Iceland is about to launch its first hydrogen-powered ship ... well, at least the lights on it are powered by hydrogen. Of all nations, Iceland is probably the best provided-for in terms of sustainable energy, since it sits on the north Atlantic Ridge, and can draw ample geothermal energy from the molten lava that flows underneath it. Natural demonstrations of this source of power are the geysers, which respond to steam-pressure in rock-formations by erupting spectacularly at regular intervals. The ship is called the "Elding" which is the Icelandic word for "Lightning" and is set to be converted as the world's first hydrogen-powered sea-vessel. In the first instance, it is just the lights that will run on hydrogen "fuel", but it is taken as a gesture of commitment to Iceland's intentions to transform the nation to a hydrogen economy.
Presently, Iceland earns 70% of its (GDP) money from fishing, using a fleet that is fueled almost entirely by imported oil. If it could play its favourable geological hand to convert geothermal energy into hydrogen by electrolysing water, that would confer security of fuel-supply to the nation. However, I am not entirely sure how the hydrogen might be used overall - yes, fuel cells are the obvious means, or it could simply be burned in internal combustion engines. However, the latter loses the advantage usually claimed for hydrogen, that PEM fuel cells give about two or three times the efficiency in terms of well-to-miles compared with hydrocarbon fuels, calorie for calorie. Whether the technology can be adapted for ships remains to be seen, and it is claimed that about one tonne of hydrogen will need to be carried for a 4 - 5 day voyage.
The hydrogen-powered lights will allow tourists a closer look at the whales, since the ship can be made soundless. Normally, the noise of a ship's engines frightens the whales off, but by cutting the engines at the point of view, and eliminating the engine that is normally used to run the lights, which will instead be powered by a hydrogen/fuel cell, the mammals should not be alarmed, and will probably find the alien vessel a curiosity. The cost of a trip on the Elding is 43 Euros (about 30 quid or sixty bucks). The trippers should also be able to hear the whales swim and blow water more clearly without the rumble of an auxiliary engine in the bowels of the ship.
Iceland, with its population of 300,000, has announced an intention to convert its entire economy to hydrogen by 2050, which is a considerable undertaking, although nothing compared to switching-over a country the size of the UK, with 60 million people in it. Two-thirds of the world's electricity is made from non-renewable, mainly fossil, resources such as coal and gas, while two-thirds of the electricity used in Iceland is made from renewable resources, since it is well-supplied by rivers and waterfalls and the geothermal energy I have already alluded to.
There is a hydrogen filling station in Reykjavik, originally intended to fuel three buses, but was opened to the public in November of 2007, coinciding with the import of 10 specially adapted Toyota Priuses that run on hydrogen. NB, they BURN hydrogen in internal combustion (IC) engines instead of petrol, and are not fuel cell driven vehicles. The station will also provide hydrogen to run the ship, presumably also with an IC engine, rather than an array of fuel cells? Still, if the Icelanders can get the hydrogen effectively for nothing, why not use it thus, even if the efficiency is reduced from the PEM limit to that of the thermodynamic Carnot Cycle.
The chief of Icelandic New Energy, Jon Bjorn Skulason, predicts that by 2030 - 2035 most of Iceland's vehicles will run on hydrogen fuel. Personally, I am doubtful. There are many problems to be solved attendant to using hydrogen as a "fuel": making it in the first place - in Reykjavik by in situ electrolysis of water at the filling station; and storing it in sufficient quantities in vehicles that they don't need to refuel every 10 miles or so. For example, one tonne of hydrogen gas for the Elding, at atmospheric pressure would occupy 12,500 m^3, but compressed at a pressure of 5,000 psi (pounds on the square inch), this is reduced to 12,500 x 15/5,000 = 37.5 m^3. That's about the size of a room in an average terrace house. In liquid form (at -253 degrees C) one tonne of hydrogen would occupy a little more than one third of that, or 13.7 m^3, but it takes about 30 - 40% of the energy the gas can deliver to liquefy it. In comparison, high compression consumes around 20% of the energy "stored" in the hydrogen itself.
On a world scale, implementing the engineering to make and handle hydrogen would be staggering and is unlikely to be done within 10 years, by when world oil supplies will have begun to dwindle substantially. Hydrogen is not going to come in time to save the world from the impending energy-crunch, particularly for transportation fuel, but for its own needs, maybe Iceland will do it. We shall see.