THE Hydrogen Economy
A booklet prepared by LIFT
(London International Festival
of Theatre), the Greater London Authority and London Hydrogen
This booklet was produced by LIFT (London International Festival of Theatre) to provide context for
a lecture given by Jeremy Rifkin, US economist and futures thinker, on October 12 at LSE, London
School of Economics.
The lecture was the third in a series Imagining a Cultural Commons, presented by LIFT as part of a
5 year public Enquiry into the role of theatre in these times worldwide.
Jeremy Rifkin’s lecture The Hydrogen Economy – A Question of Culture? was co-hosted by LSE,
with support from the Greater London Authority, the London Hydrogen Partnership, the Arts Council
England and sponsored by Morgan Stanley.
Some parts of the text have been reproduced, with kind permission, from Hydrogen - Generation H
Towards a Substainable Hydrogen Future written by Jamie Wallace and published by Forum for the
Future, 1999, and from the London Hydrogen Partnership website.
What is hydrogen?
How can hydrogen be produced?
Fuel cell technologies
How does a fuel cell work?
What are the potential applications
A vision of the hydrogen future
and potential issues
1839 The British physicist Sir William Grove demonstrated that hydrogen and oxygen could be
electrochemically combined to create electricity and water in devices known as fuel cells.
Early 1940s During the Second World War, the United States conducted research into the use of
hydrogen by the airforce, army and navy, leading to the later use of liquid hydrogen in the space
1950s During Francis Bacon develops the first practical hydrogen fuel cell.
1960s NASA uses light but expensive fuel cells to power the Gemini and Apollo spacecraft.
Proposed use of solar energy to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, and to later recombine them
in fuel cells.
1970s First use of the term "hydrogen economy" by General Motors engineers.
1973 Oil crisis prompts governments in US, Europe and Japan to fund hydrogen research.
1976 Stanford Research Institute publish a research paper entitled The Hydrogen Economy, A
Preliminary Technology Assessment.
1987 A report commissioned by Canada's parliament urged Canada to make
hydrogen energy technology a "national mission".
1990 The world's first experimental solar-powered hydrogen production plant becomes operational
in southern Germany.
1996 Toyota unveil a fuel cell version of the RAV4 sport utility vehicle.
1999 The Royal Dutch/Shell group set up a hydrogen division.
2000 Breakthroughs in fuel cell technologies, along with concerns over the environmental impact of
energy production, use and security of supplyprompt a much hig her profile for hydrogen as a future
2001 World tour of BMW's fleet of hydrogen internal combustion CleanEnergy cars
2002 Fuel cells for heating and powering residential homes become available. The first hydrogen
buses begin to roll along the streets of nine major European cities as part of the Clean Urban
Transport for Eu rope demonstration project. 2003 Aprilla's fuel-cell powered bike goes on sale to
the public. Hydrogen fuel pumps begin to appear alongside conventional fuel pumps.
2004 The first commercial fuel cell goes on sale to the public. Lombardy, Italy, celebrates the sale of
the conventional fossil fuel vehicle long lasting and rechargeable fuel cell batteries for installation in
mobile information products become available.
2008? Over 5% of new cars sold in the US are powered by fuel-cells.International consortium
prepare Green Paper on Distributed Generation and Neighbourly Relations.
2010? A fully working network of hydrogen filling stations across Europe is established. Global oil
From environmentalists to the motor industry, there is growing consensus that
hydrogen is key to a sustainable future. Hydrogen holds great promise as an
alternative to fossil fuels. With huge potential for hydrogen-based technologies to
shift our economy onto a much more sustainable footing, with widespread
environmental and social benefits, it will surely be the element that most influences
future innovation and survival.
This picture is no pipe-dream, neither is it instant paradise. There are major technical barriers to be overcome - how to
make and transport large quantities of hydrogen, for example - and debates over the best ways forward.
What is more, the social and cultural changes needed to succeed in shifting to an alternative energy regime are
profound. Hydrogen allows power to be locally generated and distributed bringing with it significant implications for our
society as a whole, our immediate neighbours and surroundings.
We are now at the point where technical advances and local inventiveness are combining with growing business
interest and government enthusiasm to bring the prospect of a hydrogen economy closer.
This booklet outlines some of the key facets of hydrogen: its history, production and applications; and the principal
drivers and barriers on the route to a hydrogen economy.
Energy is the elemental force and the
medium upon which all human culture is
Jeremy Rifkin, The Hydrogen Economy
What is hydrogen?
Hydrogen is the simplest, lightest and most abundant element in the universe, constituting more than 90% of all
matter. It is the third most abundant element on the Earth's surface, found in water and all organic matter. Despite
this abundance hydrogen occurs in its gaseous state only in trace amounts.
Some 35 million tonnes of hydrogen are produced globally per year, for industrial and agricultural uses, such as the
production of plastics, polyester and nylon, the desulphurisation of fuel-oil and gasoline and fertiliser production.
