Great Scot! Glasgow Scientists Make Hydrogen Fuel Breakthrough

Is hydrogen the answer to cutting our cars’ greenhouse gas emissions?

We may be hearing more about hydrogen fuel again in the near future. Researchers at Glasgow University have recently discovered what could be a breakthrough methodology for producing hydrogen fuel from water. The new method utilizes renewable energy sources to run an electric current through water (electrolysis) to create hydrogen fuel 30 times faster than the current state-of-the-art production method. This method is a vast improvement over the currently prevailing practice, which relies heavily on fossil fuels (and therefore offsets the benefit of using hydrogen fuel in the first place). Using the new methodology, Glasgow scientists are eliminating those GHG emissions by finding a production method that favors zero-emissions renewable energy sources.

Do you remember when hydrogen fuel was all the rage? The idea of hydrogen fuel seemed to be top-of-mind 10 years ago, with President George W. Bush calling hydrogen highways the way of the future in his 2003 State of the Union address. In fact, the primary use people envision for hydrogen – even now – is for automobiles so that we can replace emission-heavy gasoline. Hydrogen can be used by vehicles in 2 ways:

  • burning hydrogen directly (in liquid form) much like a car would burn gasoline, or
  • as part of a hydrogen fuel cell, which reacts hydrogen with oxygen to create electricity and power an electric motor.

So, why didn’t hydrogen technology take off? Cost, safety, and storage demands were driving factors.

Hydrogen has the tremendous benefit of being clean burning with zero emissions – great for the environment! Hydrogen fuel cells are also very efficient, making them an attractive means of deriving sustained power, and liquid hydrogen stores 2.8 times the energy per unit of mass of gasoline. But, hydrogen’s storage needs are stringent (in its liquid form, hydrogen needs to be stored at or below negative 273 degrees C! [p. 85]). On the flip side, hydrogen fuel cells do not work at very low temperatures (I don’t know what qualifies as “very low,” but this could be potentially problematic in Northern climates.) Additionally, there is a definite safety risk associated with hydrogen – it is highly flammable, even more so than gasoline [p. 89].

Some car makers already think the benefits of hydrogen outweigh the costs, though. Toyota is betting on hydrogen fuel cell technology as the future of automobiles rather than traditional electric vehicles, as the car maker is releasing its Toyota Fuel Cell Sedan in the coming months. Hyundai already released its Tucson Fuel Cell crossover vehicle in California this past June.

But, will hydrogen fuel be the way of the future? I don’t know; I still have some lingering concerns.

Safety is of course a primary concern; if hydrogen can’t be stored or transported with near-perfect safety results, it shouldn’t be powering our cars yet. Plus, any safety and security needs will factor heavily into infrastructure costs. Although, infrastructure will need to change regardless as we transition away from fossil fuels and will surely come at a hefty – but necessary – cost.

My other concern is about water availability. How much water is needed for this fuel creation process? Solar and wind production use a small fraction of the water needed by nuclear, coal, or oil-powered energy. How does hydrogen compare? But, hydrogen fuel cells can produce water as the exhaust/output, so does any upfront water use balance out? With the availability of clean drinking water becoming a global development crisis, water consumption should be an important factor in any far-reaching energy decisions.

I suppose the research over the coming months and years will shed more light on the pros and cons of hydrogen fuel and its commercial feasibility. But for now, I think using sustainably-generated electricity (from solar, wind, wave, and geothermal sources) to power both our homes and our vehicles seems like the more appealing choice, both in terms of safety and economic viability.

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