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Hydrogen

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About fifteen times lighter than air, hydrogen accounts for around three quarters of the elemental mass of the entire univserse. This fact doesn’t really help things with regard to powering future cars, since it isn’t quite so abudant on earth. Most of it is found in water (H2O).

electrolysis

photo by Peter Holst

Nonetheless, to put it simply, no future fuel holds greater promise to transform the world’s energy crises than hydrogen. Nor do any of them have as many obstacles in their paths, or face as much controversy and disagreement, as hydrogen.

Properties

Gas, colorless, odorless, tasteless, nonmetallic

Production

Hydrogen is produced in a number of ways, but 96% of it is produced using fossil fuels (natural gas, oil and coal) and the rest is produced using electrolysis of water. It is extremely difficult to produce with any efficiency; currently, using the partial combustion of natural gas is the most efficient.

CO2 Emissions

When hydrogen is used in a fuel cell, its only emission is water vapor.

Fuel Blends

Called Hydrogen/Natural Gas Fuel (HCNG), hydrogen can blend with natural gas in a natural gas vehicle. This blend can substantially reduce the vehicle’s nitrogen oxides emissions.

Infrastructure

One of the biggest drawbacks currently is a lack of any real usable infrastructure for hydrogen. While there are a handful of hydrogen fueling stations in operation (all in California), they are token stations at best; a true hydrogen infrastructure could cost a trillion dollars or more to fully realize.

Advantages

A fuel cell would make hydrogen extremely clean-burning, since the fuel cell only emits heat and water.

In theory, a fuel cell will continue to work so long as the hydrogen is provided, without suffering from overheating, or the kind of maintenance required by gas engines.

Full development of the hydrogen fuel cell has applications beyond vehicles; together they could power hand-held devices and backup generators, as well as be used with renewable energy sources such as solar and wind by allowing their energy output to go directly into the electricity grid.

Disadvantages

Although abundant in the universe, hydrogen is fairly rare in our atmosphere, meaning that it has to be extracted from the likes of water, hydrocarbons and biomass in a currently ineffeficient process.

Its production creates excessive carbon dioxide.

When it burns, a hydrogen flame is virtually invisible; coupled with the gas’s propensity for escaping, in small amounts, almost any tank, there are concerns about explosions. On the plus side, hydrogen is so light it typically is dispersed in the air very quickly.

On-board storage is a major issue; a hydrogen tank would currently be too large for a car.

It is a very flammable gas (think of the Hindenburg), which further adds to the on-board storage problems.

The Future

Hydrogen's future as a transportation fuel is potentially brighter than any other but there is a lot of work to be done in this field. For example:

The development of better technologies for on-board storage: currently there are high-pressure tanks under development, as well as cryogenic tanks that cool hydrogen to a liquid. Also, the Honda FCX uses a vertically-placed fuel cell to combat this problem.

Methods for circumventing the infrastructure problem: one proposal includes using the current utilities infrastructure to transport electricity to filling stations where, using elctrolysers, hydrogen would be seperated out of water. Another suggestion is to use the natural gas transmission system, since hydrogen is also a gas; however, hydrogen is known to weaken steel, meaning it could create substantial mainteance costs.

A means of efficient production that doesn’t require fossil fuels: As noted above, the huge majority of hydrogen is produced using fossil fuels. A company called Solar Hydrogen Energy Corporation (SHEC) is developing a system called Dry Fuel Reformation that can produce hydrogen from the methane created from landfills and other sources.

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