Tuesday, October 17, 2006

It is Lonely at the Top

It is lonely at the top and that is just where hydrogen sits - at the top of the periodic table. It holds that position with the atomic number one. Hydrogen, or H2 for short, rarely gets noticed or talked about like gold or copper. It is colorless, odorless, and tasteless. The thing is, Hydrogen is also the lightest element, a gas in its normal state. That makes it highly flammable and dangerous!

Nonetheless, hydrogen is also the most abundant element in the universe. It is also the friendliest, forming compounds with most of the other elements. There it is in the water we drink - H2O.

Since there is so much of it, hydrogen cannot be ignored by in the quest for solutions to our looming energy problems. Five years ago Jeremy Rifkin penned The Hydrogen Economy, advocating an economic revolution of sorts based on hydrogen. Rifkin’s past as a peace advocate should help put his hydrogen message into better perspective. Yet, Rifkin makes several good points after he finishes bashing the oil and gas industry and I recommend reading the book to get an “outside of the box” view on hydrogen fuel cells.

International Association for Hydrogen Energy offers two other sources on the hydrogen topic, although neither shows as much promise for entertainment as Rifkin’s book: Solar Hydrogen Energy by Bockris, Veziroglu and Smith; and Hydrogen Energy by Veziroglu and Barbir.

I have also been helped by the guidance Dr. S.A. Sherif, who is a professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at the University of Florida. As editor of
Applied Mechanics Review, associate technical editor of the Solar EnergyJournal, and guest editor of the Journal on Solar-Hydrogen Production, he has a bird's eye view on the alternative energy field.

Like many professors he knows how to entertain and educate at the same time, making what is highly complex science seem almost understandable.

Lesson number one: hydrogen is an energy carrier. It can be produced from water, say ocean water, in conjunction with solar or wind energy.

Lesson number two: if government and business spent as much money and made hydrogen development as high a priority as say nuclear power or space exploration, then the safety and distribution issues that seemingly spoil hydrogen as a fuel.

Does hydrogen hold promise to solve out energy problems? Quite a few developers are not waiting for government to take a lead. There are twenty-five companies with listed securities in Crystal Equity Research’s Renewable Energy Index and most likely there are twice or three times that many private companies pursuing one element or another of hydrogen as fuel.

Three of the companies in the index:

Medis Technologies Ltd. (MDTL: Nasdaq) is producing and selling fuel cell products for portable consumer products and military applications. Sales are miniscule and the losses are mounting. However, a new deal with a customer in Russia could turn the tide.

FuelCell Energy, Inc. (FCEL: Nasdaq) applies hydrogen fuel cell technology to small power generators for hospitals, hotels and even electric or water utilities. IT has still not achieved profitability, but trailing sales of $32.1 million suggest market acceptance.

Investors can travel along
development roadmap with Ballard Power Systems, Inc. (BLDP: Nasdaq) and get a good view of the practical aspects of hydrogen fuel cells for the automobile owner. Ballard has yet to cast much of a shadow in the automotive market, but has found success in military and commercial markets.

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