Hydrogen Hype Grows

Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis, left, walks with musician Jon Bon Jovi prior to the Sugar Bowl football game between Notre Dame and LSU at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans, Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2007.
Protests across Europe against rising oil prices have added impetus to what otherwise might be just a pie-in-the-sky conference of tree huggers extolling the benefits of an alternative, environmentally friendly fuel.

But at Hyforum 2000, the first global summit promoting hydrogen as "the ultimate energy system," the mood is more than just whimsical.

Beyond environmentally concerned scientists, big corporations such as oil giant Royal Dutch/Shell and automaker BMW are lining up to show support for the colorless, odorless gas as possibly the leading energy source of the new century.

"Because of growing consumption, it is expected that petroleum and natural gas production, fueling this economic boom, will peak around the years 2010 to 2020 and then start to decline," said T. Nejat Veziroglu, president of the International Association for Hydrogen Energy.

"Hydrogen is the logical next stage, because it is renewable, clean and very efficient," Veziroglu said during Monday's opening press conference. Nearly 600 energy experts from around the world are attending the forum, which ends Friday.

Hydrogen, most commonly found bonded with oxygen in the form of water, is one of the world's most plentiful elements. Because of that, its supplies are virtually limitless. But even hydrogen's biggest supporters admit hydrogen energy has its limits — beginning with price.

Hydrogen is expensive at roughly $6.90 a gallon, compared with a current pump price of $1.11 per gallon for gasoline before taxes.

Hydrogen prices are expected to come down, but only after energy companies build new hydrogen processing plants, develop new ways to transport and store the unstable chemical and create a network of hydrogen service stations.

All that could take decades and billions of dollars.

On the bright side, hydrogen's only exhaust is water vapor. That means no more clouds of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and other pollutants that are the byproducts of gasoline and are believed to contribute to global warming.

Also, many assume, oil wells will eventually run dry and environmental protection regulations will make gasoline engines obsolete.

Key to the new technology are so-called fuel cells that produce electricity through a chemical reaction of hydrogen and oxygen.

Hydrogen supporters say fuel cells will eventually power much more than just cars. They will also heat homes, light cities and even power such things as laptop computers and cell phones through tiny hydrogen packets.

Munich-based car maker BMW is already producing a hydrogen-powered sports sedan that can reach 136 miles an hour, though the tank needs to be refilled after every 217 miles. The car won't be for sale until the next five to seven years.

BMW head of evelopment Burkhard Goeschel told the conference that his company aims to have 20 percent of its cars hydrogen-fueled by 2020.

Nearly all major car companies, including DaimlerChrysler, Ford, General Motors and Toyota, are working on similar programs—a development that would take the bite out of OPEC's grip on oil supplies.

Oil standard-bearer Royal Dutch/Shell was on hand at the conference to pitch its plan for a hydrogen-based future.

"We believe our customers will want to change to hydrogen in the future because it will have environmental and commercial advantages," said company chairman Mark Moody-Stuart.

Participants see Hyforum 2000 as the opening blow in an increasingly nasty war against carbon-based fuels and cartels such as OPEC, which has a vested interest in keeping oil on top.

OPEC is "beginning to see the seed of threat to the future of oil," said Robert Priddle, executive director of the International Energy Agency.