HYDROGEN -- the simplest and most common element in the universe -- may also prove to be the simplest solution to America's long-term energy needs.

Alternative fuels and energy sources have been dormant issues since the days of the oil embargo. But as concern rises over the security of Mideast oil and natural-gas supplies, as well as air pollution, acid rain and the greenhouse effect, those topics are gaining renewed urgency.

As a result, attention is being focused on the promise of methanol (wood alcohol) as an alternative fuel. In recent congressional hearings, American automakers have come out enthusiastically in favor of its development; and the General Services Administration wants to buy 5,000 methanol cars for the government by 1990.

However, methanol or other alcohols derived from coal, grain or biomass, cannot contribute much toward solving the air-pollution problem. It contains only about half as much carbon as the same volume of gasoline or diesel fuel; but it takes about twice as much to do the same job. Thus "the carbon content is the same as gasoline's for the same energy content," says John Appleby, director of Texas A&M's new Center for Electrochemical Systems and Hydrogen Research. So even with widespread use of methanol, carbon-dioxide emissions, a principal contributor to the greenhouse effect, would remain essentially unchanged.

Hydrogen, on the other hand, doesn't pollute at all. Burned in internal-combustion engines, diesels, jets or fuel cells, it produces no carbon monoxides or dioxides, no unburned hydrocarbons, no stench, no smoke, no sulfur-derived compounds to cause acid rain -- none of the noxious discharges we suffer today.

And which we pay for unwittingly: In a study published earlier this year, T. Nejat Veziroglu, a researcher at the University of Miami and head of the International Association for Hydrogen Energy, calculated the hidden costs of fossil fuels in terms of human health expenses, deleterious effects on fresh water, farm produce and buildings, and a half dozen other categories. His estimate came to more than $8 per gigajoule of fossil-based energy -- approximately the equivalent of 10 gallons of gasoline.

Low Costs and Two Bills

Hydrogen-derived energy, however, has none of those environmental costs. In combustion, its only byproduct is steam. (Plus some nitrogen oxide, unavoidable owing to the fact that air is 80 percent nitrogen -- a problem that can be minimized with better combustion technology). And it can be derived from the planet's most ubiquitous resource, water, through the process of electrolysis or other water-splitting methods. {See box.}

That is why Rep. George Brown (D-Ca) and Sen. Spark Matsunaga (D-HI) are backing hydrogen as the best choice for the post-fossil fuel era. Both have introduced identical bills this session to provide some $200 million in hydrogen-related funding over five years -- half devoted to research and development, half to aerospace applications. Subcommittees in the House and Senate have tentatively scheduled hearings on the subject for later this month.

The idea of exploiting hydrogen as a power source is by no means new. As early as 1820 an Oxford don, Rev. William Cecil, regaled fellow academics at Magdalen College with his ideas of a machine powered by hydrogen explosions. And the grandfather of science fiction, Jules Verne, talked about hydrogen power in remarkably prophetic terms in his 1874 novel, "The Invisible Island." Verne foresaw the use of "water as a fuel for steamers and engines" after it was "decomposed into its primitive elements . . . by electricity."

Hydrogen is a chemical energy-carrier, not a primary source of energy. That is, it has to be manufactured -- through electrolysis or other means -- just as electricity has to be generated in power plants. But like electricity, it is easily converted into other forms of energy, and thus can serve as a fungible "currency."

It was this aspect of hydrogen that appealed to a young Scottish scientist named J.B.S. Haldane. In 1923, he entertained members of a Cambridge University society known as the Heretics with his ideas of an alternative energy system that would store energy generated by wind power as liquid hydrogen. He called hydrogen "weight for weight the most efficient known method of storing energy as it gives about three times as much heat per pound as petrol. On the other hand, it is very light, and bulk for bulk has one one-third the efficiency of petrol. This will not, however, detract from its use in aeroplanes where weight is more important than bulk."

Haldane's prophecy came true in the 1960s when a B-57 jet partially powered on hydrogen flew over Lake Erie. In the '70s, Lockheed conducted studies on liquid-hydrogen-powered subsonic and supersonic jets for NASA and predicted that such planes would be more efficient than their kerosene-powered counterparts. And the National Aerospace Plane project (the hybrid rocket/hypersonic jet endorsed by President Reagan) could only operate on liquid hydrogen.

In the first energy trauma of the early 1970s, amid mounting environmental fears, many hydrogen-based research programs were launched. Conferences were held in the United States, Europe and Japan. Jules Verne's script for clean and limitless energy -- seemed to be around the corner.

