In the 1980s and ’90s, hydrogen fuel cell technology seemed like a strong candidate for use in cars and stationary applications, converting hydrogen to electricity with no emissions beyond a puff of antiseptic water vapor.
Geoffrey Ballard, founder of Ballard Power Systems, coined a term to describe the new system, “hydricity,” a fusion of hydrogen and electricity. Surplus electricity could be used to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen, with the hydrogen stored for reconversion into electricity.
Such a reversible system would be especially useful in cars, or in an electric system that was saturated with renewable power sources that ran only intermittently, like wind machines or solar cells.
In 2008, the possibilities for fuel cells looked better than ever, when the nation elected a president who called for an 80 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by midcentury, with strong interim goals and reductions to start “immediately.”
But the Obama administration’s energy research effort, led by Dr. Steven Chu, a Nobel laureate in physics who became secretary of energy, took a long hard look at all the possibilities, including conventional batteries, and liquid fuels that would have smaller “carbon footprints” because they were made from renewable sources. And it decided that fuel cells did not look promising, compared with other new technologies, and that funding should be cut.
In a newly revised encyclopedic book on fuel cells, “Tomorrow’s Energy: Hydrogen, Fuel Cells, and the Prospects for a Cleaner Planet,” Peter Hoffmann traces the more recent twists and turns in the quest for hydricity. Initially, the Obama administration’s effort to cut funding for fuel cell research was reversed by Congress, partly through the efforts of Byron Dorgan, a Democratic senator from North Dakota until his retirement last year. Senator Dorgan, in a foreword to the new edition, explained that the administration was “just flat wrong.”