I meet Professor Bragi Árnason at his small office in the basement of the chemistry building at the University of Iceland. In the opinion of the Economist, World Technology Intelligence, and other magazines, to say nothing of the academic community at large, Bragi Árnason is one of the most accomplished and important researchers in the world, and yet, in our brief correspondence before the interview, he has said nothing about the praise or media attention he receives. Instead, he has treated me more as a student; if I am interested in hydrogen, the important thing is to know the facts, less important is that I know his role.
As I get seated, he immediately jumps into “How can I help you?” and asks if I’m familiar with the articles he sent me—“Future Power” by World Technology Intelligence, and “The Road from a Fossil Fuel to a Sustainable Energy Economy: The Strategy in Iceland” published in The Green Cross Optimist, the magazine Mikhail Gorbachev founded. I nervously answer yes.
A man of science, he pauses just before the interview to remind me that “Future Power” presents an excellent interview, and as I would probably ask the same questions, I should refer to that article. The interview he subsequently gives, then, is just to supplement additional material. Even as I leave after an hour-long interview, he still believes I’d be better off using other sources than just a conversation with him.
One thing that people don’t realize is that before you were Professor Hydrogen, you were Professor Geothermal Groundwater.
I’m a physical chemist, and as you’ve read in my short biography, I finished my studies in Germany and started a very extensive study in 1962 of groundwater systems, on geothermal groundwater systems. And after 15 years of studying the origin, nature and flow patterns, combined with other work, we had a good picture of the size of the geothermal energy source in Iceland.
And before you did the research, did you think you were going to tap out soon?
We found that we had only 1% of the geothermal energy harnessed. And then it was natural for someone working in an academic environment to say that we have these large energy sources but we still imported one third of the energy for the country. It was natural to think, “Can’t we somehow use our own energy sources to make some type of fuel that will replace imported fuels?” And I wrote the first articles on this in 1978. Since then we have been working on the idea of converting Iceland into a country where all the energy consumption comes from domestic energy sources. And we hope that this could be done maybe in forty years.
I’ve read that you had a goal of 2050 for getting rid of fossil fuels in Iceland.
We are talking about 2040 or so. And then Iceland will be totally independent of imported fossil fuels and the greenhouse gas emissions will drop to about 45% of the present level.
So the drop in greenhouse gasses is a bonus, then. You were primarily concerned with having a domestic energy.
In the beginning we were experimenting with a range of fuels. From methanol to ammonia.
Yes, we had an engine running on ammonia. But then with the breakthroughs in fuel cells, we became focused on hydrogen.
How much time do you have? I have a visitor from Japan coming by soon, but I can show you a recent presentation I did on our Hydrogen research in Portugal.
Do you have a lot of foreign visitors?
(Slides open desk drawer to show a massive brick of bound business cards and smiles.)
Most of them are from Japan.
(I don’t realize until later that he means Japanese car manufacturers, who have become increasingly interested in using Professor Árnason’s work in testing and developing hydrogen cars for private use.)
The great interest in hydrogen and in Iceland is mainly because of the current news about the energy consumption. There are indications that the world is going to face an energy crisis in the very near future. Right now 79.6% of the world’s energy comes from fossil fuels, of which 35.3% comes from oil.
In 1956, an American geologist [M. King] Hubbert presented an extensive study claiming the US oil production capacity would peak in 1972. It peaked in 1970, so he wasn’t very far off.
Using those same methods, a man named [Kenneth S.] Deffeyes predicted the world’s oil production will peak in 2006, and there’s nothing we can do about that.
I also sometimes mention China as an important example. You’ve heard about the Three Gorges Project in China. That is a huge project, producing 18,000 megawatts of power, more than 10 times the power used in Iceland. But it has been pointed out that in addition to the Three Gorges Project, China will need an additional 600,000 megawatts of power for the next 20 years. And this is only China. Then you have the rest of the developing world.
Of course China could build coal-powered power plants. China is sitting on a coal mountain. But what will happen if all the developing countries approach the per capita electricity that we now consume in Europe or the United States?
A disturbing idea. How do you react if people say you’re just trying to frighten them?
I was at a meeting in London last year, and there were some Chinese representatives there, and they said they were really looking into coal-based power production there. But anyway, we must very rapidly increase energy production in the world.
