On The Brink

Hydrogen technology has grown leaps and bounds in recent years. Today it is still in the developmental stages for commercial use, but researchers believe it will soon become a viable option for tomorrow.


Research in hydrogen power technology is on the brink of commercialization. Progress in hydrogen extraction methods, storage and transportation have made it feasible for national and local government agencies to establish pilot projects in hydrogen-fueled transportation and to introduce goals for the establishment of hydrogen infrastructure into legislation and near-future planning.

In both his 2003 and 2006 State of the Union Address, President Bush discussed growing concerns about the consumption of fossil fuels and encouraged research in the area of alternative fuels — particularly hydrogen power. He established the $1.2 billion Hydrogen Fuel Initiative in 2003 to develop technology for commercially viable hydrogen-powered fuel cells, with the goal of intorducing it to general transportation at costs competitive with gasoline by 2015.

Advantages of Hydrogen Power
Hydrogen energy shows promise among technologies currently under development. It has the highest energy content per unit of weight of any known fuel source, making it more efficient. Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe and on Earth, it can be extracted from readily available sources such as water, coal or waste. When burned in an engine, it produces no emissions — just water. Research and development projects underway also show prospects for a zero-emissions extraction process using renewable energy sources or sequestration of carbon dioxide. Hydrogen-powered fuel cells also demonstrate safety and maintenance benefits, including decreased preventive maintenance requirements and reduced exposure to hazardous materials for users and maintainers.

Aviation Facilities Are Ideal Testing Grounds
Currently, hydrogen power is not considered a commercially viable energy solution because the technology has not reached maturity and there is no readily available production, transportation or delivery infrastructure for hydrogen power in any state. The most commonly available hydrogen extraction processes, such as cryogenic separation and electrolysis, require a significant amount of energy, depending on the source of energy used.

Therefore, hydrogen power does not yet demonstrate a significant energy savings or show a dramatic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Figure one demonstrates the true carbon dioxide emissions per mile, based on the fuel source and extraction method. Hydrogen derived from gasoline produces nearly as much carbon dioxide as common gasoline combustion. Methods that are still under development, such as hydrogen extraction from methane or extraction from renewable energy sources, show the real future promise of hydrogen power.

Technical and economic barriers to commercializing hydrogen power include lack of transportation and delivery infrastructures, high costs of capital and significantly low economies of scale. Expanding the customer base through research projects not only increases public awareness and demonstrates the feasibility of hydrogen power, it helps develop the commercial infrastructure, amortize capital investment and improve economies of scale. Government and quasi-government airport facilities can more readily be converted and adapt to hydrogen power infrastructure and logistics than commercial gas stations. The DOD in particular, as the largest consumer of fossil fuels in the United States, is in a unique position to provide a significant contribution to developing and expanding hydrogen technology.

Aircraft ground support equipment (GSE) is a good candidate for a hydrogen-powered pilot project for two reasons. First, GSE is a major contributor to the carbon dioxide emissions problem. Airport traffic is responsible for 2-3 percent of carbon dioxide emissions in U.S. metropolitan areas, and this number is expected to increase as the air transportation industry grows. Of the three categories of airport traffic, including aircraft, GSE and commuter traffic into and out of airports; GSE and commuter automotive vehicles are the most feasible candidates for conversion. If an airport facility or program office chose to run a pilot project for hydrogen-powered support equipment, despite emissions generated by hydrogen extraction, the facility stands to benefit from environmental, safety and maintenance advantages. By carefully selecting a hydrogen refueling source, problems related to emissions from extraction can be reduced or eliminated.

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