A centrepiece at the most recent annual symposium of the World Nuclear Association was the inauguration of the World Nuclear University. Among the great and the good taking part in the ceremony was Dr Geoffrey Ballard, the fuel cell celebrity who was titled ‘Hero of the Planet’ by the influential US news journal, Time, and who has earnt numerous international honours for his work on energy, transport, fuel cells and environmental benefit. He used the occasion to deliver a welcome reprise of his paper for the previous year’s symposium.

His audience was thus reminded of the proposal that automobiles, powered by hydrogen fuel cells, should provide civilisation’s landborne transport, because they are free of noxious emissions, and should also supply domestic and other power when stationary. If four per cent of California’s automobiles were powered by fuel cells, their electrical generating capacity would exceed that of all the fixed generating plant in the state, claimed Ballard in his 2002 symposium paper.

Gossip has it that another North American iconoclast, the Grand Old Man of ‘the soft energy path’,* Amory Lovins, has been promoting a ‘hypercar’ with the same sort of off-road generating capability as Ballard’s proposed vehicles. But Lovins is famously against large central power stations and would no doubt reject out of hand Ballard’s contention at the WNA symposium that nuclear fission is the sole primary source of energy required, of course in a hydrogen economy fuelled by nuclear-powered electrolysis of water and served by fuel-cell-powered transport.

If two such formidable antagonists can both espouse the automobile, I guess that the beast may have an environment-friendly future after all. And hydrocarbons can thankfully be reserved for employment as chemical feedstocks.

Stranger things happen at sea

There is nothing in MPS’s title or constitution to say that the ‘power’ the journal deals with must be only electrical. We are just as devoted to mechanical power. After all, electric motors, solenoids etc exist mainly to do mechanical work. And most of the world’s electrical power generation depends on mechanical prime movers ranging from diesel engines to turbines driven by steam, wind, water or burning gases.

Which of course you know very well already. But I am moved to this utterance by a brush with a bantering critic. He is a hydrogen economy aficionado who suggested that our concern with electrical transmission and distribution implies ignorance or fear of potential competition from piped hydrogen. And I am still simmering a little at an underlying hint that MPS vision is to that extent blinkered.

I had to admit that some of us may be drawn more to wind turbines that drive electricity generators than to those that drive water pumps: and more perhaps to biogas for diesel gensets than to the same stuff for domestic cookers: and more, possibly, to photovoltaic arrays powering electrical gear than to solar stills producing clean water: and so on. But I deny that obsession with ‘electronic’ (ie electric current) transport of energy blinds us to the case for so-called ‘protonic’ (ie hydrogen) energy transport.

My defences were perhaps least effective when I was reminded by my tormentor of a movement that was brought to life by the 1970s’ energy crises and about which I feel a touch sentimental. The cry was for reversion to wind power for ship propulsion, a topic which excited some inventors and even some investors and royal persons, and there were startling proposals for vessels with screw propellers electrically driven by vertical- or horizontal-axis wind turbines.

Traditionalists pined for the return of square-riggers swarming with seamen, naturally, but burgeoning advances in aerodynamics were inspiring marine designers at least as much as they were invigorating the designers of wind turbines for power generation. More so, perhaps, for the sailing-ship projects differed even more radically from nineteenth-century vessels than the elegant new three-, two- and single-bladed wind turbine generators differed from classical Dutch and American windmills.

I have not approached the editor with any suggestion that MPS advocate an environmentally beneficial and energy conserving revival of wind propulsion at sea, but I am sure that he would take a broad-minded view if I did. However, I think that I might be more successful if I could offer him news of ideas for fuel-cell-equipped ships refilling tanks with hydrogen at ports refurbished to supply the ‘protonic’ stuff. Meanwhile Boeing is reportedly working on fuel cells for auxiliary or main propulsive power in aircraft.

* Lovins’ ‘soft energy path’ combines commitment to efficient use of energy, rapid development of renewable energy sources matched in scale and energy quality to end-use, and transitional fossil fuel

technologies. By disfavoured contrast, Lovins’ ‘hard energy path’ is continued reliance on centralised high technologies to increase

energy supplies, especially in the form of electricity.