With enthusiasm about hydrogen energy on the wane in the United States, it seems a bit implausible that this expensive technology might find a home in the developing world, but that's exactly where Dr. Nicolas Lymberopoulos thinks it belongs -- with a little "matchmaking" help.
"We like to think of ourselves as 'hydrogen marriage matchmakers,'" says Lymberopoulos, an associate director at the International Centre for Hydrogen Energy Technologies (ICHET) in Istanbul. "If the 'groom' is poor, we can give a bit of dowry money."
The center, run by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization using a $40 million trust fund set up by the Turkish government, supports feasibility studies by local experts, research, and pilot projects in Turkey and elsewhere, with a focus on the developing world.
'Leapfrogging' Over Fossil Fuels
Although he admits that more developed countries like Turkey will likely "need to tap various sources, including fossil fuels" to power hydrogen fuel cells during the transitional period, Lymberopoulos envisions that parts of the developing world might "leapfrog over coal and natural gas, straight to renewables."
"Mobile phones are a good example: In countries where there was no infrastructure, no telephone lines, they went straight to mobiles," he says. "If one of these countries establishes its infrastructure for hydrogen, that's it, that's their infrastructure."
To that end, the center is making a major focus on remote communities and islands, areas where access to fossil fuels can be limited, sun and wind potential is generally high, and power grids -- if they exist -- can be unreliable due to geographic location or seasonal peak demand from, for example, summer visitors. All these are problems a system integrating indigenous clean-energy sources with hydrogen fuel cells, which can store excess energy until it's needed, would go a long way to solve.
"Fuel cells are not a panacea, but they will have a niche," Lymberopoulos says. "As I like to say, the space shuttle can't run on batteries."
Hydrogen-Fueled Ferries And Forklifts
ICHET's focus on small, concrete projects has yielded a variety of hydrogen-powered innovations, including a small back-up power system for an Istanbul ferry terminal, a prototype fuel-cell forklift, and a mobile home designed by graduate students.
The center is also currently supporting the development of about a dozen hydrogen-powered boats by Turkish universities and is co-developing a hybrid-electric bus and a hydrogen-powered catamaran that will both be fueled at a hydrogen production, storage, and refueling station along Istanbul's Golden Horn waterway. The facility will produce its own energy from photovoltaics and is expected to be the first in the world to refuel both buses and boats.
Outside of Turkey, ICHET is funding a wind-hydrogen project under development in Morocco and Mauritania and is providing both technical and financial support to a effort to establish a fleet of 15 hydrogen-fueled "tuk tuks" -- a type of three-wheeled motorized rickshaws commonly used in India -- to serve New Delhi's largest fair grounds.
"India has converted all of its fleets of buses and tuk tuks in its major cities to natural gas," says Lymberopoulos. "If they make a similar decision in favor of hydrogen, it really could create a hydrogen economy."
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