Hydrogen has a very high energy content in relation to its weight. In fact its energy density is three times that of petrol
and therefore, when burnt in the presence of oxygen, releases considerable energy as heat. However, unlike oil and
other primary energy sources, hydrogen is an energy carrier and must be manufactured from hydrocarbon fuels, from
biomass or from water.
The potential for an even more environmentally sustainable energy solution is to be found in the form of fuel cells
which produce only electricity, heat and water.
How can hydrogen be produced?
The successful delivery of a hydrogen economy – an overall national energy infrastructure based on hydrogen
produced from non-fossil primary energy sources - depends on the manufacture of sustainable hydrogen.
The high relative cost of 'green' electricity and the high capital costs associated with many renewable energy
production systems still make small-scale production expensive. While large-scale plants will give considerable
economies of scale, high investment costs are often prohibitive.
However, common fuels like natural gas, propane and petroleum all have hydrogen in their molecular structure, are
relatively inexpensive and can be easier to store and transport than hydrogen.
Therefore, as a bridge to a renewable future, reformers are being used to separate the hydrogen from a range of
hydrocarbons.Reformer hydrogen can be further purified if necessary and fed into a range of conversion
technologies. Although the end-use of hydrogen may be ‘clean’, reforming produces significant levels of carbon
dioxide and contributes to climate change. Deep storage sequestration of carbon dioxide
is suggested by some as a means of mitigating these effects. However, further analysis is required of the economic
and environental impacts of these techniques.
Extensive safety protocols already exist and work is also underway to produce international standardised procedures
for everyday situations.
Fuel cell technologies
Hydrogen can be used in conventional engines in a similar way to standard hydrocarbon fuels such as petrol and
diesel. Unlike these conventional fuels the combustion of hydrogen generates no emissions other than water vapour
and small amounts of
nitrogen oxides and, because no carbon is involved, burning hydrogen does not contribute to climate change at its
point of use.
However, the most environmentally benign use of hydrogen is in a fuel cell. These devices generate no carbon
dioxide, nitrogen oxides or other pollutants and can operate at higher efficiency than hydrogen or conventional
Like a battery, a fuel cell is capable of converting chemical energy (in the form of hydrogen and oxygen) into electricity
and heat via an electrochemical reaction. There are several different types of fuel cell, each using a different
chemistry and classified by the type of electrolyte they use, but with the same basic structure.
Alkaline fuel cell (AFC): One of the oldest designs, used in the U.S. space programme since the 1960s. The AFC
operates at a low temperature but is susceptible to contamination by carbon dioxide.
Phosphoric-acid fuel cell (PAFC): Expensive, but the most developed fuel cell technology with over 350 systems in
commercial operation. Uses an acidic liquid electrolyte and has potential for use in small stationary power-generation
Solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC): Best suited for large-scale stationary power generators. The fuel cell operates at very
high temperatures (around 1,000 C) and can use fossil fuels like methane as well as hydrogen.
Molten carbonate fuel cell (MCFC): Best suited for large stationary power generators. They operate at approximately
Proton exchange membrane fuel cell (PEMFC): Operates at relatively low temperatures (60-80 C) and has multiple
applications, particularly portable and smaller stationary power generation. Most car companies are investing in this
How does a fuel cell work?
Fuel cells generate electricity from an electrochemical reaction in which oxygen from the air and a fuel such as hydrogen combine to
form water. A fuel cell itself consists of a number of individual cells put together as a fuel cell ‘stack’. Each individual cell within a stack
has two electrodes, one positive, one negative, called the cathode and the anode. The reactions that produce electricity take place at
the electrodes. Every fuel cell also has an electrolyte, which carries electrically charged particles form one electrode to the other, and
a catalyst, which accelerates the reactions at the electrodes.
Hydrogen gas enters the fuel cell on the anode side (negative electrode) and is forced through the catalyst by pressure. When a
hydrogen molecule comes into contact with the catalyst it is split into protons and electrons. Because the electrolyte only conducts
positively charged ions the negatively charged electrons are forced through an external circuit before reaching the cathode (positive
electrode), producing electrical energy.
Meanwhile, on the cathode, or positive electrode of the fuel cell, oxygen gas is distributed across the catalyst, where it forms two
oxygen atoms. These atoms have a strong negative charge that attracts the positively charged protons through the electrolyte, which
combine to form a molecule of water.
What are the potential applications of hydrogen?
Buses, fleet vehicles, trams and light rail
The bus is one of the first practical applications of the fuel cell and 30 prototype fuel cell powered buses are already
running in several cities worldwide – including London route RV1. The bus market is set to be the first market where
hydrogen becomes a viable fuel. Defined routes and depot based refuelling systems mean that fewer hydrogen
refuelling stations are required to create a viable network than would be necessary for the development of a
hydrogen-fuelled private car market.
While fuel cell manufacturers are investigating urban bus fleets as an initial market around the world, a hydrogen
fuelled private vehicle will not be far behind, with trams and light rail as other likely applications.
All of the major automobile companies are investigating fuel cells, with most planning to use hydrogen as the fuel. The
future of the automobile industry appears to be inextricably linked to the fuel cell.
