Whoosh! Iceland’s Got a Hot Idea

With the patience of a visionary, Bragi Arnason has been talking up the power of hydrogen power for more than 20 years. Now the energy elite is finally paying attention.

As a world-class brand, Iceland has been cool for centuries. For 1,126 years, the inhabitants of this small, geologically hyperactive island nation have been refreshing and reinventing their global positioning — with nary a marketing strategist in sight.


Their glaciers and volcanoes and underground hot springs (Iceland: Land of Fire and Ice!) demand attention. Their love of democracy (Iceland: The First Republic!) demands respect. Their boast of beating Christopher Columbus to North America by five centuries (Iceland: Nation of Explorers!) demands … well, a second look.

Now their latest revision — Iceland: The Hydrogen Economy! — is almost ready to ship. As the first country to make a real effort to become free of fossil fuels, Iceland is now poised to play pasha to the global explorers of renewable energy. Already, automakers and oil giants are beating a path to the home of a ruddy-cheeked grandfather in a lab coat. So it goes with breakthrough innovations: Sometimes the biggest ideas start in the smallest settings.

Bragi ??rnason — Professor Hydrogen to admirers, head of chemistry to students at the University of Iceland’s Science Institute, in Reykjavik — has been preaching his enviro-friendly, hydrogen-fueled gospel for more than 20 years. It will only be another 30 or so, he says, before hydrogen fuel cells will be powering all of Iceland’s cars, buses, and fishing fleets. If Iceland is successful, it will cut greenhouse-gas emissions by a third and become a leading exporter of hydrogen.

DaimlerChrysler, Norsk Hydro, and Shell International like the idea so much that they’ve entered into a joint venture with Vistorka, an Icelandic consortium, to create the Icelandic New Energy Co. Ltd. Oil supplies are, after all, dwindling, while demand for oil continues to grow.

Iceland is an ideal test bed for hydrogen power. Two-thirds of the country’s energy consumption already comes from clean, renewable hydroelectric and geothermal energy — which, by using methods first pioneered by Professor ??rnason in the 1970s, can be harnessed to produce hydrogen for fuel cells in nonpolluting electric motors. But the remaining one-third of Iceland’s energy comes from expensive fossil-fuel imports. At the same time, the island’s metals industry, though powered by hydroelectric energy, coughs up enough emissions to negate reductions racked up elsewhere. So there’s plenty of motivation in Iceland to come up with some radical solutions.

Back in Detroit, Stuttgart, and Tokyo, there’s an emerging consensus that conventional combustion engines are on their way out, and that they’re going to be replaced by free-energy systems such as proton-exchange-membrane fuel cells, which generate power by creating a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen. Automobiles fueled by hydrogen cells, which emit no exhaust fumes, are already being tested.


But in order for hydrogen to be a true, long-term, renewable alternative to fossil fuels (it runs more efficiently than gasoline, but it costs twice to three times as much to produce), it will need to be produced with a clean, low-cost electricity source such as hydroelectric power. Most oil-reliant countries simply don’t have access to vast amounts of clean electricity. But Iceland does.

“For hydrogenauts, the Iceland experiment signals the intent of the more progressive players to invest some real effort and come to grips with one of the major issues of the 21st century,” says Peter Hoffmann, editor of the “Hydrogen & Fuel Cell Letter.” And ??rnason, 65, is within reach of a dream. “When I wrote my first paper on hydrogen, in 1978, people said I was being stupid,” he recalls. “But a visiting professor assured me that my work was promising. He said that if my dream would make sense in the next century, I should start building it now.”

Contact Bragi ??rnason by email (

Sidebar: Renew Your Energy Source

How does a country power its people? Here are some of the things that have put Iceland on top of the world.

Invest in human resources.

Iceland ‘s average life span (78.9) ranks among the world’s top ten, and its population of 278,000 boasts 100% literacy. It publishes more books per capita than any other country, and Reykjavik was named European City of Culture 2000 by the European Union’s culture ministers. Little wonder, then, that the island has such high retention rates.


Break and reform.

Iceland is a valve for the world’s subterranean pressure, so its landscape has a habit of cracking and mending as the planet flexes its muscles. Icelanders are accustomed to seeing mountains rise in front of their eyes and to opening their curtains in the morning to find a different horizon. So it’s no surprise that Icelanders don’t seem to mind making seismic shifts of their own: They have embraced two major new energy sources — both hydroelectric and geothermal — in the last half-century.

Think very long-term.

“It has always taken mankind about 50 years to change from one kind of fuel to another — for example, from wood to coal, or from coal to oil,” says Professor Bragi ??rnason. “I will see only the first steps of the hydrogen economy. But my children will see the transformation, and my grandchildren will live in this new economy.”