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Sydney Lenssen More power to hydrogen

Which new industry will offer civil engineers increasing job opportunities in ten years time? Answer: harnessing hydrogen as a fuel and energy carrier. In 20 years time the hydrogen age will require more engineers than water, oil, roads and railways put together.

Minister for Energy and Industry John Battle doesn't believe that yet. He accepts that producing 10% of UK's electricity from renewables appears to be a feasible target for around the year 2010. But his consultation paper 'New and Renewable Energy - prospects for the 21st Century' classes hydrogen as 'very long term' technology. His experts advise that it is 'unlikely to be worth pursuing extensively except at fundamental research level until 2025'.

Yet the US, Germany and Japan are pushing ahead with buses, cars and lorries, and combined heat and power using fuel-cells running on hydrogen made from reformed natural gas to achieve big reductions in CO2 emissions.

The Department of Trade and Industry gives priority to reducing CO2 from electricity generation. But bigger reductions are to be gained in the transport, domestic heating and industry sectors using fuel-cells and hydrogen technology as it stands today.

The London Association of the Institution of Civil Engineers is not so short-sighted. On Wednesday next week Great George Street will see the first Hydrogen Roadshow, an exciting afternoon and evening of talks, videos and arguments showing how all mankind's energy greed can be met cleanly and efficiently.

The world's cleanest energies are solar and wind power, renewed daily. For most customers, they are not in the right place at the right time. Hydrogen can be manufactured by electrolysing water using any form of electricity. It then becomes a high-energy fuel and energy carrier.

Today's hydrogen cars are expensive prototypes, but the car-makers intend to have a competitive car on sale by 2005. In the future the fuel-cell could be shared between car, house and office to spread its capital cost.

What the hydrogen buffs envisage is that massive volumes of electrolytic hydrogen will be generated by the sun in desert climes or by the winds offshore or across the sparsely populated plains of the world. Current costs using wind generation stand at about 20p - excluding tax - for the energy equivalent of one litre of petrol in a fuel-cell car.

There is some way to go to be competitive, and when pushed, oil and gas will sell more cheaply for a time.

Few revolutions occur at anything like the pace expected. But the DTI should use the consultation period to revise priorities and devote more of the promised £43.5M R&D funding to hydrogen.

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