Hydrogen Fuel Cells  

Posted by Big Gav

WorldChanging has an article called "Getting Closer to a Fuel Cell Future" about advances in hydrogen fuel cell technology.

It's something of an assumption of many bright green types that the personal transportation of the near future will run on hydrogen fuel cells. After all, hydrogen can be cracked from water using little more than electricity (from renewable sources, ideally), and the fuel cell process results in little more than water as waste (again, ideally). While the chemistry of hydrogen production and use has proven a bit more complex than hoped, the real stumbling blocks to a move to a hydrogen fuel cell world have been the capabilities of the hydrogen and fuel cell systems themselves. Hydrogen is tough to store in sufficient quantities for travel, making range a problem; furthermore, the fuel cells themselves are expensive and often quite delicate, unable to operate under moderately adverse environmental conditions.

Two recent developments might bring the fuel cell future a bit closer, however.

They discuss a new spinoff from the University of Queensland called Hydrexia which will manufacture a hydrogen storage medium using magnesium alloys with a sponge-like nanostructure.

The possibility of a Hydrogen fuel cell based economy generally seems to get dismissed out of hand in peak oil circles, based on a number of arguments.

The first argument, ("hydrogen is an energy carrier, not an energy source"), is that you need to generate the energy to create the hydrogen somehow (which is problematic if energy becomes scarcer) and that this process is wasteful as there are losses at each stage of the energy conversion process.

The second argument is that fuel cells wear out quite quickly, and take considerable energy to produce, which means the infrastructure needs constant and expensive renewal.

Other arguments include the shorter range of fuel cell based vehicles and cost of constructing fuel cells (as they use expensive materials such as platinum).

While there is more to be done, Amory Lovins of The Rocky Mountain Institute addresses many of the myths about hydrogen (pdf) in this paper.

If all of his information is correct (and he seems to be a credible commentator), then maybe it is premature to dismiss hydrogen fuel cells as an alternative for transportation.

The main issue then becomes "how do we create all this hydrogen" - and there seem to be some promising avenues. Obviously there is the nuclear option (for some period of time), but there are also renewable options such as bio-hydrogen and performing electrolysis using local solar or wind energy resources - as well as extracting hydrogen from natural gas (in the short term).

These issues were also discussed at the recent Verdepolis conference. However, once attendee's view was:

"The car of the future is a railroad car," Vergara says, "and there's a bike waiting for you at the other end of the ride."

1 comments

volomike   says 5:01 PM

On my forum I mention how to make hydrogen in a fairly safe form in order to help gasoline create more combustion, rather than pushing out more of it as wasted gases out the tail pipe. There are a lot of naysayers out there, but it works because I've done it and seen the results. They tend to use the laws of thermodynamics on me, and I do not deny those laws and in fact this process proves those laws. It's just that the laws don't account for a side effect of helping another fuel, gasoline, burn more efficiently as a byproduct of the drain on the car battery for electrolysis. And what you end up with is a greater return than what you put in.

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