Hydrogen Fuel Cell
While the petrolium fuel price is skyrocketing with no end in sight, the search for a reliable alternative energy source is essential. Hydrogen is one of the most popular candidates.
So how does a hydrogen fuel cell work? Basically, just like a typical fuel cell, hydrogen fuel cell is a electrochemical conversion device, releasing the byproduct water and heat. Hydrogen gas splits into protons and electrons at the anode side. The electrons are conducted to an external circuit, where it does its job as electricity, while the protons combine with oxygen anions at the cathode sides to produce water. Turning chemical energy into electrical energy is not new at all. Your regular household battery does the same thing. But in a fuel cell, the chemicals — in this case, hydrogen and oxygen — can be continously injected into the fuel cell, so it doesn’t need to be replaced or recharged like a battery.
Fuel cell. (2008, July 10). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 19:16, July 10, 2008, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Fuel_cell&oldid=224778188
The efficiency of a hydrogen fuel cell is high (around 60% as reported by Honda) compared to a conventional internal combustion engine (about 20%) [HowStuffWorks: Fuel Cell Efficiency and Gasoline and Battery Power Efficiency]. And the fuel cell produces water, not greenhouse gases like the gas engine.
However, hydrogen is not readily available. We can not just dig it up from the ground somewhere. It needs to be refined and purified before feeding into the fuel cell. This is the main argument by the opponents of hydrogen fuel cells — it takes energy to produce hydrogen. Where does the energy come from? From burning more gasoline. That kind of defeats the purpose, doesn’t it? That’s why some assert that rather than using energy to product hydrogen to generate electricity, just take the short route and move toward electricity-powered cars.
The solution is in the process of hydrogen production. The energy required can be derived from environment-friendly sources like solar, wind and hydro energy. A civil engineer, Mike Strizki has demonstrated that by combining solar energy and hydrogen, he can live a totally self-sufficient lifestyle, helping the environment and relieving himself of any bills [see Inside the Solar-Hydrogen House: No More Power Bills--Ever].
Hydrogen fuel cells will be mainly used to power cars. The challenges faced by the manufacturers of hydrogen-powered cars include the high cost for production and the size of the fuel cells. They need to find a way to fit the fuel cells into compact cars and make it available to the market at a competitive price.
The infrastructure is not yet ready for a fleet of cars running on hyrdogen, either. The major gas companies have not set up additional hydrogen refuelling sites at their stations because of safety issues and the lack of demand. In California, the non-profit California Fuel Cell Partnership that seeks to further hydrogen fuel cell technologies has 38 independent hydrogen fuelling stations located around the state. GM/Chevrolet’s Project Driveway also lets consumers in California, New York State, and the District of Columbia test out their Equinox sports utility vehicles that run on hydrogen fuel cells [see Gassing Up Gas-Free]. They also have several prototype hydrogen stations in these areas. The National Hydrogen Association has estimated that an adequate infrastructure of about 12,000 stations can be built for less than $15 billion.
While the technology and infrastructure is not perfect for hydrogen fuel cells, in the time of a critical energy crisis, any possible environment-friendly power source is welcomed. Several auto companies are developing hydrogen fuel cell models. I would be very happy to see more cars releasing a trinkle of water instead of polluting gases that add to the global warming problem on the road.