Everyone used to laugh whenever he started talking about hydrogen power. But Icelander Bragi Árnason was unfazed, and continued his research into how his country could end its dependency on imported fossil fuels. To him, it made perfect sense. Iceland has extensive domestic energy reserves. Geothermal energy and hydropower could be used, he argued, for production of hydrogen as the primary energy source for industry and transportation. But cars that run on water? Most people in Iceland just didn’t get it.
Now, 30 years later, no one is laughing. Many energy experts agree that in the long term, hydrogen is the only alternative to fossil fuels that can keep today’s global economy afloat. Iceland is poised to become the first emissions-free country, thanks partly to its cooperation with multinational giants such as Shell, DaimlerChrysler and Norsk Hydro. And Árnason, professor of chemistry at the University of Iceland, is internationally recognized as a pioneer. These days, Icelanders fondly call him “Professor Hydrogen”.
Hydrogen is the most widespread element in the universe. The only problem is that it is nearly always bound-in water and in hydrocarbons such as methane (CH4). The ocean contains plenty of water. So the only missing element in the context of the hydrogen economy is electricity generated in a sustainable fashion, needed to separate the hydrogen from the water. But that is easier said than done. Although solar and wind energy production is increasing annually, sustainable electricity only represents a tiny portion of the world’s energy supply. Iceland, however, is a notable exception since its energy is already generated by fully sustainable means.
Árnason’s plan is to replace all the internal combustion engines in cars and ships in Iceland with electric motors powered by hydrogen fuel cells. He proposes to accomplish this by persuading Iceland’s leaders to utilize the country’s rich natural resources to produce the electricity needed for the large-scale production of hydrogen. Árnason believes his country could be the future Kuwait of the North.
He believes this can be achieved by 2025. “The transition from wood to coal took three generations, as did the step from coal to oil,” he says. “There is always a period of 50 years involved. I will see the first steps being taken towards the hydrogen economy. My children will experience the transformation and my grandchildren will live in this new economy.”