activity. Thirty volcanoes have erupted in the last two centuries and natural hot springs speckle the island - providing heating, geothermal and hydroelectric power and the frequent geyser bursts. Svavar Jonatansson is a senior engineer who specializes in geothermal energy. He has worked with governments of numerous countries to help them harness geothermal energy the way Iceland has over the past 60 years. “Around 1930, we starting using it for the heating of houses. Today, almost 90 percent of Iceland homes are heated by geothermal energy. What you do, you drill a hole in the earth and you get hot water out of it. Then you pump it into the houses, you heat the house, and then the water coming out can be used for pedestrian streets or for outdoor swimming pools.”
Seventy percent of all of Iceland's energy comes from geothermal and hydroelectric sources -- pollution-free and renewable. But the other 30 percent are fossil fuel imported for Iceland's automobiles. Most of Iceland's 280,000 inhabitants own a car, giving the country one of the highest ratios of cars per person anywhere in the world.
Iceland wants to replace the fossil fuel with hydrogen to create what Mr. Bjorn of Icelandic New Energy calls the first hydrogen economy. In essence, the island could become a planetary test bed for hydrogen technology. “If you have a current society, we can call it a fossil fuel society. The major transport, maritime, even stationary power is produced by fossil fuels. What we mean by hydrogen society is we replace these key elements from fossil fuel to hydrogen.”
The parliament of Iceland fully supports the transition to a hydrogen economy and wants to see this happen in the coming decades. In addition to converting the country's cars, buses and trucks, Iceland's large fishing fleet - the country's most lucrative industry will also move toward hydrogen-powered fuel cells.
But Mr. Bjorn cautions there is a long way to go. He says a lot of research still needs to be done to make hydrogen fuel cell technology commercially viable. “It's not that simple that you just jump in today from what it is to a hydrogen society. We have to go through a lot of research technical, social and economic. We must evaluate the impact on the economy if we go 'hydrogen.' And first of all we have to demonstrate the technology by letting people see it in normal traffic. The filling station is a commercial one. The buses are now driving in the streets. People are seeing the buses every day. People are using the buses every day and I hope that will make people feel more comfortable that hydrogen is around. Currently, hydrogen is more expensive, and hydrogen technology is far more expensive than a normal technology. I think the normal consumer will not buy hydrogen vehicles or hydrogen until there is at least a similar price as gas or gasoline-driven technology.”
Mr. Bjorn says the costs of hydrogen-powered cars will drop as more are tested. Other hydrogen fuel cell initiatives are taking place on other continents. Fleets of hydrogen-powered cars are being tested in Tokyo, Japan and in the American state of California. All US carmakers have fuel cell programs and nearly all oil firms are investigating how to supply these cars with hydrogen. As nations try out hydrogen fuel cell technology, Iceland could lead the way as the first, pollution-free society.