Hydrogen Fuel Cell Technology
Hydrogen Fuel Cell Technology
Terry Tamminen (Author & Environmental Policy Advisor) gives expert video advice on: What is "hydrogen fuel cell technology" and how is it created?; Why are some people concerned about hydrogen fuel cell technology?; Is hydrogen fuel cell technology a potential replacement for gasoline? and more...
What is "hydrogen fuel cell technology" and how is it created?
Hydrogen is powering a growing fleet of research and development cars and trucks throughout the United States and around the world. Hydrogen can be combusted in an ordinary car in an internal combustion engine like you see on the street anywhere, but that's not a very efficient way to use it. So, most of the research is going into what are called "fuel cells" where the hydrogen is passed through this device called a fuel cell, which converts the hydrogen into electricity, and then the electricity powers an electric motor. So, the cars of the future will actually be electric cars powered by electric motors, but instead of the electricity coming from a battery, it'll come from hydrogen that's converted by a fuel cell into electricity.
Why are some people concerned about hydrogen fuel cell technology?
People are concerned about hydrogen and fuel cells for a couple of reasons. First of all, fuel cells use platinum and other precious metals in order to convert hydrogen into electricity and there's going to be concern that if we start mass producing them, there just won't be enough of these materials to go around, that there may be toxins when the fuel cells are scrapped in old vehicles and then new ones are produced. But those problems are being engineered and designed out of fuel cells today. The other concern is that you won't actually have an environmental benefit if the hydrogen for the fuel cell is produced by a dirty source. There's no naturally occurring hydrogen on Earth that we know of. It's bound up in water. Think about the equation for water - H2O. Two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen. So, in order to get the hydrogen out of water for fuel cells, we have to pass a lot of electricity through it to break out the hydrogen. So the question is, where do you get the electricity? If it's from a dirty source like a coal-fired power plant then there's not as much benefit to having a hydrogen fuel cell powered car as you might have thought. But, increasingly, we're getting our hydrogen for fuel cells from solar powered electricity to run through the water or from wind or other renewable resources.
Is hydrogen fuel cell technology a potential replacement for gasoline?
I think the replacement for gasoline, for petroleum, in our transportation sector is going to be a basket of solutions rather than any one silver bullet. We're not going to jump from petroleum to hydrogen or from petroleum to battery-electrics or some other unknown technology. However, due to the fact that our growing population are demanding more and more cars, trucks, and buses all over the world, the only thing that will one day replace petroleum are all of those solutions: biofuels, like ethanol and biodiesel, battery-electric cars, and certainly hydrogen.
Do we need to use fossil fuels to create hydrogen fuel cells?
We do not need to use fossil fuels to create hydrogen. In fact, a lot of the best research is being done now on things like wind power. We've talked about having wind power for our electricity source, but one of the components or one of the concerns about that, is that the wind doesn't always blow at the time of day when we need electricity. However, let's say wind is blowing at night, and you have a wind farm that's generating electricity. You can use that electricity that's coming from a clean renewable resource to run through water, to break out the hydrogen, and store the hydrogen, and then in the daytime you can run the hydrogen through a fuel cell to make electricity when you do need it. Or, you can put it into your vehicle as a transportation fuel. So, there are ways of taking solar, geothermal, wind, and tidal energy, and of taking decaying biomass from urban green waste or from agricultural waste, and turning all of those things into clean sources of hydrogen.
How long will it be before I can buy a hydrogen fuel cell car?
You can buy a hydrogen fuel cell car today. There's a small California company called A New View that sells a hydrogen fuel cell pickup truck and a small passenger Sedan. They're fairly expensive but you can buy them. There's a company called Quantum that converts the Toyota Prius, which is a hybrid, into a hydrogen model. These aren't practical for most people because there's not a big fueling infrastructure around, even here in California, where we do have thirty hydrogen fueling stations already. However, in about a year, BMW will be selling hydrogen cars and, I'd say, by 2010, virtually all of the major automakers will be selling some form of hydrogen car to the public.