The much predicted dawning of the hydrogen economy, in which hydrogen will become the staple energy carrier, seems to have been brought closer by developments in fuel cell technology. Ideally, fuel cells fed with hydrogen will combine it with oxygen in a reverse electrolysis process that produces electricity. In practice, some fuel cell developers are tending to use fossil fuels instead of hydrogen, but the ideal is what the hydrogen economists are aiming for.

The flurry of hydrogen economy enthusiasm has shown itself during the last year or two’s US stock market gyrations as share-price boosts for such enterprises as the fuel cell developers Plug Power, IdaCorp, AvistaCorp, Ballard Power Systems, FuelCell Energy and Global Thermoelectric (not to mention other alternative energy firms such as AstroPower, the domestic solar electric developer).

I must say it warmed my heart to find in some of these outfits’ press releases an explanatory formula that, ideally, should appear more widely, throughout the world. Let me quote one example. Plug Power Inc, New York, announcing last year its intention to introduce fuel cell systems for dwelling-place power generation this year, said:

‘This press release may include statements which are not historical facts and are considered “forward-looking” within the meaning of the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995. These forward-looking statements reflect Plug Power’s current views about future events and financial performance. These forward-looking statements are identified by their use of terms and phrases such as “believe,” “expect,” “plan,” “anticipate,” and similar expressions… Investors should not rely on forward-looking statements because they are subject to a variety of risks, uncertainties, and other factors that could cause actual results to differ materially from Plug Power’s expectations, and Plug Power expressly does not undertake any duty to update forward-looking statements’.

SatCon Technology Corporation, Pittsburgh, another firm linked with the burgeoning fuel cell industry, is a developer of flywheels for uninterruptible power systems. In its release, issued at about the same time as Plug Power’s. it went one better. It followed its preamble about ‘statements that are not historical facts’ with a promise to provide from time to time information on ‘factors that could cause actual results to differ materially from those in the forward-looking statements…’.

The trouble with honest but formulaic cautions like these, unfortunately, is that, with repetition, they tend to become as invisible as health warnings on cigarette packets. But it seems that people do still have to be reminded of history’s reluctance to be foretold.

Switch on the night

Electric light abolished daylight-limited working hours. Three-shift factories, process plants, and of course power stations, became the norm. Nightworkers are notoriously less productive and more morose than dayworkers, but the fuller utilisation of the 24h has brought an absolute economic gain.

While electrically lit nightwork damps human spirits, night lights in a different ambience can raise them quite remarkably. Bright, active illuminations heighten revelry perhaps the more for their overt artificiality, but an Italian firm called iGuzzini has discovered that close simulation of natural light offers benefits too. The iGuzzini computer-controlled system brings something so like real sunlight into workplaces that their occupants – nocturnal public servants as well as industrial and commercial nightworkers – do much better jobs.

A more specific application of the same general principle, this time by a British company called Outside In, is a battery-powered ‘sun hat’. This is headgear that bathes its wearer in excellently mimicked spring-morning light and so banishes depression.

When I read stories like these in the newspapers I am assailed by doubts. Just as one’s taste tends to be dulled by over-exposure to any pleasant stimulus, so may be one’s responsiveness to even perfectly imitated sunshine. But I console myself with the thought that a remedy should not be too hard to contrive. Instead of, or as well as, electric light sources we shall have electric light sinks, computer-controlled of course, to optimise our overall performance.