The hydrogen economy describes a system in which our energy needs are predominantly met by hydrogen, rather than fossil fuels. This type of economy would rely on renewable resources in the form of hydrogen gas and water, drastically changing pollution, electricity sources, infrastructure, engines, and international trade, without impacting our quality of life. In a hydrogen economy, vehicles like cars and airplanes use hydrogen fuel cells for power, rather than petroleum distillates.
By conceiving of a hydrogen economy, we are referencing our increasing demand for clean-burning fuels that do not cause air and water pollution nor make us dependent on dwindling energy sources. It's important to see the ideal of the hydrogen economy as simultaneously addressing several problems with the current state of petroleum reliance. It is motivated by a combination of economics and environmentalism.
"Fossil" fuel is so named precisely because the fuel, such as coal and crude oil, was created by decaying organic matter millions of years ago. Therefore, it is only renewable on a very long time scale, and can be considered in limited supply. A hydrogen economy uses hydrogen gas, synthesized out of water and electricity, to power motors in cars. It is truly renewable. While the technology of hydrogen fuel cells is still evolving, it addresses the possibility that we will run out of available fuel. One day, we may be filling our tanks at a hydrogen station instead of a gas station.
A second reason the hydrogen economy is so appealing is that it burns fuel cleanly, releasing no pollutants. Our current fossil fuels leave behind many damaging chemicals, such as the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, and the pollutant carbon monoxide. These raise the global temperature, as well as pose health hazards. If buses, trains, planes, and cars ran on hydrogen, they would never need to pass a smog test, because byproducts of burning hydrogen are harmless.
Others argue, that the conversion to a hydrogen economy is a way to ensure that control of the U.S. economy remains in U.S. hands. OPEC, the largest oil cartel, for example has a surprising amount of control over the U.S. economy; when they decide to lower oil production, most of the economy is affected. Switching to a hydrogen economy would help to minimize much of this external control.
Theoretically, a change to a hydrogen economy would also require lasting changes in how we produce electricity. Currently, most electricity originates from generators powered by fossil fuels. Transportation machines need electricity to release hydrogen gas from liquid water, therefore the United States would need to double the amount of electricity it generates. Ideally, our electricity plants could also rely on renewable resources, such as nuclear power, solar panels, wind turbines, water dams, and geothermal devices. Therefore, the hydrogen economy describes drastically different infrastructures, automobiles, electricity plants, and modes of thinking.