It was one of the most terrifying disasters in aviation history. Beginning with only a spark, the hydrogen-filled dirigible Hindenburg exploded into flames at its Lakehurst, New Jersey, mooring mast in 1937. And, as the last embers of the airship’s silken shell fell to the ground, leaving 36 passengers dead, distraught aviators vowed that the gas which was lighter than air should never fly again. But now, with characteristically sudden and dramatic force, hydrogen is primed to explode once again onto the energy scene—if only Ottawa will offer the financial support that hydrogen proponents believe is urgently required. “The hydrogen age is coming,” says mechanical engineering professor David Scott of the University of Toronto. “It is inevitable.”
Scott, a hydrogen specialist, is meeting this week with government and industry scientists at Ottawa’s National Research Council (NRC) to discuss the potential of hydrogen, which he strongly believes is the logical replacement for petroleum as a fuel. “In recent years,” he argues, “there have been a thousand and one suggestions for new energy sources, from the Fundy tides to the Prairie winds. But these are only sources and not fuels. You can’t power a boat or an airplane with any of them.
You need a fuel, an energy currency like gasoline which you can carry around in a tank.” As a gas, or a liquid when cooled, hydrogen can be burned in a conventional car engine. The exhaust, in pleasing contrast to the usual black clouds containing carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, is simply water. It is believed to be environmentally benign and does not add to smog or acid rain.
Despite growing evidence that hydrogen fuel is probably the most practical alternative to gasoline, its production in Canada is as small as the local gas pump. NRC chemist Brian Taylor heads a three-year-old government program which has spent $1.5 million studying hydrogen in the past year, compared to the $3.6 billion Canada spent on oil during the same time. Both Scott and Taylor say Canada is overlooking a unique opportunity to become
a world leader in its production and use.
Resistance to using the gas has been high ever since it first came bubbling out of a test tube in the laboratory of Henry Cavendish in 1766. Colorless and odorless, it burns with three times the calorific power of airline jet fuel and disappears in a trace of water vapor. Now that's the stuff of science fiction, and even today hydrogen remains suspiciously all too fantastic: the fuel of the sun, of the Apollo lunar spacecraft and, more mysteriously, of the hydrogen bomb.
None of this, however, fazed 17year-old Roger Billings when in 1963, inspired by an experiment in his highschool chemistry class in Provo, Utah, he went home and converted his father’s lawn mower to run on hydrogen. He won a local science fair prize with his invention, and has since built an entire industry, Billings Energy Corp., having converted everything from camp stoves to a U.S. Post Office jeep. Within two years his company hopes to be delivering converted buses for use in the Pittsburgh urban fleet. Perhaps the spiritual leader of the modern hydrogen movement, Billings lives in a world that does indeed seem visionary. He drives to work in a hydrogen-fuelled car, heats his home and water and cooks his dinner with hydrogen—and, appropriately, still cuts his grass with his hydrogenpowered lawn mower. “If it can get us to the moon,” says Billings, “it should get us to work and back.”
Unfortunately,unlike fossil fuels, hydrogen does not exist naturally in an unsynthesized form. It has to be manufactured, and that takes energy. It can be made from coal, but can also be extracted directly from Canada’s abundant fresh-water supply. Water can be split into hydrogen and oxygen by run-
ning an electric current through it. Hydrogen bubbles to the surface and can be collected, either to be piped like natural gas or stored in tanks containing iron titanium, a metal that absorbs hydrogen like a sponge. Once in an iron titanium “battery,” the explosive effects of hydrogen are neutralized.
Finding practical uses for hydrogen, as Billings has proven, is not a problem; economics is, for today hydrogen costs twice as much as gasoline. This could change radically over the next few years if $2-a-gallon gasoline arrives as predicted in 1985. Government studies have shown that in those circumstances hydrogen will be competitive with conventional fuels. Of course, an enormous quantity of the gas will have to be manufactured, requiring an equally enormous amount of energy.
Canada is fortunate in having abundant electric power that Scott says could be efficiently channelled into hydrogen production. At “off-peak” hours, in the middle of the night, some power is now being wasted in hydro plants. Ontario and Quebec hydro studies suggest that, with large capital investments in electric generating stations (a minimum of $84 billion over the next 20 years), Canada could be making enough of the gas to meet all its transportation needs within 20 years, cutting oilburning in half. In addition to electric resources, Canada has at least two other elements essential for what Scott calls a “hydrogen economy.” The Electrolyser Corporation Ltd., a Torontobased company, is a world leader in the equipment that is needed to make hydrogen electrically from water, and Inco is a leading supplier of the metals used to store hydrogen safely. Says John Bates, president of the recently formed Canadian Hydrogen Energy Society: “We have everything we need to start today, right this minute.”
Even with Canada’s indigenous resources, though, the first few steps into the hydrogen age may be very costly, from automobile conversion kits which Billings estimates soon will cost about $500 to multibillion-dollar electric stations on the scale of James Bay. Canadian energy experts say the investment may well be worth it when weighed against the cost of digging deeper and deeper for less and less oil. Hydrogen, on the other hand, will become more available, since it is manufactured from renewable resources and can also be readily made with any solar, tidal, or wind generators that may be built. “We have to make hydrogen,” says Scott. “Otherwise we face the prospect of massive changes in our whole social system, having to throw out all our machines that now run on oil, our trucks, cars, furnaces, everything.” Now that would be expensive.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.