Hydrogen is coming...

For the clean car of tomorrow, we envisage the advent of a true "hydrogen economy" because this element, inexhaustible on a global scale, can become an energy vector as important as electricity.

For almost two years, the concept of the hydrogen economy has become one of the major foundations around which the European Union has been focusing its entire sustainable energy policy for the coming decades.

Why is this central option, which also involves all energy research, so strong?

For a budget of 54 million euros, of which nearly 18 million euros are provided by the Union, a particularly ambitious European demonstration project, called Cute (Clean Urban Transport for Europe), unites a large consortium of nearly thirty participants. It brings together fuel cell developers, vehicle manufacturers, hydrogen industries, urban transport operators and municipal authorities. The aim is to put into service, in real-life conditions, a fleet of 27 prototype hydrogen buses, clean and silent, in the public transport networks of nine European cities.

A decade ago, it was at most an 'alternative that is still far away', a 'future perspective'. Moreover, the emphasis was not so much on hydrogen per se, but on the "fuel cell". This technological option, hitherto unfamiliar to the general public, was mainly presented as the formula that could make the "cars of tomorrow" run, in a completely clean way.

The time of the electric car

This was the time when it became quite obvious that the "all fossil" in terms of transport - and other uses - would have an end. In the longer term, resources would run out and the threat of climate change would begin to be taken seriously.

a first alternative developed was the electric car - in "pure" version or hybrid version - equipped with rechargeable batteries. Much research has been - and still is - conducted in this direction and has led to significant progress. Various fleets of vehicles from this sector are now circulating. Particularly suitable for the fight against pollution in urban areas, this generation of the 100% electric car, however, faces the limits of its autonomy and the heaviness of charging operations. A broad preference is therefore given to hybrid vehicles, although interesting in many respects, but which can only reduce - and not eliminate - dependence on petroleum fuels.

Turn to the PaC

Compared to rechargeable batteries, the fuel cell (PaC) has therefore been strengthened as a decidedly attractive alternative. The principle, known for ages, is almost too good to be true. Hydrogen, combined with oxygen from the ambient air, produces current capable of powering a vehicle's engine. Instead of exhaust gases from internal combustion engines, the residue is water and a little heat... Theoretical emission rate of CO2 and other pollutants harmful to the environment and health: zero. These batteries have two other significant advantages: high energy efficiency and no noise pollution.

During the 1990s, the impetus given to the development of the PACs, mainly focused on the automotive sector very involved in this movement, was considerably amplified. In Europe, the United States, Canada and Japan, public programs have funded contracts involving research organizations and companies. Thus, at the end of the '90s, the two major European projects Fever (led by Renault and Volvo) and Hydro-Gen (PSA-Peugeot-Citroon) led to the presentation of the first 'prototype cars in PaC', with road performance Convincing. At the same time, DaimlerChrysler and Opel-GM have also developed their intensive demonstration program with their respective Necar and HydroGen models.

The release of these prototypes has a huge merit: they demonstrate that the potential of the PaC sector is very real. At the same time, these successes show the huge gap that separates such an innovative concept from its extensive application. For, in the current energy structures of the company where oil is king, these cars of tomorrow can only remain non-commercial "curiosities". A real, much more global transformation is needed if we want to give this new generation of vehicles the slightest chance of ever entering the market.

Hydrogen enters the scene

The issue of fuel cells has thus begun to embrace a new and renewed approach to the entire energy equation of the contemporary world. A new global concept has arisen: that of the hydrogen economy. From 2002, EU officials will make it a real workhorse of a European sustainable energy policy.

What motivates and encompasses such a strategic axis? A particularly abundant "elementary" resource on a global scale - not only in the vastness of its ocean and river waters, but also in the entire organic world, from biomass to hydrocarbons themselves - hydrogen potentially appears as a gigantic manna with high energy release capacity. Faced with the nagging climate problem that today plagues human society, its massive development would drastically reduce CO2 emissions.

But hydrogen is still a paradoxical resource. It does not exist anywhere on Earth in an isolated state. It must therefore be produced first, with the use of other primary energy sources. Two processes to do this are already available: on the one hand, hydrogen can be extracted from fossil resources, while capturing and sequestering CO2 emissions; on the other hand, it can also be obtained by electrolysis of the water. Once produced, hydrogen can then be stored and transported. These operations, which have already been established in feasibility, require many adaptations.

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