Are Hydrogen fuel cells the future? The H2 economy

© Shutterstock
© Shutterstock

An Energy Carrier

Hydrogen gas only exists in very small quantities in our low level atmosphere and so has to be produced by electrolysis. The voltage across the 2 electrodes has to be supplied from an alternate source. This could be from fossil fuels, renewable energy or from combustion of biofuels. The Hydrogen is acting as an energy carrier not a source because it is so reactive it is holding power as chemical potential energy. Although hydrogen fuel cells are seen as the clean and green fuel, you need to make it using renewable low pollution methods. Unfortunately these renewable technologies can be expensive and only produce electricity at certain times. So if made using fossil fuels, fuel cells can be just as damaging as o


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The Hydrogen Economy

Hydrogen fuel cells, or polymer electrolyte membrane fuel cells, have received a lot of media coverage with an increasing need for new solutions to the world’s energy problems. There have been many government incentives to assist the development of this technology such as HFI (Hydrogen fuel initiative) and EPACT 2005. The fuel cells work on a similar principle to batteries, a chemical reaction causes a current to flow however, in the Hydrogen power cells the fuel is constantly added and water removed.

The reaction involved is the oxidation of a fuel; this is usually hydrogen but can also be phosphoric acid, solid oxides and Methanol. The devices consist of an anode and a cathode. At the anode a platinum catalyst splits the Hydrogen into protons and electrons while at the cathode, Oxygen combines with H+ by gaining electrons from the circuit. A key component of the electrochemical cell is polymer electrolyte membrane that only allows H+ ions across forcing the electrons to travel around the circuit instead – inducing a current.

Using Hydrogen as a fuel has many benefits over conventional fossil fuels. Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe and so should not struggle with diminishing resources like crude oil and natural gas. Hydrogen can be sourced from electrolysis of water; this means once the infrastructure for hydrogen fuel cells to power our houses and cars has been built, fuel prices will be relatively constant and stable unlike today’s fossil fuel prices. Another benefit of hydrogen power over its carbon based rivals is its effect on the environment. Unlike fossil fuels, hydrogen fuel cells do not produce Carbon dioxide, Carbon monoxide, Sulphur dioxide or other harmful gasses. The only by-product of a Hydrogen fuel cell is water, which does not cause pollution, acid rain or photochemical smog. Hydrogen is a cleaner fuel that would help the world deal with the problem of pollution.


How it works!

So whats the problem?

The disadvantage of using Hydrogen as a fuel is that it is very explosive, this makes storing large quantities difficult and dangerous. Sites like fuelling stations for cars would need to have extensive safety measures to prevent accidental ignition of even a terrorist attack. The violent reaction when Hydrogen is oxidised will cause problems with people accepting the new technology especially as every car, Lorry or motorbike would contain its own Hydrogen storage tank. This factor could dramatically increase the severity of vehicle collisions. Another obstacle to the use of H2 is that it would be very expensive for governments and businesses to develop and build new infrastructure, this would raise the price of Hydrogen energy making it more difficult to convince the public to change. There are also production challenges as platinum and membrane is expensive, which reduces the cost effectiveness of a fuel cell. Furthermore, the membrane must also be kept from during out and the fuel cells have a limited life span so need to be replaced and disposed of safely.

There is still large amount of developments to be made before Hydrogen power is used in everyday life especially in increasing the efficiency and safety. One method of safer storage that may be used in the future is having hydrogen gas absorbed in the surface of a solid like palladium or carbon structures. Hydrogen fuel cells have a key role in storing and releasing energy in the future. This should solve the problem power stations struggling to keep up with peak demands and then being idol for hours in the night. Energy can be produced and stored in chemical potential form until needed. This technology will be vital for the transition to cleaner renewable sources.

The future of cars?

A Hydrogen powered R/C car.
A Hydrogen powered R/C car. | Source

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