Week of 10/30/2005

Dear EarthTalk: Regarding all the hype about fuel-cell powered vehicles that will run on hydrogen produced from water: Where is all this water going to come from?It’s my understanding that there is a severe water shortage, or potentially so, worldwide.

—Stephen Cavaliere, Honolulu, HI

Some 400 million people around the world do indeed suffer from water shortages, but analysts say that the eagerly awaited conversion to a hydrogen-powered energy economy will not aggravate such problems.

Even though hydrogen itself is the most common chemical element on the planet, it does not exist in nature in its elemental form. To generate hydrogen, electrical charges break up water molecules into their component parts of oxygen and hydrogen in a process known as electrolysis. The separated hydrogen is then compressed into storage tanks from where it is later dispensed into fuel cells that, in turn, generate power when it is needed.

Robert Wichert, a mechanical engineer who serves as technical director for the U.S. Fuel Cell Council, says that while water is initially broken down during this process, it is later re-combined and released into the atmosphere as water vapor. "Using water in this way does not deplete the amount of water globally," he says. "Instead it uses water at one spot and releases it back into the rain cycle at the point of use."

"When one looks at the water requirements for the production of hydrogen via electrolysis, the numbers are very interesting," says Skip Staats of the National Fuel Cell Education Program (NFCEP). Staats" analysis shows that generating the energy equivalent of a gallon of gasoline in hydrogen requires just 2.3 gallons of water—all of which gets recycled directly back into the Earth’s hydrological systems.

Meanwhile, refining petroleum to create a gallon of traditional gasoline requires 12 gallons of water—which then must be treated before it can be released back into the environment. So, in essence, creating hydrogen via electrolysis requires less water than creating gasoline, and it is also a much cleaner process.

Right now, however, 95 percent of the hydrogen being produced in the world is derived not from electrolysis using water but by re-forming fossil fuels such as natural gas and even gasoline. A handful of forward-thinking companies are coming to the rescue, though. The U.K.-based Hydrogen Solar Ltd., for one, is commercializing "nanotechnology" to generate hydrogen from tiny solar cells without burning any fossil fuels. The company currently operates a prototype hydrogen re-fueling station just outside of Las Vegas, Nevada. Other major players include Midwest Optoelectronics, GE Global Research and Avalence LLC, all of whom have received sizeable federal hydrogen research and development grants.

CONTACTS: U.S. Fuel Cell Council, www.usfcc.com; National Fuel Cell Education Program, www.nfcep.org; Hydrogen Solar Ltd., www.hydrogensolar.com; Midwest Optoelectronics, www.mwoe.com; GE Global Research, www.geglobalresearch.com/01_coretech/hydrogen.shtml; Avalence LLC, www.avalence.com.


Dear EarthTalk: Which pet foods are the healthiest and most Earth friendly? Can I feed my dogs and cats vegetarian?

—Carolyn Cacciotti, Bridgeport, CT

With consumer demand for organic food growing in leaps and bounds, it’s no wonder that pet owners are starting to think about what they are feeding to Fido and Scruffy as well.

A few brands stand out for their commitment to all-natural ingredients. Health conscious pet owners have looked to Breeder’s Choice for more than five decades. The company offers several all-natural lines of age-appropriate dog and cat foods. Other reputable producers, many with organic or hormone-free ingredients, include Honest Kitchen, Yarrah, Eagle Pack and Urban Carnivore, among many others.

Meanwhile, actor Paul Newman’s company, Newman’s Own Organics, known for providing people with organic salad dressings, pasta sauces and popcorn while donating all profits to charity, recently introduced a line of healthy pet foods with all profits going to support animal welfare causes. All of the company’s pet food varieties contain certified organic ingredients and avoid antibiotics, hormones, chemical ingredients, artificial preservatives, colors and additives.

As to turning your pet into a vegetarian, even though your values may dictate otherwise, putting your dog or cat on a vegetarian diet might not be the most responsible course of action. Both dogs and cats evolved eating meat, and both rely on it as nutritional staples in their diets.

While dogs are used to a more varied diet by nature, cats, as natural predators and true carnivores, thrive on meat, and will often seek it out the old-fashioned way—by hunting neighborhood birds and rodents. Cats require certain nutrients from meat that they can’t get from plant-based foods. Deficiencies of these nutrients can lead to blindness and even death. Meanwhile, dogs are omnivores and can survive on an otherwise varied diet without meat, but they do better when fed a regular source of animal protein.

Luckily, dog and cat owners whose vegetarian beliefs extend to their pets" diets do have some options. Yarrah’s Organic Vegetarian Dog Food, for instance, contains whole wheat, soy, sunflower seeds, maize, yeast, sesame chips and minerals, and is recommended for overweight dogs. Meanwhile, Evolution Diet, available from petfoodshop.com, takes a wide range of healthy vegetarian dog and cat foods that contain nutritional supplements to keep otherwise carnivorous pets healthy without the meat.

The Animal Protection Institute offers a handy online set of guidelines for choosing healthy foods for your dog or cat. While these pet foods can be found at pet stores across the country, they are also starting to appear in health food stores like WholeFoods and Wild Oats.

CONTACTS: Breeder’s Choice, www.breeders-choice.com; Yarrah, www.yarrah.com; Honest Kitchen, www.thehonestkitchen.com; Urban Carnivore, www.urbancarnivore.com; Eagle Pack, www.eaglepack.com; Newman’s Own, www.newmansownorganics.com/pet; Evolution Diet, www.petfoodshop.com; Animal Protection Institute, www.api4animals.org/articles?p=361&more=1.

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