Current Research and Obstacles

Common Hydrogen Myths

Hydrogen is too dangerous!

  • Many fuels with high energy densities - such as hydrogen and gasoline - must be handled with care. Like gasoline, propane, methane and other fuels, hydrogen has the potential to combust. This means that safety precautions must be taken so that hazardous combustion does not occur. Hydrogen has been successfully produced, stored, transported and used in large volumes following standardized procedures that have been established over the last 50 years. Additionally, it can be argued that hydrogen is actually inherently safer than its hydrocarbon counterparts because it is completely non-toxic whereas hydrocarbons have been known to cause very severe environmental problems when handled incorrectly (Exxon-Valdez incident in 1989, and more recently the Gulf of Mexico).

Producing hydrogen can create a hydrogen bomb.

  • Hydrogen bombs require that nuclear fusion be performed. This, in turn, requires deuterium and tritium - isotopes of hydrogen - in large quantities, which does not happen in nature. Furthermore, the temoperatures required to perform a fusion reaction are on the order of tens of billions of degrees (10,000,000,000 degrees), and so this simply isn't going to occur when the family is filing up the hydrogen tank at the hydrogen station.

Hydrogen isn't a clean fuel.

  • A comparison between a combustion vehicle using gasoline or diesel and a car powered by hydrogen reveals that hydrogen is much cleaner as the only emmission is water. However, when looking at the overall cycle it becomes apparent that hydrogen is only as clean as the fuel source it is derived from. Electrolysis driven by electricity from fossil fuels will innevitably lead to a greater amount of emissions than electrolysis powered by solar energy.

In vehicles, hydrogen cannot compete with gasoline or diesel.

  • Actually, hydrogen powered vehicles are roughly twice as efficient than internal combustion vehicles. This means that for the same amount of energy from the fuel, a hydrogen car can go twice as far. This also means that for vehicles that use primarily electonic systems (steering, braking, etc.) fuel cells are actually more viable.


Surmounting the Obstacles

Public Opinion

  • Public opinion is what drives the economies of technology. Fuel cells are becoming viable but as the above myths demonstrate, the public hasn't been well informed as to the viability and the recent developments of these systems.
  • Websites such as this one are designed to help educate the public about hydrogen and fuel cells. It is, afterall, the public's opinion that really matters if hydrogen fuel cells are going to become comerical and consumer viable products.

System Costs

  • Currently, fuel cell systems use platinum as the catalyst that splits hydrogen into an electron and a proton. The catalyst allows for effective operation of the fuel cell. As more and more fuel cells are put into a stack, the cost increases dramatically. Currently, government subsidies prevent the full cost of these systems from being realized upon the consumers, but the problem needs to be remedied in the future.
  • Research is being done in conjunction with the DOE to help mitigate the problem with high cost systems due to platinum catalyst loading. The research includes looking into systems that use nano-structures to help catalyze the systems as well as alloys that do not even employ platinum. Additionally, independent research is being done on enzyme catalysis of fuel cell systems as microbes in nature do not use platinum or any other precious metals when producing hydrogen.

Long-term System Reliability

  • Currently, fuel cell systems can operate reliably to about 150,000 miles. This is comparable with current internal combustion life-time expectancy. However, many factors - such as air quality - can have significant effects on the lifetime and overall performance of fuel cells.
  • Research with the DOE is being done on the long-term effects of air quality as well general degredation to help improve future fuel cells. This research will help further improve the lifetimes of fuel cells as well as the reliability of these systems when exposed to impurities and contaniments just as they would be when in use out in the world. 

Hydrogen Infrastructure

  • The current status of the hydrogen infrastructure does not lend well to widespread use of hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (HFCEVs).
  • Fortunately, this problem has been on the minds of policy makers and industrialists for many years. California will see a surge in the amount of hydrogen fuelling stations in the next few years and will undoubtedly be a testament to the viability of HFCEV usage and reliability for the rest of the nation - and  even the world. The plans have already been put into motion for a lot of these fuelling stations which will allow the public to begin migrating towards HFCEV usage, helping to further increase the rate of infrastructure development. This cycles back to public opinion of HFCEVs and related systems as the more that people are educated and willing to give HFCEVs a try, the more available they will become.

For a more complete list of the goals and current research projects concerning the DOE, read this.

The Ultimate Goal

The ultimate goal for alternative and renewable fuel systems would be to replace conventional internal combustion engine vehicles with Zero or Low Emission Vehicles.

Zero Emission Vehicles for All Drivers from Energy Independence Now on Vimeo.

Thanks to the DOE and the CHFCA for the above information.

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