Its atomic number is one. The sun, which has a mass about 333,000 times that of earth, is about three quarters hydrogen.
So why can't I convert my car to burn it? Jay Leno drove the BMW Hydrogen 7, which runs on hydrogen or gasoline with the flip of a dashboard switch. (I am so jealous.) But he doesn't own one, at least as far as I know.
Ask the best friend
I ask my friend Eric Storms what's going on. "Why can't I have a hydrogen-powered car?"
He says (and I'm making this up since I haven't really asked, but we've done this back and forth so often my guess is usually pretty close), "Because you're not Jay Leno."
Me: "So what?"
Eric: "You don't pull down an annual salary of $30 million, you're worth far less than $150 million and you don't employ a massive garage filled with expert mechanics who do nothing but maintain and restore your amazing automotive toys."
Me: "Yeah, I get that. But I'm talking daily driver. A car for the masses."
Eric: "You already have a VW Bug."
We have the technology
Me: I look at him sideways. "It needs a paint job and a new wiring harness. That's not the point. I believe we have the technology to extract hydrogen from whatever source be it natural gas or electrolysis of water and run our cars on it. We'd use internal combustion engines because we've already mastered that technology. We'd continue to research fuel cells but we'd develop infrastructure to support our existing transportation network of two cars for every adult in the United States."
Me: I ignore the comment.
Eric: "We love oil. It's in our blood. You grew up in Alaska. You get it. Oil is our way of life. It pays your Permanent Fund Dividend check. It is the nectar of gods."
Me: "Nectar of gods? And I haven't lived in Alaska since 1992 when the evil McClatchy empire bought and shut down the Anchorage Times."
Eric: "You know what I mean."
Me: "Yeah. I do."
Hydrogen fuel may be close
This particular conversation between Eric, who lives outside Seattle, Wash., and I can continue for hours and sometimes does, especially these days via cell phone. However, in this case I believe we may be closer to using hydrogen than I first believed.
BMW says it's already developed the first production-ready hydrogen vehicle and boasts, "It's already proving itself in the real world too: we're putting 100 of them to the test as loan cars for leading figures from the worlds of culture, politics, business and the media."
There's that Leno reference.
Delving deep into automotive hydrogen
I recently stumbled across a site devoted to hydrogen-powered automobiles, hydrogencarsnow.com and read through quite a bit of the reference information and blog posts. The site also features online conversations about insider topics that required me to do research just to get an inkling of what the writers are talking about.
But the information is fascinating and gives insight into what may be around the corner. Yeah, I know. Dumb reference with zero time element. OK, maybe down the road is a better idiom. I just hope Cormac McCarthy won't write the script.
According to hydrogencarsnow.com, Nissan is scaling up the heights of hydrogen fuel cell development and are ready for commercialization. Even better, "the cost of the 2011 fuel cell stack is near what the U.S. DOE has been asking for in regard to commercializing fuel cell vehicles," the post says.
Technology advances rapidly
And there's a bunch more information out there. The Department of Energy commissioned an exhaustive report that chronicles much of the nation's hydrogen research, patents and developments. Dubbed "Pathways to Commercial Success," the 240-page report features a mass of data about such things as the advances made by DuPont Fuel Cells (with DOE aid) in creating more chemically stable fuel cell polymer technology eight times more stable than than existing technologies.
The problem with fuel cells is their inner workings break down, meaning cost goes up.
Other advances in the DOE report include developments in advanced coolants for fuel cells, thinner and cheaper fuel cell "stacks" and new generation methods.
New players emerge
Up in Modesto, Calif., Hydrogen Technologies Inc. continues to work on bringing its energy-generation systems to market. It has partnered with the Plumbers and Pipefitters UA Local 442.
Boulder, Colo.-based analyst Pike Research released a report saying fuel cell vehicles will reach the market by 2015, and, according to the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association, the market could reach $16.9 billion by 2020. Pike says the problem with the cars is cost.
So what's it all mean? Heck if I know. Like most consumers I wonder about variables like: How much will it cost? Where can I find it? Will my wife allow me to spend more money?
What's the hold up?
I pose the question of what's keeping hydrogen from automotive tanks to James Warner, director of policy for the Washington, D.C.-based Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association, and he says, "Industrial hydrogen production is well-developed and has been for years. The issue is getting hydrogen infrastructure installed — what comes first, cars or infrastructure?"
It's "not so much an issue of cost, as the economics of producing and distributing hydrogen are understood. The issue is, how to build sufficient stations for a vehicle rollout, and how to keep them in the black as the population of vehicles increase?"
