The demand on Fossil Fuels has
been growing since the advent of gasoline. In its infancy,
oil refineries could not convert crude into gasoline fast enough
to satisfy the number of automobiles rolling off the assembly line.
From everyday people producing biodiesel in their garage, to the
big oil companies, straight thru to the automotive industry, we
have the desire and the drive, to make our own fuel. The reasons
for this are many, gasoline engines emit greenhouse gases among
other pollutants, organizations like OPEC grow richer, and it is well known that fossil
fuels are not an infinite resource.
It is predicted that we will reach “Peak Oil” within
the next three decades. Peak Oil is the point where we've
removed a large majority of the easily accessible oil from
the ground, oil production begins to decline, and it becomes
increasingly expensive to obtain what's left. China has
forecasted a growing economy, increasing the pressure on
the peak oil timeline. Granted, the US has untapped oil
reserves and protected areas which are presently unavailable
for drilling, but even the Gulf of Mexico ( which has expanded
drilling opportunities ) will not last forever.
There are several possible Gasoline Substitutes but, none are currently able to completely replace our need for fossil fuel on their own. Among the candidates are ethanol, electricity, solar power, compressed
natural gas (CNG), and hydrogen. This article will focus on hydrogen fuel cell technology and why it is a strong candidate in then next generation of automobile power sources. The hydrogen used in fuel cells is gaseous, but BMW is researching liquid storage and other researchers are looking at a chemical compound solution such as boron pellets.
Hydrogen Technology is not new
In 2002, GM launched its AUTOnomy concept car which features a skateboard-like chassis, combined with a fly by wire type control system driven by fuel cell propulsion system. The concept car remains as a viable, yet undeveloped solution today. All of the major automakers have fuel cell powered concept car and the future is charged with anticipation..
How it works:
Basically, a fuel cell car is an electric car that gets it's power from a fuel cell. The fuel cell combines hydrogen with oxygen to make water, H2O. The byproduct of this process is electricity, which is then fed to the motors. Many people might think of golf carts when it comes to electric cars but, the electrical output of a fuel cell pack is strong enough to give the average size electric car reasonable acceleration and long distance ability.
Critics like to point out the danger that hydrogen is flammable, but so are Ethanol, CNG, and Gasoline. Similar to CNG, yet unlike Gasoline and Ethanol which are liquids, gasses dissipate rapidly while gasoline can pool, and therefore burn for a longer period of time. Gasoline tanks tend to be thin-walled containers which are easily punctured, while the latest hydrogen tanks are made from Kevlar and much less susceptible to damage.
The most commonly known method of producing hydrogen is from water via electrolysis. Electrolysis of water is an electrolytic process which decomposes water into oxygen and hydrogen gas with the aid of an (DC) electric current. Electricity for electrolysis can come from clean sources, such as wind, hydro or even solar, which (eventually) negates the energy cost. Gasoline also requires energy in the production process, oil has to be found, pumped, transported, refined, and shipped to distributors.
Alternative Hydrogen Production Methods
Steam reforming of natural gas, sometimes referred to as steam methane reforming (SMR) is the most common method of producing commercial bulk hydrogen as well as the hydrogen used in the industrial synthesis of ammonia. It is also the least expensive method. At high temperatures (700 - 1100 °C) and in the presence of a metal-based catalyst, steam reacts with methane to yield carbon monoxide and hydrogen. Small-scale steam reforming units are currently being studied as way to provide hydrogen to fuel cells. Another method to create hydrogen being examined is using switchgrass in a thermo chemical reaction.
Hydrogen and the Environment
A California Institute of Technology study says that leakage is
likely from mass hydrogen production. The widespread use of
hydrogen fuel cells could have hitherto unknown environmental impacts
due to unintended emissions of molecular hydrogen, including an increase
in the abundance of water vapor in the stratosphere (plausibly by as
much as ~1 part per million by volume). This would cause stratospheric
cooling, enhancement of the heterogeneous chemistry that destroys ozone,
an increase in noctilucent clouds, and changes in tropospheric chemistry
and atmosphere-biosphere interactions. We stopped using chlorofluorocarbons
in appliances and some aerosol products because CFCs destroy the ozone;
the last thing I want to hear are headlines about a hydrogen spill?
Damage from Hydrogen?
The study was not conclusive, so environmental damage due to a hydrogen leak is only a possibility. It is also possible that man-made hydrogen could be absorbed into the soil rather than accumulating in our atmosphere. The sure thing is that precursory knowledge regarding this potential danger can prompt us to take preventative measures before the damage is done. Hydrogen related industries should take greater care in designing equipment for the production of hydrogen and hydrogen systems to minimize leakage in the case that a hydrogen related device be damaged.
As they are not in production, the (research) cars are hand-built using experimental technology created on an as needed basis. This results in a very large dollar amount that has little relationship to the price that the hydrogen fuel cell production vehicle that will eventually cost. The most expensive material used in these cars are the platinum covered nodes in the fuel cells. Beyond the platinum, the car consists of the same things that cars today do; metals, aluminum, plastics, rubber, etc. They have electric engines but the rest is the same or similar to the cars we drive today.
A Fuel Cell car is no different than an electric car; one that derives its electricity from a hydrogen-oxygen reaction, that is. It does not have to be a hydrogen-oxygen reaction; most any other source of electricity could also work. A big driving force behind using hydrogen is because is such a practical solution for achieving the performance we've come to expect from our cars. Some industry experts see fuel cell cars as a temporary solution and that improved batteries are the answer to electric cars; lightweight, super batteries with super fast recharge times. The research continues on all fronts and if we are lucky, several viable solutions will be found and we can individually choose which option to purchase.