Courtesy MIT Press
Hydrogen expert Peter Hoffmann shows many sides of the clean-energy debate.

The world of alternative fuels works in funny ways. Take hydrogen, which was close to gaining hero status a decade ago. In fuel-cell form, it emits little except for heat, electricity and pure water. Hydrogen appeared to be our ticket out of the fossil-fuel cycle for good.

Today, however, natural gas, a fossil fuel (albeit a cleaner-burning one than many other mainstream fuels), is the alternative du jour, while hydrogen takes a back seat. What happened?

According to Peter Hoffmann, publisher of "The Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Letter" and past contributor to ENR, politics is one part of the problem. Jump-starting a so-called hydrogen economy would take years of commitment and infrastructure funding that would outlast most election terms.

For example, when President Obama picked Nobel laureate Steven Chu to be his energy chief, alternative-fuel proponents had high hopes for the hydrogen economy. However, Chu quickly scaled back hydrogen research in favor of short-term projects.

The political climate may be changing again. Last month, Chu backpedaled by noting that hydrogen could help store large amounts of renewable electricity and be produced by low-cost shale gas. Chu also said that automakers are earnestly developing fuel-cell vehicles, which are more than twice as efficient as internal combustion engines and emit zero pollutants. Unlike plug-in cars, fuel cells also can provide up to 300 miles of driving range and refuel in minutes using today's technology.

Society and economics are other factors, and the world's industries have grown up on fossil fuels. "Replacing an entire technologically advanced energy system with something else is a huge undertaking, spanning decades," says Hoffmann. "It is like trying to change the course of a supertanker with kayak paddles."

Hoffmann's book, "Tomorrow's Energy: Hydrogen, Fuel Cells and the Prospects for a Cleaner Planet," updates and expands his 2002 edition with more than 300 pages of rich detail encompassing many sides of the hydrogen debate. At its core is the concept of "hydricity," in which hydrogen is not a source of energy but an "energy carrier" that is produced from cracking water molecules using electricity.

"Tomorrow's Energy: Hydrogen, Fuel Cells and the Prospects for a Cleaner Planet" by Peter Hoffmann, 367 pages, MIT Press, 2012.