ARLINGTON, Va., April 3 (UPI) -- The United States could shift its energy and transportation systems to a hydrogen-based infrastructure within a few years with a "Manhattan Project" style approach but it would not be an easy switchover, speakers at an investment forum said Wednesday.
Hydrogen's abundance and its ability to be used as a engine fuel or electricity source in a fuel cell make it the only natural resource that can permanently replace today's fossil fuels and nuclear power, said Harry Braun, chairman of Phoenix-based Sustainable Partners, a holding company exploring several renewable power alternatives, including hydrogen.
"It's a universal fuel. It can run cars, trucks, locomotives, ships, power plants or a camping stove on a mountaintop," Braun told the Hydrogen Investment Conference. "Hydrogen can run your home appliances. ... It can run just about everything."
In liquid form, hydrogen presents very little in the way of flammability dangers, Braun said. The fuel also eliminates environmental dangers, since a spill immediately would evaporate into the air, he said.
"If the Exxon Valdez had been carrying liquid hydrogen when it had its accident, nobody would have cared," Braun said. "There wouldn't have been one duck or otter or fish damaged."
Members of the audience pointed out, however, any air mixture with more than about 10 percent hydrogen can be unhealthy and flammable. Braun said engineers are taking that into account -- car designs include air sensors that cause the windows to automatically roll down if too much hydrogen is present.
The primary roadblock to creating a hydrogen system is economic, Braun said, but a government effort with "wartime" urgency, along the lines of the Manhattan Project that built the first atomic bomb, quickly could switch the country to hydrogen. For example, the country's aerospace and car companies, in the space of about three years, could produce enough wind power turbines to generate the electricity needed to create the volume of hydrogen the country needs, he said.
There are many more challenges to overcome than simply producing the fuel, including storage and transport. Even with heavily insulated tanks, some liquid hydrogen would constantly boil off, presenting a problem for both refilling stations and vehicles that sit for long periods.
Scientists at the Idaho National Engineering and Environment Laboratory in Idaho Falls said they also are concerned about pipelines. Although compressed natural gas pipelines provide some guidelines for dealing with hydrogen, the mechanics of dealing with liquid hydrogen would have to be worked out, said Bruce Wilding, who researches advanced CNG equipment at INEEL.
The Bush administration's FreedomCAR proposal, which focuses on fuel cells, could benefit from current research, Wilding said.
"The hydrogen folks are starting to come in to where the natural gas people were 12 or 14 years ago," Wilding told United Press International. "Getting a hydrogen (fuel) station to work is technically doable. Getting it so it's publicly acceptable, to where a grandma or (teenagers) can fuel a vehicle, and handling the perceived safety issues, is where it's more difficult."
In addition to U.S. government efforts to create a car powered by hydrogen fuel cells, automakers such as Ford and BMW already have versions of today's vehicles powered by liquid hydrogen as a combustion fuel, Braun said. Airplane manufacturers also are considering the possibilities of hydrogen-powered planes.
BMW also has worked with a feature that harmlessly burns off any hydrogen escaping from the storage tank instead of allowing it to build up in a car trunk or garage, he said.