You won the award together with two others. How does that work?
The official explanation is that Professor Sigfusson gets it for the research and development of hydrogen as an energy carrier and the impact in Iceland and the world. The two other scientists get it for different things. There’s no use to mention it but they also bring the size of the prize to the same level of the Nobel Prize. We’re talking about 37 million ISK for my part – it’s an amazing thing for a scientist. Halldór Laxness of course won the [Nobel] prize in ’52, that was a similar thing, and he bought himself a Jaguar car. I’ve been joking that I will try to get a hydrogen powered Jaguar.
What is Iceland’s place in the world in the area of hydrogen?
I would start by telling you that in the course of the 20th century Iceland gradually displaced a lot of fossil fuels from its portfolio. It for example displaced the use of coal for heating houses in Reykjavík in the period after the Second World War and right now the use of renewables is about 72% of the whole country’s portfolio – which is the highest in the world. Next is New Zealand with 57%. So the fact that we have to import our oil and gasoline to Iceland – there’s no coal import anymore – for the transport sector, fishing fleet and now airplanes is a question of lack of security of delivery of fuels so there’s been quite an interest in Iceland to try to replace this with domestically produced fuels.
What options do we have? Iceland is a rather cold country so bio-fuels à la Brazil are not really in the picture here but there is a well known possibility to split water using electricity – its called electrosis – and make hydrogen and we started doing that at the beginning of the new millennium. We started Icelandic New Energy Ltd as a spin off from the University of Iceland. The aim of Icelandic New Energy was to help to create a hydrogen energy society. We started by setting up a hydrogen fuelling station and gathering a lot of experience for the world market. For example, when we first got the [hydrogen] buses in 2003 the sensitive hydrogen system could not withstand frost, but now these systems can go to -20°C so a lot of learning has been provided for the world from here.
Are there any plans for any more [hydrogen powered] buses?
The buses will be ready in I think 2009. Daimler Chrysler is expecting a new generation of buses where they have used the learning curve from here and elsewhere to improve the systems.
You might also want to know about the sort of work I’ve been doing in Iceland on hydrogen. I defined something I called geo-thermal hydrogen. So it’s the link between geothermal energy and hydrogen which has been the content of my own research. For example, I have been extracting hydrogen out of geothermal gases. I have been using a geothermal system to power a hydrogen compressor and things like that and my graduate students have been quite active with me in this realisation. So this would be my own unique contribution to the old science.
So, what does it take to make hydrogen cars produced or available to people on a mass scale? How is this going to take place?
I would say that we are probably today in a similar position as the makers of the combustion automobile engine in 1907. It’s a technology in its infancy and the cost of making these things needs to be reduced a lot. To give you an example, our kind of benchmark is the cost of producing a diesel or gasoline engine which is about $35 per kilowatt. Now our cost of producing a hydrogen engine is unfortunately maybe five times higher and this needs to be gradually reduced and the market will not accept this until we have a competitive price. […]. But you know, countries or civilizations will need generations to change the fuel base and in the last century we for example changed the energy system twice. First in the 1920s to hydro-electric power and then in the post World War II period to geothermal. I think the first half of this century will be devoted to alternative energies replacing oil.
There’s been a shift in focus in the discussion on the environment. In the past, hydrogen- electrical and geothermal power was the focus but in recent months the focus has been on reducing the direct impact of humans [eg. carbon emissions and waste disposal]. Why has it taken this long for that shift to take place? There were two things that motivated our work in hydrogen. One was energy security or insecurity with the import of oil and gas and the foreseen limit of availability of oil on Earth. The second is the situation with the atmosphere – the emissions. Actually, Iceland by converting the car fleet to hydrogen we would reduce our carbon emissions dramatically. So right now Icelanders are probably spewing out 11 tonnes of CO² per capita per year whereas the OECD average is maybe 7. America’s is of course the dirtiest – it’s maybe 23 tonnes per capita per year. If we could get the [car] fleet over to hydrogen – and the fishing fleet – we would probably go down by more than half, so it would be dramatic.
But, with the fishing fleet – is that something that is realistic? Obviously you would need a new fleet? <
That’s an excellent question because running the fishing fleet [on hydrogen] is going to require a lot of infrastructure investment – yes. And the old trawlers will last for almost [another] 40 years so we have to assume that such a transition will have to take a long time and then another problem with hydrogen is that it is very difficult to compress in the same way as say diesel. It requires a lot of volume. It’s like the same volume of a gasoline tank using hydrogen gases will only lead to a third of the range.
But, has it been done before [converting fishing boats to hydrogen]?
Yes, I tell you what, the Russians have even tried hydrogen on airplanes. Boats – yes, it has sort of been done in limited experiments. There are submarines in Germany that run on hydrogen. And, in one year from now Icelandic New Energy will be working with hydrogen in a whale watching boat. The whale watching boat will be installing a partial hydrogen system. So when you are on the [whale watching] spot you can shut off the main engine and run on a quiet battery-like hydrogen system.
The discussion on hydrogen has been ongoing for some time. What’s new and why do you focus on it?
I see the present energy system on Earth as something we have inherited from some stone age and burning these hydro-carbons as we do is not the sustainable way of treating Earth so I realise that a fuel which is renewable, like hydrogen, is necessary to break this vicious circle that humankind is in. But at the same time I realise that it is going to be very difficult – there are no patent solutions. This is quite a challenge and this is why I am interested in it. It’s a challenge from many points of views – societal, scientific… we are looking towards a paradigm shift. A paradigm shift in energy, in fuels on Earth has not taken place. In the whole history of humankind we’ve been burning things and we go to the hydrogen thing it’s a different story all together.
New things happening? Well, what I could tell you is that if the government of for example the US had the same vision for hydrogen as they had for the moon race – they simply defined a goal and put more money into it – we would solve this thing in five years. So my message to you is that we need some sort of a moon race for hydrogen.
Leading up to the elections, many of the parties have a green agenda. Do you think this is going to continue [after the elections]?
Yes, I think so because I think environmental discussions are here to be. It’s an amazing transition that has taken place. When I started talking about the need for this towards the end of the 20th century, some of the advisors of our government said “Well, we don’t really believe in this man-made CO² thing – is it real?” and you don’t hear these views anymore. But there were advisors to our ministers who claimed this. It was amazing and actually these voices were fuelled by I think some of the oil companies who really thought that they would be in a better position if they put some doubt into the whole discussion. Last year the secretary of the Royal Society in London sent a very harsh letter to the CEO of Exxon Mobil US saying that it was shameful to notice that Exxon Mobil had been supporting funds to spread this doubt.
Maybe you can’t really compare it… but it sounds a bit like the story of tobacco.
No, […] I was at a conference last year and this analogy was taken. And what is the situation with tobacco’s health these days? Zero doubt. So, this is the world we live in.