Dear EarthTalk: Not long ago we were reading a lot about hydrogen's role in a clean energy future, with cars transitioning from gasoline-powered engines to hydrogen-powered fuel cells. Where does hydrogen fit now in the mix with electric cars now coming on so strong? -- Amanda Jenkins, Troy, Mich.

It is true that just a few years ago everyone was talking hydrogen fuel cells as the future of petroleum-free automotive transport. Fuel cell cars can run on infinitely renewable hydrogen gas and emit no harmful tailpipe emissions whatsoever. A 2005 Scientific American article bullishly reported that car company executives "foresee no better option to the hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle in the long run." Likewise, the International Energy Agency suggested, also in 2005, that some 30 percent of the global stock of vehicles -- 700 million cars and trucks -- could be powered by hydrogen fuel cells by 2050.

But high development costs and implementation hurdles have kept fuel cell vehicles out of the mainstream for now. And in the face of competition from a new crop of all-electric and hybrid-electric vehicles lately, some analysts wonder whether the fuel cell's future is as bright as once thought.

More Information

Fact box

That's not to say the technology isn't impressive, and still potentially very promising. The concept was first developed by NASA some five decades ago for use in space travel and has since been implemented in a wide range of other mobile and stationary power applications. In an FCV, a stack of fuel cells under the hood converts hydrogen stored on-board with oxygen in the air to make electricity that propels the drive train. While automakers have been able to make fuel cells small enough to fit in and power a conventional size car or truck, the price per unit is high due to the need to incorporate expensive, cutting edge components. And the lack of widespread demand precludes cost-saving mass production. Also, the lack of hydrogen refueling stations around the country limits the practicality of driving a fuel cell vehicle.

According to Richard Gilbert, co-author of the book "Transport Revolutions: Moving People and Freight without Oil," another big issue for hydrogen-powered fuel cells is their energy inefficiency. Creating hydrogen gas by splitting water molecules via electrolysis ends up using up about half of the energy it creates. Another half of the resulting energy is taken up by the conversion of hydrogen back into electricity within fuel cells.

"This means that only a quarter of the initially available energy reaches the electric motor," reported Gilbert. (Making hydrogen by reforming natural gas is also highly inefficient and relies on a fossil fuel from the get-go.) Such losses in conversion don't stack up well against, for instance, recharging an electric vehicle like the Nissan Leaf or Chevy Volt from a wall socket -- especially if the electricity can be initially generated from a renewable source like wind or solar.

But FCVs aren't dead in the water yet. A few dozen Californians are already driving one of Honda's FCX Clarity fuel cell cars. A $600/month lease payment entitles qualifying drivers to not only collision coverage, maintenance and roadside assistance but also hydrogen fuel, available via a handful of "fast-fill" hydrogen refueling stations. General Motors is part of an effort to test FCVs and implement a viable hydrogen refueling infrastructure in Hawaii, currently one of the most fossil fuel dependent states in the U.S. The Hawaii Hydrogen Initiative aims to bring upwards of 20 hydrogen refueling stations to Hawaii by 2015. Other efforts are under way in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere.

Contacts: IEA, www.iea.org; Honda FCX Clarity, www.automobiles.honda.com/fcx-clarity.

Dear EarthTalk: I heard that timber thefts are increasing across the country. Why would people steal timber and is it a particular kind for a particular use? -- Rosie Ng, Stanwood, Wash.

People are stealing timber for the same reasons they steal anything: to profit from someone else's hard work. What makes timber thefts that much harder to stop is the fact that, most of the time, they occur in remote forested areas and loggers typically don't have to document their sales as meticulously as other kinds of natural resource extraction. With the economy still in the doldrums, it's not surprising that timber thefts appear to be on the rise, at least based on anecdotal evidence from around the country.

"Timber theft can range from a landowner cutting down a neighbor's tree to loggers stealing hundreds or thousands of trees from private or public lands," reported Lori Compas in the September/October 2010 issue of E Magazine. "Investigators say it's difficult to calculate the exact number of trees lost to theft, but losses are estimated at $3 million over the last five years in Mississippi alone."

She cited one example there whereby a logger was arrested on three counts of timber theft after clearing some $375,000 worth of trees from land set aside to benefit local schools.

In some cases, thieves are targeting specific types of rare or expensive wood.

"We can see where they've notched trees [on state-owned forest land] to see if they have that desirable pattern," Larry Raedel, chief law enforcement officer for the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, said. "When they find one that does, they cut down the entire tree and pack out a 5- or 6-foot section. They might make $300 to $400 for a slab."

More complex schemes involve unreported or falsified mill receipts. "For instance, a logger might have a legitimate contract to cut timber on a parcel of land, with the understanding that he will cut certain trees, take them to a sawmill, receive payment and pay the landowner a portion of the receipts," Compas reported. "The trick is that he might take the logs to several different mills and only report the sales from one mill, pocketing the proceeds from the others."

In response to these more sophisticated tactics law enforcement is starting to step up efforts to catch timber thieves red-handed by the use of tracking paint, surveillance and hidden cameras. Oftentimes other loggers will even tip off local authorities about a rogue member of their industry perpetrating such crimes.

According to Tree Farmer magazine, legislatures and courts in various states are also starting to assign stiffer penalties for timber thefts.

"Not only will actual or compensatory damages be awarded, but also, in the proper situations, swift and severe penalty awards and punitive damages will be handed down by the courts," Tree Farmer reported. Timber thieves today often must answer to civil trespassing charges along with larceny of natural resources -- and may be expected to pay back not only the value of the stolen timber but also the cost of reforesting the site(s) in question. Timber thieves who haul their take out of state might also face federal charges for transporting stolen timber across state lines.

Contacts: E Magazine, www.emagazine.com/archive/5294; Washington State Department of Natural Resources, www.dnr.wa.gov; Tree Farmer, www.treefarmsystem.org/cms/pages/25_14.html.

EarthTalk is written by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss of E -- The Environmental Magazine. Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com