The future is wherever people are “thinking outside the box,” seeking atypical solutions to problems of the status quo.

Take Takeshi Uchiyamada for example. Uchiyamada headed the research team that created the world’s first hybrid car, the Toyota Prius. “Forget about concentrating on such things as trivial increments in performance or cost cutting,” he tells his young researchers. “If you restrict yourself to refining the prevailing paradigm, you will never come up with an earth-shattering idea or technology.”

Most of us have a hard time shaking these paradigms. A year or so ago I was chastised by a reader for suggesting that hydrogen would soon become a viable energy source. He said it wouldn’t be possible for 50 years, if ever. Turns out he was wrong by about half a century. This month, Toyota and GM announced plans to work together on developing a fuel-cell engine. It will be powered with hydrogen extracted from gasoline, and a prototype could be on the road before the end of 2001.

Vindication is sweet, and car makers taking steps in search of alternatives to burning fossil fuels is even sweeter. Unfortunately, reforming hydrogen from gasoline and methane still creates carbon dioxide, the primary cause of global warming and climate change. The future demands a larger leap. In Iceland, for instance, the entire nation is thinking outside the box. The government has announced its intention to adopt a hydrogen-based economy by the year 2030.

No oil, no coal, no nuclear reactors: Icelanders are determined to build an economy based on renewable resources, with hydrogen as “an energy carrier.” Ideally the hydrogen will be produced from water, using electrolysis to split the water into hydrogen and oxygen. Renewable sources of energy (hydro and geothermal) will be used to generate the electricity needed for electrolysis, and the hydrogen produced will be used in fuel cells that generate electricity where and when needed.

Like I said, ideally. The leaders of this revolutionary experiment are keenly aware there is no guarantee of success. They also know, however, that the prevailing global paradigm of fossil fuel dependence is a dead end, economically and environmentally, particularly for Iceland. As the architect of Iceland’s conversion to hydrogen, Bragi Arnason, a chemistry professor at the University of Iceland, told Worldwatch magazine (Nov/Dec.2000), “I think we could be a pilot country, giving a vision of the world to come.”

No nation is better situated to pursue such a vision. Some might say it has no other choice. Located just south of the Arctic Circle, Iceland is rocky and mountainous, with little green to speak of except moss, according to Worldwatch writer Seth Dunn. Glaciers cover 11 percent of the 100,000-sq.-km country, and most of the population, totaling less than 300,000, lives in a few coastal cities.

Iceland has taken up the hydrogen challenge for three reasons, writes Dunn. First, Iceland is heavily dependent on oil but has no domestic supplies. Second, great strides have been made in the development of hydrogen-powered fuel cells, making hydrogen economically viable. Third, the problem of carbon dioxide emissions is forcing the world to seek alternatives to fossil fuels in order to counter the threat of climate change.

Despite Iceland’s bleak landscape, it has two things in abundance that bode well for hydrogen independence: geothermal energy and falling water. Ninety percent of the nation’s buildings are heated with geothermal water, according to Dunn, and only 1 percent of geothermal potential is being tapped. With icy water cascading down from massive glaciers and boiling water bubbling up from beneath the island, Iceland is in the enviable position of producing 99.9 percent of its electricity from these two renewable energy sources.

Overall, writes Dunn, Iceland gets about 58 percent of its total energy use, including transportation, from renewable resources.

Still, the country relies on coal for 4 percent of its energy supply and oil provides another 38 percent. Iceland spends $150 million a year on oil, most of it for transportation and fishing, and carbon dioxide emissions from these two sectors, combined with emissions from metals production, make Iceland one of the world’s top emitters of CO2 per capita. For this reason, notes Dunn, Iceland is one of the few industrialized nations that has not signed the Kyoto Protocol on climate change.

Stuck between a rock and a hot place, Iceland is now facing the same realization that all other nations will eventually confront: Beyond fossil fuels, where do we go? Hydrogen is the obvious choice, argues Dunn. It is the most abundant element in the universe, and when hydrogen is used in a fuel cell to produce electricity, water and heat are the only byproducts. If this sounds too perfect, it is. Obstacles abound, including how to economically produce, transport, store and use hydrogen.

As Worldwatch writer Dunn points out, however, hydrogen-powered fuel cells have been used for decades in space travel. Refinements in fuel-cell technology, and the expectation that improvements will continue, have made hydrogen the poster child of a clean energy future. In fact, DaimlerChrysler and Royal Dutch Shell are already onboard the Iceland project and others want to be. “Toyota officials reportedly attempted, to no avail, to take over the project by offering to foot its entire bill and supply all the needed engineers,” writes Dunn.

Iceland plans a gradual phase in of hydrogen and fuel cells, beginning with a limited number of city buses in Reykjavik, the nation’s capital. Hydrogen will be pressurized as a gas and carried on the roofs of the buses, writes Dunn, and since the buses will be able to run all day on one tank, no infrastructure will be needed to distribute the hydrogen. Next, all the city buses will be converted to fuel cells. Phase three will introduce private passenger cars with fuel cells. Initially these will run on hydrogen extracted from methanol, which unlike hydrogen gas would not require costly infrastructure for distribution. The final goal is fuel cells for the nation’s fishing fleet.

There is no doubt that hydrogen will fuel the 21st century; the billion dollar question is whether we will produce, distribute and use pure hydrogen in fuel cells (Dunn calls this the “direct hydrogen” option), or whether cars will also have reformers that first extract hydrogen from gas, methanol or gasoline. The automobile industry prefers reformers because they use fuels that service stations already handle.

Dunn argues against stopping halfway. “In terms of long-term societal benefits, direct hydrogen is the clear winner,” he explains. “Once the infrastructure and vehicles are put into place, using hydrogen fuel will be more cost-effective than having cars with reformers — even excluding the environmental gains.”

Who knows, Iceland could one day be for hydrogen what the Middle East has been for oil. Then again, if OPEC nations put solar power to work producing hydrogen, they could give Iceland a race for dominance. Now that’s thinking outside the box.