Iceland—why hydrogen?

Iceland is an island about two-thirds the size of Illinois. It is nearly exclusively formed from black lava rock. Approximately 170,000 of Iceland’s 280,000 population live in the capital of Reykjavik—similar in size to Rockford. While Rockford is around 42 degrees north latitude, Reykjavik is 64 degrees north.

Iceland is situated on the American and European tectonic plates in the mid-Atlantic ridge. The plates are moving apart at the rate of 2 cm/year, forming a gap that is visible in some places and that is the site of intense volcanic activity in others. Over the past 200 years, 20 volcanic eruptions have been recorded.

Iceland’s history helps put into perspective their determination to become the first country in the world to run its economy on hydrogen fuel. From 930 until 1262, Iceland was a relatively prosperous country. It was politically independent with its own constitution. Laws were revised during an annual outdoor two-week summer meeting at Thingvellir, now a national park. A law speaker was responsible for memorizing the laws and interpreting them in a fair and honest manner.

Responding to internal political stress, Icelanders surrendered their political autonomy to Denmark. A combination of monopoly trade controls, plagues and natural disasters led to intense economic stress, decreasing the population from 50,000 to 35,000.

Between 1783 and 1785, volcanic eruptions ignited grass fires that destroyed Iceland’s pastures leading to the starvation of 70 percent of their cattle and sheep and 25 percent of their population.

During an economic decline in the 1880s, a group of Icelanders migrated to the United States and then to Manitoba, establishing a community known as New Iceland.

Eventually, Iceland regained its political and economic autonomy and by 1940 was a relatively wealthy country once again. It was nearly entirely dependent on fish resources both for home consumption and export to pay for imported timber and equipment to run a modern country.

In 1940, fossil fuels were replaced by geothermally heated water to heat homes and buildings. Electricity was produced by hydro plants built on dammed rivers and by steam turbines run by geothermal power. By 1970, nearly all of Iceland’s electrical and heating needs were met by local resources.

Only 1.1 percent of Iceland is suitable for farming. The major crop is hay to feed sheep, cattle and horses. After World War II, Iceland raised around 700,000 sheep per year. Since local and global demand for lamb has fallen, roughly half that number are raised today. With a decline in demand for lamb, the number of chickens and pigs raised in the country has increased. In turn, feed must be imported to feed them. Many Icelanders own horses for recreational riding. The breed dates back to the Vikings.

Agricultural researchers are considering planting legumes on low-quality soils and processing them to produce ethanol for use as a transportation fuel.

In 1969, Iceland took advantage of its inexpensive electricity by opening its first aluminum processing plant to diversify its economy. A second plant is now in operation, and a third is under construction. The third involves constructing a hydro dam, which will flood a large natural area just north of Iceland’s largest glacier near Egilstadir. The project was unsuccessfully challenged by environmental interests who sought to protect the area as a national park. To encourage more economic diversity, this might be the last aluminum project.

Low-cost electrical supplies are essential to processing aluminum, since 10 kilowatts of electricity are used to produce each pound processed from bauxite shipped into the country. Electricity is passed through carbon rods to remove oxygen and transform bauxite into aluminum. As oxygen and carbon unite, carbon dioxide is released as a waste material.

Carbon dioxide released contributes to global warming. Icelandic researchers are designing strategies to combine the carbon dioxide with hydrogen to produce methanol for use as a transportation fuel. In this way, they will turn a waste material into a useful product.

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