In the long term, solar offers the long-term solutions. Solar energy is a huge energy source. It has been estimated that the solar energy on the surface of the planet is about 3000 times current energy consumption. Of course we will only be able to harness a very small fraction. At any rate, it is by far the biggest energy source in the world.
Most agree that in 20 to 30 years, solar energy will be able to be efficiently converted directly to electricity. In the second half of the century, solar power will be a primary energy source. But we somehow must bridge the gap between now and when solar energy becomes economical. So we must increase our investment in any type of renewables.
Okay, so why hydrogen?
You need a storage medium, even when you get electricity. Hydrogen is relatively cheap to produce and it is absolutely clean and sustainable.
And you use hydrogen to store energy produced by another method. In Iceland that means geothermal and hydroelectric energy.
Hydroelectric is a secondary solar energy, but no, we don’t have to wait the 20 years for solar energy. We have an abundant clean energy source. So we can start now. Iceland is a very small society but it is a real society, with a real infrastructure. People think this is a very attractive prototype to start a hydrogen society on a small scale.
But hydrogen still isn’t cheap to make. That takes a large investment.
We have been producing hydrogen for 50 years.
Why would you do that?
For fertilizer. The production costs for hydrogen were about 2-3 times the cost of gasoline, when gasoline was $25 a barrel. It is now closer to $50 a barrel. So hydrogen almost costs the same as gas. But this only tells you half the story, because when you use fuel cells, the energy efficiency is much greater, it is 2-3 times higher than gasoline. In our busses, there is a 60% efficiency rating for a fuel cell compared with 20% for a gasoline bus.
Why are fuel cells so much more efficient?
Because gas engines turn the fuel into heat first, then energy. Fuel cells go directly into electricity. Theoretically they could go to 100%, but 60% is a reasonable expectation.
And in Iceland we have a very low electricity cost.
So right now you have cheap power, experience with hydrogen. What is the timeline for making Iceland fossil fuel free?
This all started in 1978, when we started to discuss this idea in the academic community. Then in 1990, we were invited to a meeting in Hamburg, which brought a great deal of interest back home. In 1997, the Minister of Energy launched a “Domestic Fuel Production” project. And in 1998, Daimler Chrysler called the Icelandic ambassador, just as the Japanese gentleman has done for today, saying he wanted a government opinion on hydrogen.
There are five phases, the first starting in 2000, with demonstrations of public transit and private cars.
You’re going to test private hydrogen cars here as well?
Yes, the first hydrogen cars should be tested not later than the next decade. The large automakers in Japan have publicly announced that they will have a hydrogen car on the market by 2010. And GM has claimed that they will begin marketing hydrogen cars in the year 2010. Two months ago, GM ran a private car 480 km on one fueling. Which demonstrates that they have gotten past the bottleneck of hydrogen storage.
With the prototypes, you can see Iceland will be an ideal testing ground. To drive the Ring Road, you would only need five fuelling stations. To go everywhere in the country you would need a minimum of 15 stations
What comes after the test of private cars?
I hope to see the first fishing vessels in five to six years. This is extremely difficult because people purchase a fishing vessel for use for 30 years. Every step takes a long time. The whole transition to a new energy source should take 50 years. This is how it has gone in the past. It takes three generations to go from one energy source to another.
Regarding the first test run, that of the busses, am I correct in stating that your project is not a part of ECTOS and CUTE, and that you’ll be continuing to run the busses after the initial two year trial?
Yes, we will continue to run the busses.
What is your hope for where this goes?
(Grabbing a piece of paper)
If you look at the history of mankind, if you go back to 10,000 BC, mankind was only using renewable energy sources and solar energy. It wasn’t until the 18th century that you saw fossil fuels used on a large scale. If you trace this timeline on, we will enter what I like to refer to as the second solar energy age. In the history of mankind, then, fossil fuel usage will just be a blip.
Professor Bragi Árnason continues to work at the University of Iceland, supervising research on hydrogen storage, hydrogen extraction, and related fields. For more information, visit the Bragastofa, Hydrogen Energy Research Institute home page, http://bolverkur.raunvis.hi.is/bragastofa.