Kevin Kantola of Hydrogen Cars Now says he test drove a BMW Hydrogen 7 dual fuel car a couple of years ago. "It was a nice ride, but it could only go 60 miles on hydrogen before it ran out and had to switch over to gasoline," he says.
Kantola explains that the BMW used liquid hydrogen. He says the automaker has since backed off on the concept perhaps because it is comparatively expensive to cool, store and build the equipment to do it. He says other major automakers have opted to run their cars on gaseous hydrogen, which is supported by most of the vendors building fueling stations.
If I start seeing hydrogen at the corner gas station, I'll believe hydrogen has gone mainstream. Otherwise it's just one of those "good for the Space Shuttle" fuels. Still, I remain ready to jump on the band wagon. I love the concept: clean, green and plentiful.
I can imagine what Eric's thinking.
Eric: "Buy a Ford. Then order the chicken-fried steak at the Country Cousin in Centralia."
Me: "And forgo my peanut butter sandwich?"
Recession hit America hard. The housing crisis, banking collapse and automotive industry meltdown led the charge.
Rising energy prices added to the pain.
Pundits and various economists have predicted recovery, but few of those who have lost their jobs, homes or self respect have seen it.
Despite the gloomy mood, even somebody who's been sucker punched by a layoff appreciates a little levity, especially in a TV commercial. The right advertising campaign in a down economy could position a concept for broad public acceptance. Many businesses got their start that way, starting a whole new idea. The list includes MTV, FedEx and Microsoft. And Apple launched its iPod in 2001 just a month after 9/11.
The visual power of coal
Americaspower.org, a pro-coal group in Alexandria, Va., produced a commercial running currently on network television that makes a strong connection. It speaks to the downtrodden and forgotten by flashing from images of a business man, professional woman, graduate, blue collar worker and a couple others. Each is shown sprawled on the canvas as the narrator says, "Our economy. Our work force. We've all taken some big hit."
Who can argue with that?
The narrator continues: "But this is America." The footage cuts between the workers all staggering up, looking determined and beating the count.
"Jobs in America. Together we will power the next big comeback."
The medium is the message
The crowd is initially silent, then with scattered cries of "Get up!" members of the audience stand and cheer as the workers prepare to fight.
"Clean coal. That's America's power."
Not exactly what climate-watching scientists say, but it's a great message. Coal. Good old hot-burning, full-of-energy coal just happened to get it right. The jury remains out, but the campaign registers significant chutzpah.
A lesson for clean energy
Clean energy ought to do something similar. Make it simple and to the point, following the format established by America's Power.
Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a commercial of a person in a space suit wandered an empty radioactive city. The message was Cold War era danger. It still haunts me.
Imagery is powerful. Coal has deep pockets, and America's Power is unapologetic and aggressive in its push for the public eye. Right there on the site's home page, it says coal is green power.
They got it half right. Power, yes. Green? Not so much.
Coal extracts momentum
Coal's coming off a big legal win. U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton issued a decision against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, saying it overstepped its authority regulating mining companies.
Essentially the EPA teamed with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers "to coordinate reviews of backlogged permit applications for waste disposal at Appalachia mountaintop mining operations that raise serious environmental concerns," wrote John Raby on huffingtonpost.com.
He quotes U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., as saying, "This is a significant step in our efforts to rein in the EPA."
Clean coal wins support
The coal industry wants to make sure it remains in the game. Coal has a lot going for it. The fuel is domestic and cheap and it fuels about half the nation's energy needs. Yet, questions about its clean future remain despite industry efforts to scrub emissions and contain CO2.
Clean coal has believers. The U.S. Department of Energy is kicking in $450 million from its Clean Coal Power Initiative to help build a 400 megawatt plant in Texas "that combines an integrated gasification combined-cycle system with urea production and carbon capture and storage technology," according to power-eng.com.
For at least the time being, there's room for multiple energy sources. But clean and renewable energy has to elevate its visibility. Government subsidies would help, but they may not last and could be used as leverage by opponents.
Getting a leg up
The argument against subsidizing clean energy by the fossil fuel lobby is somewhat disingenuous. For instance, coal has had them too, according to a recent study.
Coal has received tax breaks totalling $1.3 billion over the past decade from a capital gain treatment on royalties, says the study "What Would Jefferson Do?" by Nancy Pfund of San Francisco-based venture capital firm DBL Investors and Ben Healey.
The study underlines how energy doesn't develop in a vacuum. Clean energy is dropping in price. Combined with energy efficiency and smart grid technology, much of it is making economic sense.
And that's the message. The fight's not begun.