Fueling the Next Generation

April 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

It’s really nice outside right now. The grass is green, the sky is blue, there are a few puffy clouds in the sky. The sun is nearly blinding. The thing we need to think about is: How are we going to keep it that way?

One of the major issues looming over our heads, threatening our environment, and has taken over much of the environmental sustainability debate, focuses on one thing: Cars. Cars use oil, which creates environmental issues in its extraction, its processing, and its use. Cars create CO2 and other greenhouse gasses, which ruin our atmosphere and worsen the greenhouse effect on our planet, causing much-feared global warming. So what do we do?

Fuel Cells.

Fuel Cells?

It’s a term that gets thrown around all the time. Fuel Cells. Hydrogen Fuel Cells. But what exactly is a Fuel Cell? Will it really solve our problems? Or is it just rhetoric?

Let’s start by taking a look at how a fuel cell works. Here’s a diagram:

Hydrogen Fuel Cell Block Diagram

It’s interesting to note that a fuel cell is pretty basic electrochemistry. There’s an anode an a cathode, each made out of metal (usually Carbon or Nickel) and porous. Sitting between them is KOH, intended to facilitate proton transfer. Input by the anode is Hydrogen gas, by the cathode is Oxygen gas. Through the same process as any other electrochemical cell, electrons are transferred, and heat energy is created, while the waste products form water in steam form.

How is this better than a regular combustion engine? The main thing is that a normal engine creates CO2 and other greenhouse gasses, which harm the environment, while a hydrogen fuel cell creates water, which can actually reverse some of the effects of greenhouse gasses. Additionally, hydrogen doesn’t require environmentally devastating techniques to acquire, unlike drilling for oil, which has proven itself dangerous time after time.

Think this is too good to be true? Well, there are a few setbacks. First and foremost, Hydrogen gas is extremely flammable, and is difficult and expensive to produce in mass quantities. This is made into even more of a problem by the fact that each fuel cell does produce nearly as much energy as a regular engine, thus requiring extremely large amounts of Hydrogen.

What about the costs? Right now, Hydrogen fuel cells are really expensive. To run a car on them, you would need to have so many in just one vehicle that even if the Hydrogen and Oxygen were free, the price of the car alone would make it more worthwhile to drive a car on gasoline. Due to this, there is only one hydrogen fuel cell currently in mass production, and it is not made to run cars or anything of that size.

So what is the future of the hydrogen fuel cell? Right now, electric cars and hybrids are alleviating the problem, so there’s still some time for fuel cells to become more effective and more efficient. We shall see in time.

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