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Countries advancing Hydrogen and Fuel Cell History

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“A lasting lesson of the crisis years is the power of markets and their ability to adjust to disruptions, if government allows them to.”      Daniel Yergin

The 1973 oil embargo, the second oil crisis, got a large part of the world to think about how to manage its affairs with less and less of this geologically and politically unpredictable energy resource.  Governments, companies, researchers and environmentalists looked seriously for alternative solutions.  Visionaries considered how to keep the world moving without oil.

Alternative Fuels were required to eliminate the flaws of petroleum fuels and the impending problems after Peak Oil.  By this time, air pollution from ever-increasing industrial and transportation sources had intensified to such an extent, that it started to present health problems for humans, animals and for nature itself.

One ‘voice in the desert’ spoke out; actually, it was on an island, — Iceland, where Dr. Bragi Arnason  proposed in 1978 to make his country a society completely powered by hydrogen. “Professor Hydrogen” has been on a three-decade crusade to utilize Iceland’s natural power source, the geo-thermal, or hot springs, to produce hydrogen.  Over time, he has been able to convince the Shell oil company and DaimlerChrysler to assist his small country to convert every car, bus and boat to be powered by hydrogen.  Iceland seems well on its way to becoming the world’s first hydrogen economy by the year 2050.

Dr. Arnason claims that Iceland’s future will look much like its past: “When the Vikings settled in Iceland, they used only renewable energy like wind, sun, and wood. The Icelanders were the ‘first solar-energy civilization’ — and so was the whole world. Now we are finding our way out of the fossil-fuel era, back into the ‘second solar-energy civilization.’ And, in the end, the same will also be the case for the rest of the world.”

An FCEV prototype in front of one of Iceland’s geysers.
  Courtesy of the Reykjavik Tourism Information Office.

Kert Davies of Greenpeace responded: “If they can demonstrate that an economy run on renewable energy is viable, it will be an enormous precedent for the world to follow.” Iceland has made huge progress to achieve that goal, and the rest of the world is trying to follow suit.

At long last, during the two decades of the 1970s and 1980s, a huge research effort got underway to identify new materials and to find new fuel sources for the Engine of the Future, as the all but forgotten fuel cell was now being thought of. Because of the after-effects of the oil embargo, researchers checked past records and remembered the potential that hydrogen and fuel cells seemed to have promised; the current predicament required immediate and drastic action.

We all are aware of the shortcomings of our present, internal combustion engine (ICE).  Pollution control systems on new cars are becoming more complex as time goes on.  Regulations are becoming more stringent every year, as global warming has a noticeable effect on our climate, and pollution is affecting our health. Oil reserves are dwindling, due to the insatiable appetite of the universally present “infernal consumption engine” (ICE). Suddenly, ”they” remembered that hydrogen had already been used to fuel Lenoir’s engine in 1860.

As fast as it is possible to change the habits of society – and you know how fast governments function — scientists and engineers around the world now are under pressure to find a remedy for our oil addiction.

At the time when Dr. Kordesch ran his fuel cell Austin, and Dr. Arnason called for the use of hydrogen, a Canadian, Dr. Geoffrey Ballard, was working as the head of the United States Federal Energy Conversation Research office in Washington.  Already during his youth he had been exposed to chemistry and electricity; his father was an electro-chemist in Niagara Falls, Ontario, and Geoffrey had earned a Ph.D. in geophysics in the USA.

At the height of his career, he quit, when the US Congress disregarded the seriousness of finding ways to reducing oil consumption.  In 1983, Ballard returned to Canada, formed Ballard Power Systems, and with two younger partners won a contract from the Canadian Military, to research new, exotic forms of power.  With engineer Paul Howard and electro-chemist Keith Prater, the team worked to make fuel cells lighter, smaller and less expensive.  Eventually, they realized that this technology could be used in earth-bound vehicles at a future date, and not only in spacecraft.

Next: Oil crisis’ effect on Hydrogen and Fuel Cell History


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