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Iceland—the world’s first hydrogen economy

July 1, 1993

Iceland—the world’s first hydrogen economy

By Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl, President and Vice President Illinois Renewable Energy Association

Iceland intends to become the world’s first hydrogen economy. Over the next 30 years, hydrogen will replace gasoline and diesel fuel in their transportation system. The hydrogen will come from electrolyzing water with electricity produced from low-cost renewable energy sources. Switching to hydrogen will increase energy independence, slow global warming, save money and generate local jobs.

On April 24, 2003, Iceland opened the world’s first commercial hydrogen refueling station in Reykjavik. A hydrogen-powered Mercedes was the first vehicle to fuel up at the station. Three hydrogen fuel buses will operate in the city for the next two years. Their performance will be evaluated, and decisions will be made regarding adding more buses to the city fleet.

The hydrogen program is the outgrowth of 20 years of effort by Reykjavik University chemistry professor Bragi Arnason. Icelandic citizens, eager to test the potential of a hydrogen economy, formed a holding company, Icelandic New Energy Limited, to develop it. They found partners including Daimler Chrysler, Norsk Hydro and Royal Dutch Shell to join their effort. Daimler Chrysler has developed fuel celled cars and buses; Norsk Hydro developed the electrolysers to separate hydrogen from water; and Shell Hydrogen built the hydrogen refueling station.

Hydrogen is the most plentiful element in the universe and highly regarded as a clean, renewable energy carrier. Since it occurs in combination with other chemicals, it takes energy to break the chemical bonds and capture and store the hydrogen for later use. Hydrogen can be derived from plants and fossil fuels, but the cleanest source of hydrogen is that produced from water by electricity generated from renewable energy sources.

Hydrogen unites with oxygen in a fuel cell, producing electricity while releasing heat and a small amount of moisture. The electricity is used to power electric motors in cars, trucks, buses and fishing boats.

In 1940, Iceland began a transition out of fossil fuels for heating and into geothermally heated water. By using local renewable energy sources to produce hydrogen, Icelanders will achieve self-sufficiency in heating, electricity and transportation fuels. They will model an optimal, renewable and sustainable energy system.

Since two-third of Iceland’s population of 282,000 people live near Reykjavik, they will only need a relatively small number of the expensive hydrogen refueling stations for the hydrogen transition. The cost of electrical generation is reasonable given their geothermal and hydro resources. An abundance of water assures an ample hydrogen supply.

What remains to be assessed is the long-term performance of the technologies involved in the hydrogen economy, the cost of the systems, and their environmental impacts.

The full story of Iceland’s determination to be the world’s first hydrogen economy will be presented on Saturday at the August 9-10 Illinois Renewable Energy Fair. Dr. Thorsteinn Sigfusson, a leading international authority on the hydrogen economy and president of Icelandic New Energy, Ltd., will explain Iceland’s transition to hydrogen.

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