Hydrogen Fuel Research of Iceland

Iceland has been the home of one of the most pioneering research undertaken by Science in the field of clean energy. This research on Hydrogen as fuel can change the way we look at energy and its sources. One hopes that this research will not be shelved as a result of falling crude prices and economic crisis. 

A view of Reikjavik with Hydrogen fuel station and Hydrogen fuel pumping in insets

 Crude Prices and Need for Research in Alternative Fuels

Exorbitantly high crude prices in the recent past were a significant factor in the generation of the global economic crisis. To those who were there in the seventies, the developments are a reminder to the oil shocks of 1970s that took a heavy toll everywhere. During that period, a need for identifying alternatives of oil was felt, which lead to some efforts that were later unceremoniously dumped as the crude prices plummeted to around $ 10 for more than a decade.

While most of the initiatives around the world for alternate fuel have lost momentum, one country which has been able to sustain them is Iceland. Just after the oil shocks, in 1978, a professor of chemistry in the University of Iceland in Reykjavik, Prof. Bragi Arnason, proposed a concept of Hydrogen Society where fossil fuels including gas will be fully replaced by use of Hydrogen as fuel by the year 2030. At that point, it was a wild and almost crazy idea. Today, though it remains overambitious and still far away from reality, considerable progress has been made towards that goal, gathering valuable knowledge, which may pave the way for attaining that dream one day.

Why Iceland chose to pursue Hydrogen Fuel Research

The reason why Iceland could afford to persist with its efforts on hydrogen fuel research even when the economics hardly warranted it, were certain factors inherent in its geology. Iceland is devoid of oil resources, but is extremely blessed with two forms of renewable energy, hydro-electric and geo-thermal power. Thus it has an abundance of energy, which as electricity, it cannot store or export, nor can it use it as a substitute for gas used in transport vehicles. It still has to import gas at considerable cost to fulfil its needs and its make sense for it to attempt finding an alternative for oil.

Another factor that facilitated Iceland’s endeavour is its small population of about 300,000 people, which makes it easier to control things, and fix them in case of a problem, thereby making it an ideal place for trial of alternative fuel.

Hydrogen as Alternative to Gas

Hydrogen, unlike gas, is not available naturally and needs to be extracted from water by hydrolysis, requiring significant energy in the process. Thus, unlike petroleum products, hydrogen is not itself a primary source of energy. It is only a carrier of energy that can be used for transporting energy from one place to another. Its most important use is as an alternative to the gas in cars and other transport vehicles. Its production requires separate sources of energy.

Iceland has abundant energy in form of hydro-electric power that could be harnessed for extracting hydrogen from water or hydrocarbons, which can then be used for running transport. As of now, it is not economical but with escalating cost of gas and improving technology, it may be an economical choice one day, and may be able to prevent the modern world from collapsing under the weight of oil costs and oil shocks.

Research Projects in Iceland

Four major projects for using hydrogen fuel have been initiated till now.

(i)         ECTOS (Ecological City Transport System)

Initiated in 2001 and continued up to 2005, this involved running three buses running on hydrogen fuel and one fuel station for supplying hydrogen to them. The project was run with support and participation of European Commission 5th framework programme, which sponsored the project, Daimler Chrysler, who manufactured hydrogen fuel cell buses and Shell which made the hydrogen fuel station in Reykjavik in 2003. This project that uses the hydro-electric energy for producing hydrogen by electrolysis from water is virtually free from carbon emission.

(ii)        HyFleet:Cute Project

This is a continuation of ECTOS beyond 2005, and was continued till 2007, by running hydrogen fuel buses in cities of Europe, Australia and China. These buses were put to more rigorous use and the overall effects on engine, the cost effectiveness and the comparative performance of ‘fuel cell’ with ‘internal combustion engine’ were studied. This project was also sponsored by the European Commission’s 6th framework programme. An improved prototype of a hydrogen fuel bus, designed from inputs of this project is being commissioned.

(iii)       Euro-Hyport Project

This project is researching into the feasibility of exporting hydrogen fuel to Europe. It is considering various options like transporting hydrogen through an undersea pipeline or by boat, or exporting electricity generated in Iceland through a submarine cable that can produce on-site hydrogen.

(iv)       H-Ship Project

This project is commissioned to analyse and suggest ways of developing ways and means of using hydrogen as fuel for Iceland’s fishing fleet. By successfully achieving this goal, Iceland can attempt to become the first country in the world to become free of fossil fuel dependence.

Importance of Iceland’s Hydrogen Fuel Research

While these initiatives were largely undermined during the last couple of decades due to low price of crude in world market, recent developments have again necessitated research in this area. By continuing the initiatives since the last oil shocks of seventies these projects have accumulated considerable experience and knowledge in this field. As the world realises the inevitability of shifting to alternate fuels, greater technological advancements will be needed to bring the costs and constraints of this technology down. It is there that the value of on-going projects in hydrogen fuel research in Iceland will be fully appreciated. Even though the recent fall in crude prices has once again undermined the economic necessity of accelerating these research activities, one hopes that wisdom will prevail and short term greed will not prevent them.

History may save a chapter for these projects in centuries to come.

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