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Running on Hydrogren
by Rebecca Roberts
Jan. 22, 2001

Iceland sculpture

There's a movement afoot to make all of Iceland's energy renewable. Geothermal activity isn't just for hot springs and geological study. It's harnessed for heat - and used for everything from hot water to vegetable greenhouses. Iceland also uses a great deal of hydropower, from the network of rivers and waterfalls that crisscross the island. And now researchers are using hydrogen to run the nation's cars and fishing trawlers. From Reykjavik, The World's Rebecca Roberts reports..

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Boiling hot water courses underground here in Reykjavik, sometimes erupting in geysers throughout the countryside.

(sound of geyser burbling)

The locals pump the hot water out of the earth to heat homes. It's stored in enormous tanks on top of one of Reykjavik's few hills, the better to let gravity help distribute it around town. These tanks are landmark, visible from all over town. There's even a restaurant perched on top of them, called The Pearl, complete with a manmade geyser that erupts intermittently. From The Pearl's balcony, you have a 360 degree view of Iceland's capital city and the ocean beyond. To University of Iceland professor Thorsteinn Sigfusson this is more than just a pretty view. It's a geographic history lesson in Iceland's innovation.

Sigfusson: When the settlers first came to Reykjavik in around 874 AD, they noticed a lot of fumes, or let me say steam, from the what is now harnessed pools of Reykjavik. So they decided to call it smoke bay, or steam bay if you like. Reyk-javik.

After World War II, Iceland transformed two-thirds of its coal and oil energy infrastructure by harnessing the abundant hydro-electric and geothermal power on the island. As chairman of a group called Iceland New Energy, Thorstein Sigfusson is now helping to combine government, industry, and science to use water again to transform the remaining third. The goal is to take the many cars still dependent on oil, and switch them all over to hydrogen power instead. Iceland is a great place to do this. From this balcony overlooking the city, one thing you won't see is trees -- Iceland has very few. Since oil forms from decayed organic matter like trees and algae, Iceland has no naturally occurring fossil fuels. But what it lacks in physical resources, Sigfusson says Iceland will make up in innovation.

Sigfusson: This seems an ideal situation to make our own fuel. And the most ideal fuel to make is of course hydrogen. This simplest atom of the universe.

Converting to hydrogen fuel is not as far-fetched as it sounds. Hydrogen is already made in some quantity in Iceland. It's mainly used in fertilizer, which is necessary to grow much of anything in Iceland's volcanic soil. And the world's auto makers, spurred along by mandates for lower vehicle emissions, have helped develop a technology called fuel cell to turn hydrogen into power. But Sigfusson says there are still significant barriers.

Sigfusson: Powering anything from hydrogen is quite possible using fuel cells, which are quite well-developed now. But storage is a problem.

The technology just isn't there yet to store the volatile gas cheaply safely and cheaply. The fuel cell technology that allows vehicles to run on hydrogen is further along in development, but still makes for heavy, expensive vehicles. The bulky fuel cells may be okay for stationary factories, and even possible for large fishing trawlers, but they're still impractical for regular cars. Valgerdur Sverrisdottir, Iceland's minister of Industry, says the government is doing all it can to help Iceland New Energy overcome these obstacles.

Sverrisdottir: Icelanders are proud of the fact that about two thirds of the energy consumption is from renewable energy sources. I think that this and the fact that we have some experience in replacing energy sources, helps lay the groundwork for the use of hydrogen in transportation in the future.

It will take years for the hydrogen conversion to happen, though. And then Icelandic consumers will have to embrace the new technology. Many people still associate hydrogen with the explosion of the Hindenberg zeppelin. Valgerdur Sverrisdottir, for one, isn't worried.

Sverrisdottir: When the hydrogen technology becomes economically feasible, I think that Icelanders will be quick to adopt the new technology. Icelanders are acceptable to new technologies.

Thorsteinn Sigfusson agrees. And he hopes that once Iceland's experiment is successful, other nations will follow suit. But the key to replicating Iceland's clean energy model, he says, is to produce hydrogen fuel using renewable energy. After all, using fossil fuels in the process saves neither money nor greenhouse gas emissions.

Sigfusson: Hydrogen economy will not be possible until, I think either the sun is harnessed, or nuclear energy is harnessed in a way that, in an acceptable manner. So that hydrogen is not a primary source, it's just a carrier.

In that forward thinking spirit, three hydrogen buses will hit Iceland's streets next year. And plans are underway to build a hydrogen filling station in the nation's capital. For the World, I'm Rebecca Roberts. Reykjavik, Iceland.

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