Ryan Chartrand

In the last few years, the future of the American energy industry has been a subject of constant discussion. Those with their ears to the ground have probably heard that hydrogen is expected to play an integral role in powering the America of tomorrow. President Bush recently allocated funds for hydrogen fuel cell research. Our own Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s forward-thinking energy policy has been largely focused on the development of hydrogen energy infrastructure in California. Here is a brief overview of what hydrogen energy is, and what it means to you.

Hydrogen is the first element on the periodic table. It is comprised of a proton and an electron. The most common commercial method of hydrogen production is known as steam reformation. In the steam reformation process, the energy required to isolate hydrogen is provided by the combustion of methane. Although this process is very efficient, it produces a toxic byproduct called carbon monoxide.

Environmentally harmful production practices like steam reformation have led to widespread skepticism of hydrogen’s true potential as an “earth-friendly” energy carrier. Industry insiders are hopeful that hydrogen will soon be extracted from water in large scale using clean solar and wind power instead of methane. The technology to build a large, environmentally-sound hydrogen production facility exists right now.

The element is commonly used in two different ways to provide energy. The first is combustion. This method of hydrogen usage is most applicable to the automobile. Hydrogen can be combusted in an engine similar to the gasoline engines powering the cars of today. Although hydrogen combustion engines are not completely free of noxious emissions, they are much cleaner than their gasoline-burning counterparts. BMW plans to sell the first of its new Hydrogen 7 Series sedans to selected American drivers in 2007. The Hydrogen 7 safely stores liquid hydrogen in a special tank and can run on hydrogen or gasoline. It produces an impressive 256 horsepower.

It can also be used in a fuel cell to store useable energy. A fuel cell creates an electric current by combining hydrogen and oxygen. The reaction is extremely efficient and emits only water. Fuel cells manufactured using current technologies are sufficient to reliably power anything from a laptop computer to an entire building. A great deal of fanfare has surrounded the development of the hydrogen fuel cell car. Every major auto manufacturer is involved in fuel cell research. In fact, there are nearly 150 fuel cell vehicles in California today, serviced by about 23 hydrogen fueling stations.

With swelling world populations and a society completely dependent on energy-intensive practices, energy consumption continues to rise. The remaining supply of fossil fuel on earth will not last forever. Energy costs will rise dramatically as demand for oil increases, and the oil supply decreases. The effects of decades of fossil fuel combustion are becoming apparent. Melting glaciers, extremely violent storms and enormous droughts are some of the recent environmental irregularities that have confirmed the looming problem of global warming. These facts, coupled with high energy costs are illuminating the need for rapid change.

Hydrogen is a bright prospect for the future because of its potential to relieve both the economic and environmental strains placed on America today. Hydrogen can be produced domestically, and will never be depleted because it can be continually produced by means of solar, wind, and other renewable energies. The age of American dependence on fossil fuels is drawing rapidly to an end. Americans have both the ability and the responsibility to orchestrate a smooth transition into a new era of safe, clean energy.

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