Book Review

Powering the Future

Tomorrow's Energy: Hydrogen Fuel Cells and the Prospects for a Cleaner Planet
by Peter Hoffman


Publisher: MIT Press; Reprint edition (September 9, 2002)
ISBN: 026258221X
In-Print Editions: Hardcover & Paperback: 301 pages
Dimensions (in inches): 0.80 x 8.90 x 6.00


by Philip S. Wenz, Editor/Publisher

In 1981, Peter Hoffman wrote THE FOREVER FUEL: The Story of Hydrogen. At that time, the solar/hydrogen age which is currently dawning around us was a distant dream. Although visionaries, environmentalists and attentive observers knew that fossil fuels were a dead-end energy source, the words of these profits were falling on deaf ears. The so-called "energy crisis" of the 1970s—in which the Middle Eastern oil producing states raised the price of crude oil by a couple of dollars a barrel and the American distributors raised it by a more than a dollar a gallon—spurred a concentrated search for new oil sources. Many sources were found, and the price of oil, though rising gradually, has remained essentially stable until now. The 1980s were awash in oil, and alternative energy research and development was put on the back burner as federal and state tax incentives and other programs were cut or eliminated.

Despite those temporary setbacks, however, the alternative energy crowd could see that the fossil fuel tide would ebb, probably sooner than later. So they worked on, fighting their fight, promoting their cause. In 1986 Hoffman and his wife started The Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Letter which they publish to this day, and the doing of which has made placed them among the world's experts in hydrogen technology development. During the intervening decades, developments in hydrogen fuel technology rewarded them, gradually at first and dramatically in recent years, for their unflagging enthusiasm. The development of the Ballard Fuel Cell in the 1990s proved to be the breakthrough that the world had awaited, a keystone to the future hydrogen economy.

By the end of the 1990s, the means and the incentive for moving to a hydrogen economy had crossed a great divide, and it was time for another book. Hoffman responded with Tomorrow's Energy, the best nuts-and-bolts book on the current state of hydrogen fuel technology.

After a nice foreword by Senator Tom Harkin, Tomorrow's Energy proceeds logically, starting with "Why Hydrogen," a chapter on the basics. Hoffman then tells the interesting history of the discovery of hydrogen and its early use as an energy source as he lays the background for the central, nitty-gritty chapters on modern extraction methods, hydrogen vehicles and fuel cells. The rest of the book is devoted to non-fuel cell hydrogen uses—as rocket fuel, to replace natural gas in buildings, and for various industrial applications.

Like many writers on the subject, Hoffman feels the need to address what he calls the Hindenberg Syndrome—people's fear that hydrogen is less safe than fossil fuels because of the 1937 airship disaster. That hydrogen is in many ways safer than gasoline is a point made by Hoffman and many other fuel experts.

In a concluding chapter on "The Next 100 Years," Hoffman discusses various means of assessing the prospects for the timely arrival of the Hydrogen Economy. Though his conclusion is, realistically, non-conclusive, his methods for arriving are illustrative in and of themselves, offering the reader a variety of tools with which to asses the possibilities.

The overall feeling of Hoffman's essay is like that of a textbook—challenging, rich in data, logically arranged. Unlike most textbooks, however, which covers subjects like American History or Biochemistry that have been hashed and rehashed for decades, Hoffman's work covers an intrinsically exciting, fresh field. And unlike a typical textbook, each chapter begins with a story of real people engaged in real research or problem solving. Tomorrow's Energy is the best and most thorough introduction to a field which every ecological designer must understand.

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