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College of Technology Explores Hydrogen Potential
by Patia Stephens
The black-and-white photograph of a handful of children gathered around a lemonade stand looks straight out of “The Little Rascals.” Four young boys in flat-top haircuts run the wooden stand — which bears a sign announcing “Swiming Pool Benefit” — while two older sisters look on.
One of the boys behind the stand is R. Paul Williamson, now dean of The University of Montana College of Technology. It is with the story of this old photograph that Williamson opens his PowerPoint presentation on the potential for Montana to lead what he calls the “hydrogen energy revolution.”
The lemonade stand grew out of the 7-year-old Williamson’s dream of having a place to swim in his hometown of De Smet, S.D. He and his buddies raised seven dollars and 75 cents, and when Williamson turned the money over to his father, who sat on the city council, a swimming pool fund had to be started.
Williamson was a freshman in college when De Smet got its swimming pool.
Fast-forward a few decades to August 2002 on the COT campus, where some 90 people have gathered to learn more about hydrogen power and the dean’s ideas for harnessing it to turn around Montana’s sagging economy.
“I want to build the first hydrogen-powered campus in the world here in Missoula,” he tells the audience. “I’m thinking if we can make it work in Missoula, there’s no reason we can’t make it work across the state of Montana.”
Williamson says the state is poised to become a leader in the production of hydrogen energy and technologies, creating jobs and revenues while developing an environmentally friendly source of power. Hydrogen, he says, is the fuel of the very near future, and he points to hydrogen-related research, development and planning under way in other states and countries.
“Montana is uniquely situated at a critical point in time to become a key hydrogen energy producer,” he says. “No other state has all the natural resources needed to meet the hydrogen challenge. We have a great opportunity to be a leader in the hydrogen revolution.”
The simplest, most abundant element in the universe, hydrogen most often is found in combination with oxygen as water (H2O) or in hydrocarbon organic compounds such as natural gas. When hydrogen is separated from oxygen or hydrocarbons into either a liquid or a gas, it seeks only to reunite, an electrochemical process that creates water and heat energy as byproducts. Hydrogen fuel cells, which facilitate this process, currently power the space shuttle, buildings and prototype automobiles made by General Motors Corp., BMW and others.
Williamson’s presentation bursts at least one bubble: Hydrogen no longer is implicated in the 1937 Hindenburg airship disaster. Rather, a former NASA scientist discovered in the late 1990s that the paint used to coat the Hindenburg’s skin was made from the same explosive compound used in rocket fuel. In a recent PBS documentary, the scientist alleges a Nazi cover-up of the truth.
Williamson sees nonpolluting hydrogen-powered snowmobiles as just one potential use that brings benefits to Montana — not to mention calm to Yellowstone National Park. He envisions a statewide network of businesses that produce hydrogen and hydrogen-related products ranging from fuel cells to appliances. Hydrogen production could draw clean, high-tech industry and associated high-paying jobs to the state, he says, while creating value-added potential for Montana’s natural resources.
“Hydrogen is the currency of the future,” he says. “Business and job creation is vital to anything we do in this state.”
Hydrogen-powered schools, he believes, have the potential to put Montana’s education budget back in the black. Hydrogen’s ability to harness solar and wind power could even save family farms, he says. Indeed, many experts see hydrogen as the bridge that will help the world transition from nonrenewable to renewable sources of energy.
The U.S. Department of Energy has extensive hydrogen information on its Web site, including the results of a National Hydrogen Vision Meeting held in November 2001 in Washington, D.C., where dozens of high-level representatives gathered to identify the potential for a future hydrogen economy.
“Some experts think that hydrogen will form the basic energy infrastructure that will power future societies, replacing today’s natural gas, oil, coal and electricity infrastructures,” states the DOE Web site. “They see a new hydrogen economy to replace our current energy economies, although that vision probably won’t happen until far in the future.”
Williamson thinks the time is ripe for Montana to establish itself as a forerunner in the hydrogen energy revolution. Other states, including California, Hawaii and Michigan, already have established state hydrogen plans. The dean would like to see Montana take the lead by moving quickly.
“The tendency is to just look at the here and now,” he says. “But we also have to have a foot in the future.”
In several months of research, Williamson has made contacts in U.S. government and in the budding hydrogen industry who confirm that his idea is a workable one. Montana’s natural resources of oil, gas, coal, wind, biomass, water, solar energy, carbon and platinum make the state a natural for hydrogen production, he says.
The first step, Williamson says, is for Montanans to become educated and excited about hydrogen’s potential. He’s also kicked off the Montana Futures Coalition, a group open to state political, educational and community leaders who want to foster a statewide production system for hydrogen and related products. He envisions creation of the Montana Energy Products Network and establishment of an “H2 Futures Park” at the college, which would train the high-tech workforce needed for hydrogen development.
“Keys to our success must include leadership, innovation, collaboration, proactive education and the creation of funding streams,” he says. “New thinking and new skills will pave the way for extensive business and job development.”
Williamson concludes his presentation with “the rest of the story” about his youthful experience in turning lemons into lemonade. De Smet’s swimming pool soon was joined by a new golf course, new housing and other developments. And it all started, he says, with seven dollars and 75 cents — and the belief that anything was possible. V
For more information, visit the College of Technology Web site or call (406) 243-7852.