Science and Technology

Will Fuel Cells Make Iceland the 'Kuwait of the North?'

How they work:
1. Hydrogen gas flows over the anode.
2. Electrons are stripped from the hydrogen and flow through the anode to the external circuit.
3. Hydrogen ions move through electrolyte to cathode. Oxygen is introduced to the cathode.
4. Hydrogen ions, electrons, and oxygen combine to form water vapor. (Diagram: U.S. Department of Defense)

As the West anxiously eyes the explosive political situation in the Middle East, pundits and energy experts are expounding the need for more alternatives to petroleum. Naturally, the quest is motivated by other factors as well. Icelandic scientists believe that within the next 15 years, world demand for oil will outstrip production. The projected shortage, it is feared, would make gasoline extremely expensive. The gadflies of the hydrocarbon age also worry about the effect the world's dependence on petroleum products is having on the environment. Burning fossil fuels creates pollution that, scientists are increasingly concerned, causes global warming.

As the political situation in unstable petroleum-producing regions continues to heat up, and evidence of global warming continues to mount, more people are beginning to look to hydrogen-powered fuel cells for an escape. A fuel cell is an electrochemical device that generates electricity from chemical reactions. Most fuel cells use hydrogen as their fuel and release water as their only waste product. Each fuel cell is made of two electrodes, with a paper-thin polymer electrolyte sandwiched between. The first electrode is called the anode and is coated in platinum, which acts as a catalyst. When hydrogen gas is passed along the anode, it is ionized, producing negatively charged electrons (electricity) and positively charged hydrogen ions. Prototype cars and buses powered by fuel cells burning hydrogen are non-polluting, more durable, and quieter than their internal combustion predecessors.

Iceland has been at the forefront of developing this technology for decades. In 1978, Bragi Arnason, a professor of chemistry at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik, proposed that Iceland could be a "Hydrogen Society"—that is, a society entirely free from the use of fossil fuels— by the year 2030-40. In this new world, Iceland would rely on renewable resources for energy and on hydrogen as an energy carrier, producing electricity with only heat and water as by-products. Arnason, who is called "Professor Hydrogen" by his admirers, remembers that at the time "everybody thought this was just a crazy fantasy." In the event, his 1978 prediction did prove overly optimistic.

But today, his "crazy fantasy" has become an attractive investment opportunity. Investors such as DaimlerChrysler, Norsk Hydro and Shell Hydrogen, have entered into a joint venture with Vistorka (Eco Energy Ltd.), an Icelandic holding company, to create the Icelandic Icelandic New Energy, which aims to research hydrogen fuel cell technology and wean Iceland from fossil fuels entirely.

Two factors make Iceland the ideal test bed for hydrogen power, according to Arnason. First, the country has a history of finding innovative, clean, new energy sources. In 1950, when the rest of the world was enthusing about nuclear energy, Iceland moved all of its heating and electricity production from oil- and coal-fired power plants to geothermal and hydroelectric power plants. Second, it is easy to conduct real-scale research in Iceland. "It's easy to introduce a new technology in a small society because if it goes wrong, it's less difficult to fix it," Arnason says. "Then you take the lessons you've learned here and apply them to larger societies."

There has been a groundswell of political support for Iceland's hydrogen plan. In 1997, high levels of air pollution prevented Iceland from signing the Kyoto Protocol—despite broad support for the international agreement in the country. Widespread use of hydrogen fuel cells would cut Iceland's greenhouse gas emissions by more than a half.

Increased use of fuel cells would also fuel Iceland's economy. Hjalmar Arnason (no relation to Dr. Arnason), chairman of the Icelandic government´s committee for alternative fuel, sees Iceland becoming a major hydrogen exporter in the future.

Hydrogen is usually found bound to other elements, such as oxygen and carbon, which means it must be extracted for instance by using electricity. Much of the world's electricity comes from oil or natural gas. In order for hydrogen to be a true, long-term, renewable alternative to fossil fuels, it would need to be produced with a clean, low-cost source of electricity such as hydroenergy. That's where the Icelandic Committee for Alternative Fuel sees Iceland coming in. The country possesses abundant amounts of hydroenergy and geothermal energy. Recent estimates show that only 16 percent of the country's hydroelectric and geothermal energy potential has been harnessed. If hydrogen becomes the fuel of choice, Iceland would be uniquely positioned to produce it and export it without resorting to oil or gas to power the process.

If everything goes as planned, then Iceland will become a "hydrogen society" within the next 30 to 40 years. Next year will see the coming three city buses powered by fuel cells. In three years, hydrogen powered private cars will hit the Icelandic market. In 2015, the Icelandic government is scheduled to begin renewing the Icelandic fishing fleet using fuel cells. By the year 2040, scientists and politicians envision Iceland as the first country that will be almost entirely free from fossil fuel. It is a heady dream, but prominent Icelandic politicians such as Hjalmar Arnason and Valgerdur Sverrisdottir, Minister for Industry and Commerce, have thrown their support behind it in the hope that the country will one day be known as the "Kuwait of the North."