Hydrogen is never found by itself in nature. But it is one of the most plentiful substances on earth.

In Canada, there might 10 filling stations where a person might buy it.

Ry Smith is director of the Hydrogen Village, an outreach project of the Canadian Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association. He notes we may have been spoiled by gasoline, which is incredibly easy to move around: “If you had to, you could probably carry gasoline around in a pail.”

There is no doubt that hydrogen is trickier to move around.

It’s a gas so you want to compress it, to make it more compact. That takes energy and stout tanks. If you really want to make it super compact, you can even liquefy it, which takes more energy and then it needs to be kept very cold. The BMW Hydrogen 7 runs on liquid hydrogen, so the cars have more range.

The other way is to make hydrogen is right at the fuelling stations. Honda is experimenting with a “home” unit that makes hydrogen from natural gas. (Then you could have a fuel cell in your house, for all your electricity needs.)

Considering we are moving to post-fossil fuel future, we just might have to accept a bit more complexity in our energy infrastructure.

But there is no technical hurdle we need to overcome for a hydrogen infrastructure to take root.
The problems concern politics and commerce. The auto industry doesn’t want to keep investing in hydrogen vehicles unless there are hydrogen filling stations coming.

The energy industry doesn’t want to invest in hydrogen stations, unless there are thousands of hydrogen vehicles coming.

The government is not ready to mandate anything; it would rather let market forces be the arbitrator of winning technologies and winning companies.

So we have this uneasy equilibrium, creating an arid environment for the growth of hydrogen infrastructure.

Smith believes the best way to roll out the infrastructure is to let centralized fleets be the pioneers. That way one could make a fuel station business case work right off the bat.

Smith believes it’s a certainty that hydrogen will be part on our future energy picture — automotive and otherwise — especially as we move to more renewable sources of electricity, like wind and solar.

So, right now there are more plot lines in the hydrogen story than The Young and the Restless. So don’t touch that dial!

Fun with hydrogen

• Hydrogen is a beautiful fuel because when you use it for energy, its only “emission” is water vapour.

• You can design an internal combustion engine to run on hydrogen (as per the BMW Hydrogen 7), or you can use it to feed an on-board “fuel cell” to produce electricity to juice a motor (as per the Honda FCX Clarity).

• The most obvious “feedstock” is H20 (or water). But most hydrogen currently produced comes from hydrocarbons, like natural gas and coal.

– Michael Goetz has been writing about cars and editing automotive publications for more than 20 years. He lives in Toronto with his family and a neglected 1967 Jaguar E-type.

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