From the Globe and Mail:
Hydrogen: inside the future
The key to hydrogen's success, says GEOFFREY BALLARD, will be to educate Canadians about the real benefits and safety of nuclear-generated electricity
By GEOFFREY BALLARD
Friday, March 14, 2003 - Page A21
At first glance, protecting the environment by consuming more energy seems like a contradiction in terms. Many Canadians take it for granted that society must conserve energy at all costs, far beyond what is indicated purely by economic concerns.
Yet, humanity needs more energy consumption, not less, if we are to protect the environment and sustain human progress. Social progress correlates closely with per capita energy consumption and, as countries grow wealthier, they can afford to take steps to ensure a cleaner environment without reducing their standard of living.
For society to continue to progress in medicine, social responsibility, science, education and quality of life, we must ensure there is an ever-increasing supply of energy per capita. While no one would advocate intentionally wasting energy or resources, progress will not be sustained if we try to further reduce, or even stabilize, our energy production.
To increase our energy consumption in an environmentally and socially responsible fashion, we must look for alternatives to eventually replace much of our carbon-based energy sources such as coal, oil and natural gas. This transition should not occur too quickly; an abrupt shift from fossil fuels would be highly disruptive to the global economy and have a devastating impact on human progress and environmental protection. But a controlled evolution to a low carbon economy must start as soon as possible, and the place to start is in the transportation sector.
A number of recent U.S. and European reports express concern about the supply of petroleum. I hold no such fears. Studies by the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna clearly show there is at least 200 years of petroleum available, even under very pessimistic circumstances. We should not be changing the energy system because of a fear of limited petroleum reserves.
We must change the primary fuel in transportation because the gasoline system mitigates against energy security, unacceptably destroys Earth's atmosphere and sickens our children with inner-city pollution. Petroleum should eventually be restricted to the petrochemical industry, not to energy supply.
So how should we power our cars, trucks and buses in the future if not with petroleum-based fuels? The answer is hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe.
When hydrogen is used in a fuel cell, it produces only heat and water vapour. Many people speak of hydrogen as the ultimate alternative power source, but they are mistaken -- hydrogen is an energy currency, not an energy source. Just as our salaries are paid in a specific currency -- dollars, pounds or yen -- nature's sources of energy are transformed into the currencies of gasoline, hydrogen or electricity. These currencies are then moved to wherever energy is needed, and they are there expended, in the same manner as you take your paycheque to buy food or shelter or transportation. The currency gets the energy from its source to its place of need.
The safest and most effective way to use hydrogen is in a fuel cell that produces electricity to drive an electric motor, which, in turn, quietly and cleanly powers a vehicle. Unlike batteries, fuel cells do not run down or require recharging and will produce electricity as long as fuel, in the form of hydrogen, is supplied. When a hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicle is not in use, it can be connected to the grid as a power source on wheels, generating enough electricity back into the grid to power five to 10 homes. Where no electrical grid exists, the fuel cell vehicle can be plugged directly into a vacation home to provide electrical power.
Hydrogen fuel cells are now becoming small enough, and cheap enough, that several auto manufacturers have announced plans to have fuel cell-powered automobiles commercially available by 2004. Buses powered by fuel cells have been demonstrated in Vancouver, Iceland and several American cities. The program recently received a huge boost when George W. Bush announced $1.2-billion for research into hydrogen fuel cell-powered automobiles in his State of the Union address.
So how do we get the vast quantities of hydrogen required to power millions of vehicles?
The cleanest approach is to generate hydrogen by electrolysis, the splitting of water into its constituent parts, hydrogen and oxygen, a process that requires large amounts of electricity. Because electrolysis can be powered by any source of electricity, we can use whatever power source is most economical and environmentally benign wherever one lives. In Iceland, geothermal energy is becoming the primary energy source. China may use coal to generate electricity to produce hydrogen, and France will undoubtedly expand on its heavy use of nuclear power. In Argentina, wind power could make a substantial contribution. Solar power will undoubtedly contribute in equatorial regions.
But wind and solar power are unlikely to provide more than a small fraction of the electricity needed to produce the hydrogen to power Canada's transportation sector -- they are simply too intermittent and diffuse. The amount of untapped hydropower is also insufficient to provide the electrical requirements of a hydrogen fuel cell-based transportation sector. The only answer to this challenge is nuclear reactors, which can easily generate such power levels with the production of nearly zero air pollution or greenhouse gases in the process.
Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. nuclear scientist Romney Duffey has demonstrated that 20 Candu nuclear reactors would provide the electricity required to produce enough hydrogen to power nearly all of Canada's current automobile fleet using fuel cells. If nuclear electric power stations were completed at a rate of one a year, with the first one coming on line in six years, we would see all of these vehicles powered with fuel cells using nuclear electric- generated hydrogen by about 2028. By a fortuitous coincidence, AECL's new advanced Candu reactor, an outstanding system that will dramatically cut power-plant construction and operating costs, increase safety and reduce waste generated by about two-thirds, could be ready for construction in 2005.
The key to success in this endeavour now revolves around properly educating Canadians about the real benefits and safety of nuclear-generated electricity. To do otherwise risks losing a phenomenal opportunity to use the hydrogen fuel cell/Candu combination to lead the world toward a prosperous and environmentally responsible energy future. Our children deserve nothing less than the combined effort of academia, government and industry to ensure the full-blown development of this made-in-Canada technological dream come true.
Geoffrey Ballard received the Order of Canada for his pioneering work in hydrogen fuel cell development. He will be delivering a keynote presentation at the Canadian Nuclear Association's conference in Ottawa on March 19.