Hydrogen Without The Hiccups
Since well before President Bush became a hydrogen economy proponent, it has been argued that cars are not the best first step toward an oil-free existence. H-Cars have some serious problems with storage, energy distribution, and reliability that need to be addressed before any real push can be made to take them mainstream. But cars aren't the only products that use oil, and some very interesting concepts have come out that try to make hydrogen a little more needed, and maybe a little more easily switched to.
Coleman's portable fuel cell home generator is a perfect example. Rather than rely on a network of fuel stations to re-supply a continuous use device, Coleman found a product opportunity gap where only emergency use was needed. The generator helps keep lights, radio, TV, or even a small hotplate going in the event of a power outage. Being hydrogen powered, the only by-products of the process are water and heat, neither of which are toxic for indoor operation, and both of which might be welcome in an emergency situation. And, like a fire extinguisher, after a use, you re-fill the hydrogen tank at a not-so-conveniently located gas depot. But who cares, because hopefully you only do that once a year, right? The same system has been adapted for use as a UPS for computer workstations.
Piggybacking onto this concept of high-efficiency onsite power generation, quite a few companies are now installing fuel cell generators which crack natural gas for H-fuel. Used mainly for backup generation for hospitals and large office buildings, these systems can supply full power to the building running on a steady supply of piped in natural gas. By replacing the older diesel systems, they not only produce less noise and pollution, but can operate as long as gas stays connected. In a situation of medical quarantine or terrorist attack for example, you might not have such a reliable source of fuel.
Finally, and most interestingly, one company is trying to solve all the problems of hydrogen fuel at once: storage, production, energy source availability, and infrastructure. Rather than working with cars, HaveBlue LLC of California is putting the power of hydrogen into boats. Most sailing yachts of any size have an inboard large diesel engine to navigate on still water, and to ferry to boat from the open water to the mooring place. HaveBlue found this vibrating, stinky, noisy engine to be unnecessary. Floating in the water, boats are sitting on an abundant hydrogen source. And, the superflatness of the ocean or lakes makes them an ideal place to harvest solar or wind energy. So, HaveBlue's system uses a wind turbine and the underwater propeller turning an electric motor as the sails push the boat through the water to power an electrolysis process which separates hydrogen from the water. Then, the hydrogen is stored in tanks in the keel as metal hydride ballast. That kills two birds with one stone since historically keels are loaded with lead for stability. When the boat gets onto calm seas, the hydrogen is fed to a fuel cell which powers the same electric motor to drive the boat forward.
In other words, the HaveBlue system is completely closed loop, and as long as you don't exceed the amount of energy you can collect during favorable windy weather, you will never need portside power or fuel. Obviously, this system can be scaled up to accommodate more power consumption by incorporating solar panels and additional wind turbines onboard. The potential implications of such a system are huge: no more non-point-source diesel oil pollution from small craft, much longer times at sea, or away from home port possible, and lower maintenance, and therefore lower lifetime cost.
The message here is clear. There is no need to feel like as one small designer you can't help in the transition to a sustainably fueled economy. There is no reason to believe that this future will arrive all at once, or in one giant chain of mammoth endeavors. Instead, it will be made more and more possible with each incremental introduction of hydrogen into our lives. Then, one day, Shell and BP and Exxon will wake up to find customers at their stations asking for hydrogen fuel for their lawnmowers. And you can bet things will change then.
But it takes kindling to start the big logs burning. Maybe you can add a piece.
Copyright 2004-2006 Dominic Muren and IDFuel Team