Hydrogen Rising in Energy Policy Debate: Global Race for "Tomorrow's Petroleum" Heats Up

Global race for "tomorrow's petroleum" heats up

A world powered by hydrogen-the lightest and most abundant element in the universe-is the stuff of Jules Verne's 19th century science fiction. But it is also on its way to becoming 21st century reality, reports the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington, DC-based environmental research organization.

The shift to clean hydrogen is being driven in part by rapid improvements in the fuel cell-which uses hydrogen to produce electricity, with water as a byproduct-and by the billion-dollar bets that leading multinationals are now placing on this technology. The move to hydrogen is also motivated by the need to address three of the world's most pressing energy-related problems: worsening urban air pollution, rising geopolitical instability due to oil import dependence, and accelerating climate change from fossil fuel combustion.

"The critical question is no longer whether we are headed toward hydrogen, but how we should get there, and how long it will take," said Seth Dunn, research associate and author of Hydrogen Futures: Toward a Sustainable Energy System. "Market forces alone will not move us along the best, fastest route to a hydrogen economy. Just as the government catalyzed the early development of the Internet, there is a critical role for governments to play in speeding the creation of a clean hydrogen economy."

Much of the recent ferment over hydrogen and fuel cells has taken place in the auto industry. DaimlerChrysler has committed $1 billion over 10 years to fuel cell development, and is working with Ford and Ballard Power Systems to put transit fuel cell buses on the road in Europe in 2002. General Motors aims to be the first car company to sell one million fuel cell vehicles, beginning mass production by 2010, and in June announced major investments in two companies specializing in hydrogen storage and delivery. Toyota recently sent shock waves through the industry by announcing it would start selling its fuel cell car in Japan in 2003.

The energy industry is also getting serious about hydrogen. Both Shell and BP have established core hydrogen divisions within their companies. ExxonMobil is teaming up with GM and Toyota to develop fuel cells. Texaco has become a major investor in hydrogen storage technology. Company executive Frank Ingriselli told a U.S. House of Representatives panel in April that "Greenery, innovation, and market forces are