The growth in international travel means that the aviation industry is a significant and growing source of greenhouse
gas emissions. The introduction of hydrogen technology into aircraft could offer a way to eliminate carbon dioxide
emissions resulting from the combustion of aviation fuel. Planes using hydrogen would not be free of emissions, as
the combustion process still produces small amounts of nitrogen oxides (NOx), but could provide a way of reducing
the overall environmental impact associated with air travel.
Power generation and heating
While much attention continues to focus on the use of hydrogen as a transport fuel, significant advances are being
made in the use of stationary hydrogen technology to generate power and provide heating for industrial and domestic
Fuel cell technologies are currently being developed in the hope of creating large power plants capable of generating
electricity directly from hydrogen in a fuel cell. The normal efficiency gains associated with the use of fuel cells will be
further amplified if the heat and water produced in the cell are used to power steam turbines, generating more
electricity. These efficiency gains and the environmental benefits of using fuel cells could result in the replacement of
conventional combustion power plants with large fuel cell systems. Fuel cell units are already providing power to
hospitals in America, Europe and Japan.
Hydrogen can be used to produce power efficiently in a combustion turbine or a fuel cell for local use. Fuel cells seem
set to provide the most efficient option for distributed power production with potential efficiencies of up to 90%. Small-
scale, local power generation avoids losses in electricity transmission and through the use of combined heat and
power (CHP) could also provide district heating or industrial steam raising, further increasing the overall energy
efficiency of the generation process. In the UK, Woking Borough Council has installed a fuel cell as part of a larger
CHP power system, which provides light, heat (and cooling) and dehumidification for the local recreational centre, and
with increasing capacity will be able to export energy to other users.
Micro and portable
Fuel cells could also be used to power the countless items of battery powered equipment. Almost any electrical
product, even portable electronics like laptop computers, mobile phones and hearing aids, could be powered by fuel
cells in the coming years.
A vision of the hydrogen future and potential issues
A hydrogen future will undoubtedly impact on our lives in countless different ways.
The public's perception and willingness to accept hydrogen as a fuel could be a significant barrier to the construction
of a hydrogen economy. Whether used for transportation or in stationary applications the public will have to be
encouraged to adopt new technologies as they begin to become commercially available.
The safety of hydrogen is often raised when its use as a fuel is discussed. As with many commonly used fuels, such
as petrol and natural gas there is a danger to health and property in the event of uncontrolled combustion or
explosion. All fuels require the application of fuel-specific safety controls, and hydrogen is no exception. The main
difference between hydrogen gas and petrol is in its behaviour when released in the air. Hydrogen gas disperses
rapidly and fires burn quickly, dissipating heat only very locally. Increased education and awareness will be essential
to build acceptance of the new technology in order to overcome misconceptions. A new booklet from the Health and
Safety Executive deals with subject (see further reading)
The future might find us waking up in hydrogen heated homes and travelling to cleaner, quieter cities in fuel cell
buses, taxis and cars. However, the changes to society more generally, although harder to predict, are likely to be far-
Hydrogen would, for example, facilitate the transition to renewable energy. The intermittent nature of solar, wind, tidal
and other renewable forms of energy continue to be a significant barrier to their proliferation. Hydrogen in its role as a
secure energy reservoir for unpredictable 'green' electricity production could solve this problem. Other technologies
are being developed that may make it possible to generate hydrogen from water without using electricity. Biolysis, the
use of biological processes to split water, is just one of the techniques already under investigation.
The future is increasingly seeing decentralised power, which will be a key factor in promoting more sustainable forms
of development by helping to foster economic stability and encourage greater equity locally and internationally. These
shifts in power will carry cultural as well as economic consequences in a hydrogen economy, as our relationship to the
specifics of place and local energy generation is reconfigured.
20 Hydrogen Myths:
Foundation on Economic Trends:
Fuel Cell Today:
Fuel Cell Markets:
Health and Safety Executive:
How Stuff Works(Fuel cells):
LIFT (London International Festival of Theatre):
London Hydrogen Partnership:
London fuel cell buses:
Mayor of London: www.london.gov.uk/mayor/environment/energy/hydrogen.jsp
The London Hydrogen Partnership works towards a hydrogen economy for London and the UK, by developing strategy, undertaking advocacy
and enabling hydrogen and fuel cell projects. It is chaired by the Deputy Mayor of London and includes representatives from Air Products,
Association of London Government, Baxi Technologies, BP, BMW, BOC, Carbon Trust, DTI, Energy Saving Trust, Greater London Authority,
Health and Safety Executive, Imperial College , Intelligent Energy, Johnson Matthey, London Development Agency, London First, Rolls-Royce,
Thames Water and Transport for London.
Every attempt has been made to ensure that this booklet provides an up-to-date summary of developments within the field of hydrogen and hydrogen technologies.
However, due to the continual change within this area of research, some of the data may provide a more historical perspective than intended. Booklet prepared 2004.
A special thanks to Johnson Matthey, BMW and Fuel Cell Markets Ltd.
for assistance in shaping the contents of this booklet.