Is hydrogen the way of the future?

Learn how driving to work or even using your cell phone could be a much greener experience in the future when York’s Institute for Research & Innovation in Sustainability (IRIS) hosts a lecture tomorrow on hydrogen and fuel cell technology.

Rymal Smith, manager of Hydrogen Village, will present his talk, titled "The Social Benefits of Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technology: Creating a Sustainable Infrastructure in the GTA", tomorrow, Nov. 28, at 4:30pm in Room 013 of the Accolade East Building. Hydrogen Village is raising awareness of alternative energy by breaking down barriers to markets in the Toronto area for hydrogen and fuel cell technology. Smith, who has done extensive work in the fields of natural gas vehicles and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, is the recipient of the 2007 Michael Grant Technology Award from Natural Resources Canada.

Right: The sun’s energy is based on hydrogen

"With the research and development that has gone on in the last few years, we are much closer to realizing this as a fuel in the future," Smith says. "There’s been a steep learning curve in the industry."

There are still a number of misconceptions floating around about the cost, cleanliness and viability of hydrogen and that’s something Smith will be addressing in his talk at York.

Critics point to the price of hydrogen fuel cells as a barrier to using them, but Smith says the cost continues to drop as new technology is developed. Cars can now run on hydrogen without the use of fuel cells, making it more cost effective. How hydrogen is made and how it is used, determines whether it is clean or not.

"If it’s used correctly, it’s very clean. If it’s not used properly, it’s not," explains Smith.

It is not a clean fuel if it is generated using natural gas, which was often the case, but using wind power instead produces hydrogen with zero emissions. Hydrogen can also be used to provide backup power to businesses. According to Smith. one of the Internet providers in Toronto currently uses hydrogen fuel cells as its backup power source.

"So not only does it work, but it’s cost effective," he says.

Smith sees managing the power grid during peak and off-peak times as another use for hydrogen. The excess energy during off-peak times can be stored in hydrogen fuel cells to be used during peak times.

"As we move into the future and as fossil fuels become more and more expensive, the grid will move to more renewable sources," Smith says. "But we have to start making this change now. We can’t wait until it’s too late, until it’s urgent, and hydrogen is a lot cleaner than petroleum."

Smith can also imagine a time in the not too distant future when people’s cell phones, iPods, BlackBerries and anything else using a rechargeable battery, will use hydrogen instead. And that, he says, will take a load off the power grid.

 Everyone is welcome to tomorrow’s lecture and refreshments will be served.

IRIS is a University-wide, interdisciplinary centre dedicated towards the pursuit of multifaceted approaches to the contemporary challenges of sustainability. For more information about IRIS or Hydrogen Village, visit their Web sites.

By Sandra McLean, York communications officer.