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Got hydrogen? A Mooresville dynamo explains how the lightest element has a heavyweight future


Stan Thompson

At 75, Stan Thompson is a power source unto himself.

The retired future-thinker for Southern Bell, then BellSouth, and finally AT&T is now one of the world’s most active and vocal advocates for the production of energy using hydrogen, the lightest substance in nature, the box at the top left of the periodic table, out of which three-quarters of the elemental universe is made. The big H.

Pretty much single-handedly (though he also credits his friend Bill Thunberg as his accomplice), Thompson has transformed the Mooresville-South Iredell Chamber of Commerce, along with Appalachian State University in Boone, into the hub of the International Hydrail Conference, which promotes the use of train travel powered by onboard, electricity-producing hydrogen fuel cells.

Since its inception in 2005, the Mooresville Hydrail Initiative has held its annual conferences in Charlotte, Denmark, Spain, Turkey, Great Britain and Toronto. Next year’s is in Germany. In between conferences, Thompson hobnobs here at home with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency bigwigs, and trots the globe, aboard carbon fuel-gulping jets, to places as far away as China to preach his gospel.

On his way to creating the world’s new hydrogen economy, he wants to create the first Hydrail engineering school at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

It all came about, he says, when he heard of all the talk about connecting Charlotte and Mooresville with the Red Line commuter train.

The hero of hydrogen was born in Winston-Salem and grew up in Charlotte’s Chantilly neighborhood, graduated from Pfeiffer College in 1962 with a degree in English lit and has been married to his wife, Phyllis, for 33 years, “the same amount of time I was married to the phone company.” They now live in Mooresville.

But locomoting trains with hydrogen is not the only transit concern on this man’s fecund and quicksilver mind. He also wants to heighten a new bridge that will carry the soon-to-be widened N.C. 150 over the northwest corner of Lake Norman to make the state’s “Inland Sea” fully accessible by boats. The current, two-lane 1963 bridge is about 9 to 12 feet off the water; Thompson said the new one should be about 35 feet high. That, he avers, would transform the lake, raise property values and enrich the lives of people in the four counties touching the lake.

No word yet on what the cars on the bridge and the boats under it would have in their fuel tanks.

Give us the Hydrail talking points. Hydrogen is the future of all railways unless there’s a dramatic environmental turnaround. Unless the carbon shortage is not true, all rail will be hydrogen by 2050.

Says Stan Thompson and the Mooresville-South Iredell Chamber of Commerce. The thing with all my jobs with AT&T had to do with the future. I am trained up to think about the future, not the present. That’s what I did, and like a truck driver, I do it in my sleep. Instead of managing the crises du jour, all my experiences were thinking about the future. The hydrogen thing just jumped out of me before I left. There’s going to be a hydrogen economy. Of all the energy systems only hydrogen has the potential to be harmonious with the old 60-cycle power grid.

You’re going to have to explain that. Slowly. You’ll never have a natural gas-powered TV. Hydrogen uncouples the consumption of electricity from the production of electricity in real time. It’s the magic bullet that lets us use wind generators when the wind is not blowing and solar panels at night. It will enable renewable energy. And it allows electricity to be wireless; you can use it for vehicles, for mining locomotives and switch engines now, and eventually for high-speed trains.

How is that possible? Hydrogen fuel cells. Hydrogen is portable electricity. When you react hydrogen with oxygen – in a controlled basis – you can generate electricity, heat and water. There’s the law of thermodynamics that you can’t get something for nothing, and right now there’s a 30 percent conversion. That creates a huge market for research. The easiest way to do it right now requires platinum, a rare and expensive element. But necessity is the mother of invention. We’re looking for ways to do it without platinum. There are research projects at Stanford and Rutgers right now. It’s analogous to alchemy, how to make platinum from base metals. At Stanford they’re experimenting with carbon.

Sounds cool. But isn’t hydrogen dangerous if it gets too hot? You know, the Hindenburg? I call that the “folk hoax.” With the Hindenburg, it was the aluminum framing. When hydrogen burns, it emits no visible light. In the newsreels there are flames everywhere, so it can’t be the hydrogen. It’s the aluminum struts and rubber bladders, and don’t forget it was diesel-powered; what about the diesel? Hydrogen is actually very safe because it is the lightest substance; it goes up and burns, if it burns at all. Other fuels go down and burn. Propane, for example is much heavier than air and is very dangerous.

What about hydrogen cars? Hydrogen makes a fine internal combustion fuel; Ford had a hydrogen car initiative until the downturn. Automobile use of hydrogen will be practicable when hydrogen distribution becomes ubiquitous, but internal combustion is only 40 to 45 percent efficient. Fuel cells are 60 to 65 percent efficient. And they are silent and really cheap when we can mass produce them.