Short Memories, Long-Term Gain

Hydrogen seemed the ideal quick-fix miracle fuel, offering an easy way to twist out of OPEC's stranglehold. Already widely used in industry (petroleum refining, chemical manufacture, electronics, glass production and hardening of fats), it could be used to power internal-combustion engines, diesels, jets and fuel cells.

But developing the necessary technology and energy efficiency, even when oil was up to $30-40 a barrel, turned out to be more complex, time-consuming and expensive than anticipated. And as energy prices dropped to near pre-embargo levels in the late 1970s and environmental issues shrank into the background, interest in hydrogen evaporated.

Now interest in alternative energy sources is reviving -- especially in import-leery Japan and in Europe, which has been shocked into new alternative-energy awareness by the Chernobyl disaster.

Matsunaga fears that other countries are embarking on hydrogen programs in preparation for the next century that once more may leave the United States in the dust a la steel, microchips, cameras, cars and VCRs: "In this 100th Congress -- with its focus on America's standing in the global marketplace -- the urgency of establishing a national effort to advance the use of hydrogen energy is more clearly evident than ever," he said in introducing his program. "This is because of the priority given to hydrogen R&D activity by such industrial nations as West Germany and Japan as well as Canada, the Netherlands, and Brazil."

The $200-million, five-year plan outlined in the Matsunaga/Brown bills would be a substantial increase over current spending levels, which have averaged $5 million per year: FY 1988 budget requests include about $1 million for the Department of Energy; $2.4 million for four hydrogen research institutions in Texas, Hawaii and Florida; and funding for a number of basic research programs, scattered throughout DOE.

Getting on Board

By contrast, Canada -- which for five years has had a Hydrogen Industry Council (HIC) made up of some 50 companies plus the national and several provincial governments -- spent almost $15 million on hydrogen research and development in 1986, most of that from industry, according to Matsunaga.

Germany and Japan have made major commitments. And various companies and government-supported institutions are doing hydrogen-related work in China, Switzerland, Belgium, Holland, Italy and Brazil. France is building a large 2 MW electrolyzer to make hydrogen for the Ariane space program. Even the Saudis, anxious to remain a supplier of chemical fuels in a post-fossil-fuel world, are laying plans for tapping solar energy to make hydrogen: They have signed an agreement with West Germany's aerospace agency DFVLR to build "Hysolar", a 100 KW prototype solar plant to produce hydrogen near Riyadh.Today, the outlines of a triangular international hydrogen "consortium" involving West Germany, Japan and Canada is beginning to lay the foundations for the next century's non-polluting, regenerative global energy system.

Consider these recent developments:

A Canadian government-sponsored study calls for the country to make hydrogen technology a "national mission." And the HIC is looking at the idea of experimentally "electrifying" railroad diesel engines with liquid hydrogen; using hydrogen-powered underground mining vehicles (of special concern because of underground environmental constraints); and exporting cheap electricity in the form of hydrogen to Europe and to Japan as rocket fuel for that country's emerging space program.

A German chemical-industry group, DECHEMA, under contract to the European Community, has completed a year-long pre-feasibility study of the idea of buying low-cost Canadian electricity, converting it in a 100 megawatt electrolyzer into hydrogen and shipping it as liquid hydrogen or in some other chemical compound in converted tankers to Europe for use in natural gas enrichment, making electricity and other applications.

Two new solar-hydrogen research centers are being planned at Stuttgart and Ulm Universities, the latter in conjunction with carmaker Daimler-Benz. Daimler-Benz, as part of a major corporate overhaul, has added hydrogen to its energy research agenda and is currently operating 10 hydrogen-powered station wagons and vans in an around-the-clock fleet test in West Berlin.

Mercedes' arch-rival, BMW, has helped convert several cars to liquid hydrogen in a project started several years ago by the West German aerospace research agency. And the company is expected to become a partner in a project to build the world's first experimental solar-hydrogen plant in Bavaria.

In Japan, researchers at the Musashi Institute of Technology in Tokyo over several years have developed liquid-hydrogen-powered diesel-type engines that are regarded the best applications yet available.

In the United States, some hydrogen work is going on at Texas A&M, (with seed money from the National Science Foundation), the universities of Hawaii and Florida, Brookhaven National Laboratory and (due to start at some point in the future) the Solar Energy Research Institute in Colorado. What more the United States will do remains to be seen.

But "this country is on a collision course with another energy crisis," says Brown, "that could compare with the oil embargo of the 1970s." And hydrogen "may be the answer to our future energy needs."