A project that could revolutionize everything from the way people drive their cars to the way toasters run, hydrogen fuel cells are one of the leading technologies in decreasing the world’s reliance on oil, gas and coal.
Despite several obstacles, fuel cells could be the solution to Earth’s diminishing fossil fuel supply and increasing energy demand.
“Whether hydrogen is used directly as a fuel or indirectly as part of fuel cell, it would in all likelihood be an improvement over most things we use today to drive engines, heat spaces and operate appliances,” said retired Urban Planning Prof. Mitchell Rycus.
Demonstrated by the blackout last month that paralyzed New England and the Midwest, some say there is a growing necessity for alternative energy sources that do not revolve around traditional fossil fuels. In response, the U.S. government and special interest groups like the National Hydrogen Association have launched initiatives to develop renewable energy sources and create a power grid that would someday be powered by hydrogen.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the principle behind hydrogen fuel cells involves a reaction between a hydrogen fuel source and oxygen that, with the help of a catalyst, produces energy useable in cars, household appliances and ideally power plant operations.
Environmentally, hydrogen fuel cells are sound because their only exhaust is water vapor. Economically, the market for hydrogen production is vast because it could be derived from an infinitely renewable resource – water.
The new technology is still in its early stages and questions regarding the acquisition of mass quantities of hydrogen have yet to be answered.
“However, the problem has always been, where do you get the hydrogen? All methods that I’m aware of require another energy source, such as electricity, to extract hydrogen from some other source, usually water. So, if we want to get hydrogen from water, say, then we need electricity. Where we get the electricity is another problem,” Rycus said.
Hydrogen fuel cells have been used to power prototype vehicles like General Motors’ “HyWire,” and the Toyota “FCLV” – a vehicle that claims to run at three times the efficiency of a vehicle with an internal combustion engine.
Actual consumer models of fuel cell vehicles are still very early in development, and this may be due largely to the energy and oil industries’ reluctant backing of non-fossil fuel initiatives.
The oil industry “is pursuing the short-term gains in air quality made possible by reformulated gasoline (at a considerable cost of $37 billion),” while Germany and Japan lead the world in fuel cell research, states James Cannon, president of the Colorado-based Energy Futures Inc., on the NHA website. Still, Cannon said he believes fuel cell cars will be common on America’s, if not, Germany and Japan’s, highways by the year 2010.
Developing fuel cells for use in power plants may be even more distant in the future, but the necessity for change was reinforced by the blackout a month ago. Unfortunately, the University currently has no plans for implementing fuel cell technology into its power grid, but the possibility still exists for expansion later on.
“I have great hope for fuel cells, people say they might be the source of (energy for) the future. From a University standpoint, we’ve been looking for an application to test them out,” said Central Power Plant Associate Director William Verge. “Fuel cells could be the answer, but it’s still a way off.”