How do we make producing hydrogen cost-effective? To do it efficiently we need a system of producing hydrogen that doesn’t require burning something, like natural gas. To produce hydrogen, you do exactly the opposite of what you do when you turn hydrogen into electricity and water. At the U.S. Energy Department’s Savannah River National Laboratory in Aiken, S.C., a guy there named Bill Summers is working with a system that puts heat into a “black box” with distilled water and some chemicals. It’s a thermo-chemical water-splitter. It takes the water apart, producing oxygen and hydrogen. It has very few moving parts. If you find a means of producing hydrogen very cheaply, you could distribute hydrogen where you need it, put it into a fuel cell and make it into electricity where you need it. Right now, many cell phone towers are powered by hydrogen. But they bring in tanks of it; we want to pipe it in.

And that would be cheaper than running new electrical cables? It would be when scales of economies make it so. Fifty years from now, will we be building new pylons to carry high-tension electrical lines? Why would you, when you can pipe hydrogen underground and create “boutique electricity” – DC, 60-cycle or 1,000-cycle if you wanted to. Piping hydrogen would be cheaper than running new electrical cables, too. The cost of copper is going to be prohibitive very soon. Copper is going to be the new oil. There is not enough copper in the world to electrify the U.S. railroad system. It’s going to cost $10 million a mile to electrify rail. This wouldn’t replace the existing electrical grid but would augment it, reducing the vulnerability of the grid. The grid’s operation is amazing, a brilliant accomplishment, but it reminds me of that Indiana Jones movie where the guy comes out flourishing two scimitars and Indiana just pulls out a gun and shoots him. That’s hydrogen.

When is this going to start happening? The first applications are little mining locomotives and streetcars. You just take the diesel generator of the locomotive and use hydrogen fuel and fuel cells. There are hydrogen fuel cell-powered mining locomotives in South Africa and there is a streetcar system in the capital of Aruba, Oranjestad. There’s a video online; let’s go watch it.

(We watch a You Tube video of the Aruba streetcar.)

Cool. Let’s drop hydrogen and talk about the bridge. At one level, it’s about sailboats and tourist boats, and boats than are not on the lake that could be, like a major fire boat with a three-foot hose that could sit in the middle of the lake and pump like hell. There are 522 miles of shoreline on Lake Norman, but only about 350 to 400 is accessible; about 30 percent of it is cut off. With the tourist boats, we have the Catawba Queen and the Lady of the Lake, but they can’t go past a certain point. But really this is about property values.  With a bridge that would allow boats to go throughout the lake, property throughout all four counties on the lake would grow slightly in value. What does slightly mean?

(He pulls out a set of printed figures.)

Here. You see, if property values rose just one-half of one percent because of the new bridge, it would generate $42 million in new tax revenues. No bridge could conceivably cost that much.

Adding more accessible shoreline could have that effect? If you drained the lake tomorrow, the value would just go out of Iredell County. The lake made Iredell. The Mooresville-Statesville area, in the entire United States, is the most relocated-to “micropolitan” area, according to Site Selection magazine. That’s because of the lake. A higher bridge would make Lake Norman a truly navigable body of water, a true “Inland Sea.”

Why should we want a man-made reservoir to be navigable for anything other than a Chris-Craft?  One of the boat types that is too large to pass under the bridge is a trawler, the marine equivalent of one of those mobile campers. It exists not just to ride in but as a means of going somewhere. They are very slow and make no wakes. If we could create a market for those, we could create places for them to go, cruise port destinations. It could change the nature of the lake. The elegant part of all this is that if the state would commit to this, values would already start to go up in anticipation of it. And it gets better and better. It involves almost no cost whatsoever to build a higher bridge. We can grow tax revenue because of the tax base, not raising the rates.

Wouldn’t it be a lot more expensive to build a higher bridge? You would think so, but that bridge is considered to be something like the 22nd highest in the state. You have to go down about 85 feet to the bottom of the water. Building a footing down there, using caissons, that’s the expensive part. Raising the part of the bridge over the water, as a percentage of building it, is inconsequential. They’re talking about spending millions of dollars maintaining the old bridge until they can build the new one; we could save that money and use it to raise the new bridge.

So you’re lobbying the N.C. DOT on this? My fear is that experts on roads and bridges will not get this, not understand the tax consequences. They’ll say, “This is the kind of bridge we’ve always built; we’re not in the business of caring about boaters.” So we’re not going to the DOT. We’re going to the public. There is a gnawing fear among bureaucrats of decisions driven by algorithms.

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