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Harnessing the Big H : Hydrogen Seems the Ideal Energy Source--Plentiful, Efficient and Clean. Can Something This Perfect Be Real? Just Ask the Japanese.

March 19, 1995|Alan Weisman | Contributing editor Alan Weisman lives in Sonaita, Ariz. His last piece for the magazine was about a progressive community in Columbia

West of Denver, Interstate 70 enters Golden, Colo., and begins to curl through the foothills of the Rockies. There it bisects an unassuming clump of brick buildings--the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Among the government's national laboratories, NREL is modest, operating on a fraction of the billions commanded by atomic research giants like Sandia, Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore. Inside, there are no monstrous particle accelerators; experiments here are more likely to proceed in test-tube racks, bell jars and small glass beakers, like the one John Turner is filling with a clear solution of water and household lye.

Turner, a chemist with a graying blond beard and gold-rimmed glasses, sticks a narrow glass slide, coated on one end with a black, mica-like substance, into the lye solution. The humming lab ventilators mask the sound of the vehicles whizzing by on the nearby interstate, but Turner has spent most of his career here, and during those years he's always had the cars in mind. As he aims a pencil-thin beam from a high-intensity lamp at the flask, he puts it this way: "Suppose someone announced he intended to ship millions of gallons of a carcinogenic, explosive fluid that emits toxic fumes through our downtown and then store it underground in our neighborhoods. People would rise up in anger, right?"

Wrong. Just outside on I-70, cars are spraying residues of that very poison all over the mountains. After 11 decades of tinkering, their internal combustion engines are miracles of technology with hundreds of moving parts. Yet various laws of physics still limit their ability to extract energy from petroleum. Nearly three-fourths of its potential simply radiates away or pours, partly combusted, out the tailpipe, rising in geologic layers of brown murk until the Rockies themselves dwindle to ghostly smudges. John Turner is among a cadre of scientists trying to suppress what he regards as humanity's most pervasive, and self-inflicted, epidemic. In a little more than a century, since Thomas Alva Edison invented the light bulb and Henry Ford began to mass-produce automobiles, man-made energy has become the most addictive drug in history. Everybody today was born into this dependency: No one any longer can imagine life without electricity or motorized vehicles. To slake our craving, we must dose ourselves and our surroundings daily with deadly filth. This ritual is now doomed to spread, as China, India and other developing nations bestow family cars and refrigerators upon 2 billion new recruits to the industrial age.

Getting an entire world to kick a habit is futile, so Turner is trying to at least find us a clean needle. As the beam strikes the shiny black square centimeter of semiconductor glued to the submerged portion of his slide, the surrounding liquid begins to fizz. Electrons stimulated by light, he explains, are rushing to the semiconductor's surface, hitting water molecules and splitting them into their component parts: oxygen and hydrogen.

He watches the tiny bubbles rise. "For years," he says, "this has been the Holy Grail of photoelectric chemists. We're witnessing the direct conversion of solar energy into hydrogen."


Cape Canaveral, June, 1994: A group of visiting scientists and engineers is touring the John F.Kennedy Space Center in blue-and-white air-conditioned buses. They're here for the World Hydrogen Energy Conference, a biennial event born of the energy crisis 20 years earlier. Although the price of petroleum has since calmed considerably (adjusted for inflation, it's actually cheaper than pre-1973), a groundswell of concern, coupled with numerous breakthroughs, has ballooned this gathering to nearly 600 researchers from 34 countries. They've come to Canaveral this year for inspiration: The huge tank on the pad, where the shuttle Columbia will presently lift spaceward, is filled with pure hydrogen.

Since even before the moon shots, all U.S. astronauts' heat, electricity and drinking water have been derived from hydrogen. The U.S. space program is the first step toward realizing these scientists' dream: to switch the planet from an economy fueled with dirty coal and petroleum to one run on clean hydrogen.

The idea of something so ubiquitous--hydrogen is the most abundant element, composing three-fourths of the mass of the universe--replacing diminishing fossil fuels seems the stuff of fiction. Once, in fact, it was: In 1870, Jules Verne's "Mysterious Island" described a world that would one day derive "an inexhaustible source of heat and light" from water's component parts.

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