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Abstract

Hydrogen is often proposed as the fuel of the future, but the transformation from the present fossil fuel economy to a hydrogen economy will need the solution of numerous complex scientific and technological issues, which will require several decades to be accomplished. Hydrogen is not an alternative fuel, but an energy carrier that has to be produced by using energy, starting from hydrogen-rich compounds. Production from gasoline or natural gas does not offer any advantage over the direct use of such fuels. Production from coal by gasification techniques with capture and sequestration of CO2 could be an interim solution. Water splitting by artificial photosynthesis, photobiological methods based on algae, and high temperatures obtained by nuclear or concentrated solar power plants are promising approaches, but still far from practical applications. In the next decades, the development of the hydrogen economy will most likely rely on water electrolysis by using enormous amounts of electric power, which in its turn has to be generated. Producing electricity by burning fossil fuels, of course, cannot be a rational solution. Hydroelectric power can give but a very modest contribution. Therefore, it will be necessary to generate large amounts of electric power by nuclear energy of by renewable energies. A hydrogen economy based on nuclear electricity would imply the construction of thousands of fission reactors, thereby magnifying all the problems related to the use of nuclear energy (e.g., safe disposal of radioactive waste, nuclear proliferation, plant decommissioning, uranium shortage). In principle, wind, photovoltaic, and concentrated solar power have the potential to produce enormous amounts of electric power, but, except for wind, such technologies are too underdeveloped and expensive to tackle such a big task in a short period of time. A full development of a hydrogen economy needs also improvement in hydrogen storage, transportation and distribution. Hydrogen and electricity can be easily interconverted by electrolysis and fuel cells, and which of these two energy carriers will prevail, particularly in the crucial field of road vehicle powering, will depend on the solutions found for their peculiar drawbacks, namely storage for electricity and transportation and distribution for hydrogen. There is little doubt that power production by renewable energies, energy storage by hydrogen, and electric power transportation and distribution by smart electric grids will play an essential role in phasing out fossil fuels.