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Will Fuel Cells Make Iceland
the 'Kuwait of the North?'
Feb. 15, 2002
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.
Hydrogen gas flows over the anode.
Electrons are stripped from the hydrogen and flow through
the anode to the external circuit.
Hydrogen ions move through electrolyte to cathode. Oxygen
is introduced to the cathode.
Hydrogen ions, electrons, and oxygen combine to form water
vapor. (Diagram: U.S. Department of Defense)
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 Protocoldespite 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
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."