The Science of Sustainability

Reporter's Notes: Where's my Hydrogen Highway

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Hydrogen is not exactly a fuel. That is, we don't burn it to make energy. It's used more as a medium for storing and transporting energy.

The science of hydrogen fuel cell systems is based on a simple concept. When you combine hydrogen with oxygen, energy is released. You get electricity. What makes it such a clean technology is that the byproducts of that chemical reaction are just heat and water.  So when a fuel cell takes hydrogen from a fuel tank and combines it with oxygen in the air, it produces electricity and emits only a wisp of heated water vapor from the tailpipe.

Hydrogen is combustible (remember the Hindenburg?), and needs to be handled carefully. However, there are easy ways to demonstrate electrolysis, which breaks water apart into oxygen and hydrogen, and the opposite process of joining those chemicals. In fact, you could make a type of fuel cell in your kitchen, with a popsicle stick, battery clips, Scotch tape and a few other household products. You do need one item that can't be found in your kitchen: platinum wire or platinum-coated nickel wire.

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe. And hydrogen fuel cell conversion is a squeaky clean technology. But the production of hydrogen for use in fuel cells — that can produce a lot of carbon dioxide. In fact, most hydrogen is currently made by stripping, or re-forming, natural gas. That's one of the ongoing criticisms of fuel-cell technology, that it generates greenhouse gas emissions just to get the hydrogen in the first place.

Fuel cells also can store energy generated by solar-powered electrolysis, as well as similar energy generated by wind and hydropower. That's the kind of hydrogen generation that advocates hope to eventually use in fuel cells. But being able to store energy also makes it extremely attractive to harnessing wind, solar and hydropower.

For example, California could generate a lot of wind energy at night, but since electricity has to be used right away, that nighttime, offpeak energy is less valuable. But if it could be stored in a fuel cell through the electrolysis process, that would make it much more lucrative.

Listen to the Where's my Hydrogen Highway? radio report online, and watch our Web Extra Slideshow.

 

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Category: Energy, Engineering, Environment, Radio

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About the Author ()

David Gorn is the former Deputy News Director of KQED Radio, and currently works as a freelancer for National Public Radio. He has worked for three daily Bay Area newspapers, has been Editor-in-Chief of several magazines, and has taught journalism at San Jose State University and San Francisco State University.
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  • Ron Fowler

    While it sounds good for politicians to promote clean fuels, it's also good for citizens to take this with a grain of salt. Green practices are needed but no one says it will be cheap to begin with. Yes, we can do it but until the process becomes much less expensive, politicians will opt for tax cuts rather than the future of our kids.

  • http://www.zedpower.com John Berkyto

    There really are two things going on in hydrogen, and for the sake of discussion, lets call it "old tech" and "new tech". Experts like Stephen Chu, the new federal energy Czar, recognize that fuel cells are old hydrogen tech, and as a result canceled hundreds of millions of dollars of support for them. Why? Because despite billions spent on research, they are still under-powered, fragile and expensive. As a result, they are like electric cars, confined to small niche applications. What the world needs is a broad-based solution, which can replace any gasoline or diesel engine, in any application. This is often referred to as the "holy grail" of alternate fuel engines, and to date only a handful of companies have come close to achieving success.

    Our company, ZED Power, emerging from the Canadian Hydrogen Fuel National Research Center, applied for patents for the hydrogen-fueled ZED (Zero Emissions Design) engine. Fueled by 130-octane hydrogen, the engine produces over double the horsepower that it can produce with gasoline. It is a type of break-through, transformational technology that’s needed. Hydrogen is the only fuel, which can be made from water, and returns to being water, the most plentiful substance on earth. Coupled to geothermal, wind, or solar power production, it is a 100% carbon free solution. Compared to electric, the ZED powered vehicle is also more environmentally friendly because there are no toxic batteries to get dispose of at the end of its life cycle.

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