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.


The Need for Research in Alternative Fuels
Federal and local governments in the United States are enacting policies like the Hydrogen Fuel Initiative to encourage the development and use of alternative fuels and in some cases, establish goals for potentially requiring the use of alternatives. California’s Executive Order S704, for example, orders building a network of hydrogen fueling stations sufficient to make hydrogen power accessible to every Californian by 2010. Concerns motivating this trend include national security, economic and the environment.

Figure 1 – Emissions by fuel type
Engine Type Water Vapor/Mile Carbon Dioxide/Mile
Gasoline Combustion 0.39 lb. 0.85 lb.
Fuel Cell Running on Hydrogen from Gasoline 0.32 lb. 0.70 lb.
Fuel Cell Running on Hydrogen from Methane 0.25 lb. 0.15 lb.
Fuel Cell Running on Renewable Hydrogen 0.25 lb. 0.00 lb.

National security and dependence on foreign oil is the primary concern of the Hydrogen Fuel Initiative, as 55 percent of the oil consumed by the U.S. is imported and this is expected to grow to 68 percent by 2025. Many of the major importers to the U.S. are considered unstable areas. See figure two for a list of the top 15 oil exporters to the U.S. at the time of this report.

Top Oil Exporters to the United States
Many economists argue there are no regional markets for oil, therefore no country can exclude itself from the price fluctuations of the global market. Nonetheless, the President’s statements as well as national and state government investment into alternative fuels research indicate that energy security is a matter of significant political concern. Furthermore, if political concerns for energy security drive initiatives to cease the import of crude oil to the U.S. (as evidenced by increased interest in exploring domestic oil reserves), domestic energy will become significantly more expensive if a mature alternative energy technology is not yet available. Currently, crude oil imported from the Persian Gulf is less expensive than domestic oil or any available energy alternative.

Other economic concerns include the rising cost and volatility of oil prices. The most common factors driving price volatility include economic or political instability in countries providing oil, natural disasters and the accessibility of oil in the ground. Historically, political and natural disasters have caused spikes in prices that eventually subsided. The Iranian revolution in 1979, for example, increased crude oil prices from $15 per barrel to $40 per barrel. Damage to oil infrastructure in the Gulf of Mexico during Hurricane Katrina saw prices exceed $70.00 per barrel for the first time in history.

While these factors cause volatility in oil prices, the declining availability of oil reserves will have a more lasting effect. While the world is not running out of oil, it is running out of oil that is economically recoverable. As oil companies drill into deeper and less-accessible sites, the cost of doing business will gradually increase, as will the price of oil. Increases in fossil fuel efficiency and research into synthetic fossil fuels will not be enough to keep energy affordable in the long term.

Reduction of greenhouse gas emissions is another significant environmental goal motivating alternative fuels research. Carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels is the most significant known cause of global warming — commonly considered the most threatening environmental issue. Emissions from automotive vehicles constitute 25 percent of the total greenhouse gas emissions for the U.S. The U.S. believes research on increased fuel efficiency and alternative fuels is the answer to improving air quality and reducing environmental risk.

Technical Options For Hydrogen-Powered GSE
Options to consider in developing a hydrogen-powered GSE project include types of equipment to be powered by hydrogen, types of fuel cells to be used, refueling and storage, transportation to and around the facility and if the project will include hydrogen extraction.

Possible GSE candidates for hydrogen fuel cells include any self propelled vehicles, such as tow tractors or loading equipment and electrical power and hydraulic carts. Numerous fuel cells have been developed, but most hydrogen automobiles are powered by a proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell, which, in simple terms, generates electricity through the reaction of hydrogen and oxygen.

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