Part two: Iceland—why hydrogen?

Not only do Icelanders feel the need to diversify their economy, they consider it important to reduce their contribution to global warming. Currently, the country benefits from the warm waters of the Gulf Stream, which makes Reykjavik’s winter climate similar to that of New York City.

Iceland’s annual temperature increase from global warming is twice that of the average global temperature increase. However, as glacial waters flow from melting ice masses and empty into the ocean, they could divert or stop the flow of warm Gulf waters, dramatically chilling the climate of Iceland and northwestern Europe.

If global warming does not disrupt the flow of the Gulf Stream, Iceland could benefit from changing climatic conditions. As the Arctic ice cover retreats, new shipping lanes will open for international trade. The new routes could reduce shipping times by two weeks and miles traveled by 40 percent over those through the Suez or Panama canals.

Since new traffic could add diesel fuel fumes and pollutants to the vulnerable Arctic ecosystem, hydrogen and fuel cells are again seen as possible solutions.

Another Icelandic effort to convert a waste product into a useful one involves heat. Using nanotechnology, scientists have utilized waste heat to drive electrons from one side of a solid state device to the other and through a circuit to power electrical appliances. This should provide useful applications in Illinois. Waste heat discharged by nuclear power plants and other industries offers abundant potential electricity. Smaller amounts from homes and businesses might also be used.

Between Reykjavik and Hveragerd, we visited a new bore hole that had been drilled to tap superheated steam for generating electricity and heating buildings. The new power plant should be operational by spring. The roar of the steam sounded like 20 locomotives running at full power. We could not hear each other talk, but it allowed us to contemplate why many Norse myths envisioned fires in the bowels of the earth as the site of hell. In a sense, the escaping steam was giving humankind a second chance, an opportunity to design a new energy system less damaging to the environment.

The release of geothermal energy generates two environmental problems. One is the disposal of excess hot water. Solutions have included piping it back into the ground, heating communities, heating greenhouses in which tropical fruit and flowers are grown, and using it in a swimming lagoon.

A second problem involves the release of sulfur-laden steam. Icelandic researchers are developing a process to separate the hydrogen and sulfur and use hydrogen as a fuel and sulfur as a solid for other purposes.

While Iceland is determined to replace its transportation fuels with hydrogen, it also recognizes that such unilateral actions are not sufficient to curtail global warming and reduce global dependence on diminishing fossil fuel supplies. They have already established cooperative working relationships with western Europe. A November meeting in Washington, D.C., will explore working relationships among the United States, Canada and Iceland on the global hydrogen economy.

The IREA is organizing a five-day trip to Iceland early in May for decision makers to explore how Iceland is progressing on its path to a hydrogen economy and how some concepts will transfer to the Midwest. The most impressive is the determined and systematic manner in which Iceland is developing a more sustainable economy than what is conventional. Perhaps 500 years of economic and political dark times and the common ancestry of its people create a willingness to work toward long-term goals based on the common interests that affect the well-being of all its citizens.

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