Is it possible that amidst all the bogus claims, political controversy and foul cries about looming economic destruction, there’s actually a simple solution to the ravages of climate change?
A prominent Canadian engineer and scientist believes the solution – not just any solution but the only solution – rests within a tiny cell we ingest every day. And it can eliminate both carbon emissions and world conflict over oil supplies while saving the planet from global warming.
So pour yourself a glass of water and read on.
Climate destruction is more critical than we realize and we’re going to have to do more than just reduce greenhouse emissions, says engineer and scientist David Sanborn Scott. We must quit burning fossil fuels altogether.
“We have lulled ourselves into believing we can resolve climate change simply by reducing fossil fuelling but that’s not enough,” Scott said. “We must eliminate all fossil fuelling.”
Scott was frustrated by how little was actually said about solutions to global warming last December at the UN Climate Change Conference in Bali. The focus, as usual, was on “coping strategies” which, ultimately, will be woefully inadequate.
“I wrote a bitter email to several of my policy-guru friends, one of whom responded: ‘David, you must realize this conference was not about solutions, it was about ‘fairness’—fairness on whether developing nations should be expected to set emission reduction targets equivalent to those set for developed nations’.
“Nobody even mentioned the single overarching strategy that can enable us to escape climate catastrophe.”
For Scott, that strategy rests within the simplest element in the universe – hydrogen. An atom of hydrogen is odorless and non-toxic, with but one electron circling one proton. Yet, despite its simplicity, hydrogen contains more energy per unit mass than any other chemical fuel – almost three times as much as gasoline.
And, unlike carbon-belching fossil fuels, the only waste product from hydrogen is pure water, giving it great advantages not only for generating clean electricity but also as a transportation fuel.
Together, hydrogen and fossil-free electricity can fly airplanes, propel cars and run computers. And they’re interchangeable: Hydrogen can be converted into electricity; electricity into hydrogen, for a more versatile energy system.
We already generate fossil-free electricity from hydro-power stations as well as some employing wind and solar power. The crucial next step is to produce liquid hydrogen and then use it to fly airplanes and drive cars.
“We flew to the moon with hydrogen,” Scott remarked. “It was the only fuel that could do the job because it’s so light.
“Hydrogen is the colossal missing link between non-fossil power sources and big transportation.”
Scott is vice-president (Americas) of the International Association for Hydrogen Energy and the first Canadian awarded the Jules Verne Award. He’s also founder of University of Victoria’s Institute for Integrated Energy Systems.
His climate-change best seller, Smelling Land: The Hydrogen Defense against Climate Catastrophe, was published last fall and is already in second printing – as a revised edition with an added chapter. Appropriately, Smelling Land is a metaphor for “seeing things the other way around.”
During several wide-ranging interviews with DeSmogBlog, Scott said the world’s climate is already perilously near its “metastable tipping point.”
Once that point is passed, collapse of the West Antarctic ice shelf and a rise in ocean levels of five metres or more would follow, destroying nine of the world’s 10 largest cities as well as the low-lying communities of southern Florida, Netherlands, Bangladesh and Oceania.
Rising seas would inundate Tokyo, Mumbai, Sáo Paulo, New York, Shanghai, Lagos, Los Angeles, Calcutta and Buenos Aires. Only Mexico City, the sole non-coastal municipality among the 10 largest, would escape. Some cities with smaller populations such as London and Venice would also disappear.
“To physically visualize a sudden rise in ocean levels is difficult but possible,” said Scott. “But the human consequences are impossible to grasp—and climate shockers even more difficult to envisage could be just round the corner.”
Scott predicts electricity will continue to dominate communication, and hydrogen must dominate transportation in a new Hydrogen Age.
The easiest way to obtain hydrogen is through electrolysis. Zap water with an electric current and oxygen bubbles rise from one electrode, hydrogen from the other. The collected hydrogen then releases its energy by recombining with oxygen to form water.
While hydrogen can certainly warm houses and boil water, Scott believes its greatest potential is fuel for modern internal-combustion engines because it’s carbon-free and has higher energy content per unit of weight than gasoline.
Hydrogen is more voluminous than gasoline, but Scott says that drawback is mitigated by its high energy content and because most technologies that will use hydrogen, like fuelcells, are more efficient that their counterpart fossil-fuelled technologies.
But where will the electricity come from to mine hydrogen from water? Renewables such as wind and solar currently produce less than one per cent of America’s energy. And that only addresses electricity. What about transportation fuel? Do we attach windmills to cars and airplanes?
Ultimately, Scott says nuclear power is the only carbon-free source that can produce the vast quantities of hydrogen and electricity required for the next several centuries. But it will be a major challenge to get people to accept it due to continuing bad publicity.
In fact, decades of “media infatuation with distorting the environmental and safety record of nuclear power” has actually strengthened our ties to fossil fuels and, hence, soaring greenhouse emissions and global warming.
Scott says hydrogen and electricity could power 70 per cent to 90 per cent of the world’s energy demands within 20 years.
The big hold-up is “the go-slow folks” in oil and gas, car manufacturing and land development, who still argue for spending money on adaptation strategies instead of carbon-free energy systems.
“They claim that if we too quickly replace our fossil-fuelled system with a sustainable system we’d face economic ruin,” Scott said. “But I suspect their real fear is disruption of their own way of doing business.
“And they neglect the reality that major technological and infrastructure missions almost always spur economic growth.”
Transition to the Hydrogen Age will require major technology and infrastructure development, but we’ve already set the stage during World War II and the space program.
In Scott’s view, the U.S. effort from Pearl Harbor to the invasion of Normandy – in science and engineering, building infrastructure, training and deploying people – surpassed the commitment required to launch a global Hydrogen Age. The U.S. built on that foundation to put men on the Moon.
World War II was followed by economic boom, and the space race triggered technological innovation that drives consumer product development to this day. Similar patterns will attend transition to the Hydrogen Age.
“My point is this: the challenge of designing, building and then deploying these early hydrogen systems, jammed as it was within the twelve years between Sputnik and stepping on the Moon, exceeded the technological challenges required to take us from today to the Hydrogen Age.”
“Give us two decades and we’ll have it done.”