European scientists are behind efforts to improve the way hydrogen is produced, processed and, ultimately, used in the generation of sustainable energy. For example, the new Hyvolution project, launched last month in Holland, will spend €9.5 million and several years drawing up a blueprint for producing sustainable hydrogen and to test it at an experimental plant.
|Hydrogen powered fuel cell bus shown in London, in 2003, as part of the EU-supported CUTE (Clean Urban Transport for Europe) project.|
© National Physics Laboratory (UK)
The stakes are high and the project partners are under no illusions that it will be easy. Still, with their multidisciplinary team from academia, industry and SMEs in more than ten EU countries, they are confident the Sixth Framework Programme-supported project will succeed and its findings will be well disseminated throughout the European Research Area.
“It is important that the economy becomes sustainable, and hydrogen can play a part in this,” says Professor Frons Stams of Wageningen University Microbiology Lab, a project partner. “Hydrogen is definitely a clean [alternative]. And the energy that is released with the oxidation of hydrogen can be converted very efficiently into electricity,” he notes in a statement.
Hydrogen is the lightest and most abundant of elements in the universe. And if properly harnessed, it can be what Rifkin calls “the forever fuel”. But contrary to the media headlines, properly harnessing and using it is very much a work in progress. First-generation technologies using hydrogen made from fossil fuels in, for example, public buses are not the final solution to the world's pending sustainable energy crisis.
Using these ancient fuels to create hydrogen actually releases millions of years worth of stored up carbon dioxide (CO2), only adding to climate change. This is where biomass from, say, food-industry waste and crop residues is showing much promise, if still falling short of the promised ‘hyvolution'.
The Hyvolution project will use thermophilic and phototrophic bacteria to produce hydrogen in small-scale, cost-effective industrial plants. The advantage of this approach, the researchers say, is that it is CO2 neutral. Trees and plants take up the gas and produce biomass which is then harvested for hydrogen, leaving CO2 as a by-product and so the cycle continues.
But even if scientists perfect no-emission hydrogen bioprocessing, Rifkins “hydrogen economy” dream of “distributed energy generation” – with fuel cells in every home contributing to a wider “hydrogen energy web” or grid – seems some distance away. Challenges yet to be fully answered include how to better store and transport hydrogen. And hydrogen's energy potential is less than conventional energy carriers . This could mean regular refills for your average motorist, requiring wide networks of filling stations (looping back to the storage and transportation problem).
Professor Ekko van Ierland of Wageningen's Environmental Economics and Natural Resources department takes a different view of hydrogen in this context. He suggests water is a better primary source of energy and can produce hydrogen using wind or solar power. Biomass, he comments, could be better used “directly in the production of electricity ”. But with neutral emissions still the ultimate target, all agree on hydrogen's current and future contribution to the basket of sustainable energy alternatives.