Unraveling the Great Hydrogen Hoax

Vaitheeswaran, Vijay V.
June 2004
Nieman Reports;Summer2004, Vol. 58 Issue 2, p14
The article examines how journalists navigate through the claims and counterclaims made about the hydrogen fuel cell's potential as an energy carrier. Hydrogen matters because it can be used as a fuel in clean-energy devices called fuel cells. Fuel cells are, in essence, big batteries that run for as long as hydrogen and oxygen are supplied. They produce electricity that can be used to run a laptop, a house or a car. The reason to care is that the only local emission produced by fuel cells is water vapor. That means that cars powered in this way would not contribute to smog or other air pollution concerns that bedevil the world's cities. Furthermore, if the hydrogen is made from a clean energy source like renewables then this approach would emit virtually no greenhouse gases as well. A shift from fossil fuel-combustion to hydrogen fuel cells would speed the arrival of a zero-emissions energy future. A group of skeptics argues that hydrogen amounts to a technology hoax. Either it will not work as promised, they say, or it will prove too dangerous to be viable. As for safety, hydrogen is indeed dangerous--but any fair analysis has to put that risk into proper perspective. Gasoline is also a dangerous fuel and, in fact, would almost certainly not be accepted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency if it were proposed as a brand new fuel today. Even if the technology works it still does not make any economic sense. To make hydrogen requires the use of primary energy source, and that inevitably involves efficiency losses and energy penalties. At one level, these critics are certainly right that hydrogen is not a magical new source of energy. Though hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, it is never found in its free state on earth. Journalists must look beyond the self-serving arguments offered by some critics to the fuller picture.


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