Iceland: Where Hydrogen Energy Is Hot!

The energy world is watching Iceland with awe. Why? Because this island country to the north has begun implementing a plan to become the first economy in the world fueled by hydrogen. The idea is not new. In 1874, author Jules Verne predicted that water would be the fuel of the future.

Gulping Fuel!

Situated just below the Arctic Circle, Iceland hosts a lifestyle that requires huge quantities of energy. Because of the cold climate, buildings and houses need large amounts of heat. A small population living on a big island means traveling long distances. The large fishing trawlers, which provide 70 percent of Iceland's exports, need oil and gasoline to run. It is no wonder that Iceland uses more energy per capita than any other European country.

With no fossil fuel resources of its own, Iceland must import them. In the first half of the 20th century, importing coal and oil became a strain on the island's economy; it became particularly risky during World War II. Even worse, Reykjavik, the capital city, had a major smog problem, and the pollution was harming the fishing industry.

Eager to become less dependent on imported energy, Iceland replaced two-thirds of its coal and oil energy with renewable sources. They harnessed the abundant hydroelectric and geothermal power on the island. Now, geothermal energy is used for heat and for everything from hot water to vegetable greenhouses. Hydroelectric and geothermal power provide electricity to almost 100 percent of the island's people.

Iceland has already gone further than any other nation in using its abundant sources of renewable energy. Yet, it still produces more greenhouse gas emissions per person than any other country. The reason? The island still relies on imported oil to power all of its cars, buses, and fishing trawlers. But this is changing.

Enter the Fuel Cell

The key to Iceland's energy restructuring is the fuel cell. Fuel cells provide a solution to the problem of how to convert renewable resources. By using the energy of hydroelectric and geothermal power, it is possible—through the process of electrolysis—to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. The energy released can then be stored and transported in the form of hydrogen fuel cells. The cells are highly efficient when used to power cars, buses, and fishing trawlers, and they are quiet, too. The only emission from a hydrogen fuel cell–powered vehicle would be water.

On October 2, 2003, three hydrogen fuel cell buses arrived in Reykjavik. Built by DaimlerChrysler, these buses operate on normal service routes and refuel at the Shell Hydrogen station.

Plenty of groundwork preceded the buses' arrival. In 1997, the Icelandic government announced its intention to transform Iceland into an economy fueled by hydrogen. The first country in the world to make a full commitment to a sustainable, nonpolluting energy system, the Icelandic government set a time line for completion of this transformation in 2050.

Iceland's Althing, or parliament, set up a committee to study the transformation. In 1999, DaimlerChrysler, Norsk Hydro, and Royal Dutch/Shell entered into a joint venture with Vistorka, an Icelandic consortium, to create the Iceland New Energy Co. Ltd. All of these companies came into the venture with experience in fuel cells and hydrogen.

In April 2003, Shell Hydrogen launched the first commercial hydrogen fuel station in Reykjavik. It is actually beside and part of a traditional Shell gasoline fuel station. It produces its own hydrogen from tap water and electricity from Iceland's hydroelectric and geothermal energy sources.

Right now, the three hydrogen fuel–celled buses will be the hydrogen fueling station's only customers. For two years, the buses will be demonstrated, tested, and used to research the social acceptance and environmental aspects of hydrogen technology in Icelandic conditions, and to see if they are cost effective. Three buses amount to 4 percent of the total bus fleet in Reykjavik. But, should they be successful, the goal is to replace the entire fleet with them.

The next step may come as early as this year, when Iceland will begin buying hydrogen fuel cell automobiles for government fleets. At the same time, more hydrogen filling stations will be needed. In three years, hydrogen-powered private cars will be introduced to the Icelandic market, and by 2015, the Icelandic government is scheduled to begin renewing the fishing fleet using fuel cells.

The Future of Fuel Cells

Although fuel cell technology has advanced by leaps and bounds in the last ten years, Iceland's progress will depend “on the speed of technological development, and on the creativity and leadership of scientists, engineers, and industry leaders,” says Siv Fridleifsdottir, Iceland's minister for the environment.

Iceland has become a 39,000-square-mile laboratory for a hydrogen-based economy. Although small (only 290,000 people), it is a highly developed society with experience in switching from one energy source to another. Its standards and transport systems are similar to those in most other developed countries, so the results of its research project could easily be applied to other nations. The harsh Icelandic weather, its seasonal changes, and its varied landscape will be a good test for the new technology.

There are still some problems that Iceland must overcome. Cost and storage are just two. Hydrogen is the lightest element in the universe, and finding a convenient, cheap form of storage remains a big problem. The cost of fuel cells, although much more reasonable than in the past, still remains high. Replacing gasoline stations with hydrogen fueling stations and other necessary infrastructure is also costly. Valgerdur Sverrisdottir, Iceland's minister for industry, says that the government is doing all it can to help Iceland New Energy overcome these obstacles. And it helps that Icelanders are proud of the fact that about two-thirds of their energy consumption is from renewable energy sources, according to Sverrisdottir. “When the hydrogen technology becomes economically feasible, I think that Icelanders will be quick to adopt the new technology,” she says.

What Is a Fuel Cell?

There is a graphic showing how H2 and O2 molecules interact.

A fuel cell is a device that uses hydrogen and oxygen to create electricity by an electrochemical process. It operates like a battery that can be recharged while you are drawing power from it.

Hydrogen fuel is fed into the anode (positively charged electrode) of the fuel cell. Oxygen or air enters the fuel cell through the cathode (negatively charged electrde). Encouraged by a catalyst, the hydrogen atom splits into a proton and and electron. The proton moves throught the electrolyte to the cathode and combines with the oxygen and electrons, producing water and heat.

The electron cannot pass through the electroyte and must travel around it via an electric circut to reach the other side of the cell. This movement of electrons create an electrical current.

Since a single fuel cell produces only about 0.7 volt, individual fuel cells are typically combined in a series to form a fuel cell stack. A typical stack may consist of hundreds of fuel cells.

NASA has been using fuel cells since the 1960s. Today, the space shuttle's electricty is provided by fuel cells, and the same fuel cells provide drinking water for its crew.


Chemical change produced in an electrolyte, a chemical compound that ionizes (atoms give up or take on an electron) when dissolved to produce an electrically conductive medium.

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  1. How does a fuel cell produce water?
    [anno: A fuel cell produces water by passing hydrogen through an anode and oxygen through a cathode. After a catalyst is introduced, the hydrogen atom loses a proton. The proton bonds with an oxygen molecule to produce water.]
  2. The standard voltage for appliances in the United States is 120 volts. How many fuel cells would you need to power a standard appliance?
    [anno: To power a standard appliance, you would need approximately 171 fuel cells.]
  3. Think of another form of energy that is produced by chemical change. How is this energy used? What are the byproducts of the chemical change? What is done with the byproduct? Write a few sentences to describe another energy source that is produced by chemical change.
    [anno: Answers will vary.]