With global warming, general pollution and rising fuel prices, our future energy needs are a hot topic. Fuel cells may represent a solution, one coming sooner than later.
Future Energy Concepts – The Fuel Cell
A fuel cell is a fairly vague phrase thrown around by those in the know and those that know relatively little. Regardless of the particular design, a fuel cell is essentially a cell similar to a battery in which a chemical process occurs to produce electricity. In this case, however, the fuel is hydrogen. The basic idea is to combine hydrogen with oxygen in a process that produces electricity. This electricity is then used as we would normally use it in our lives.
If you read the paper or watch the news, one would think the concept of hydrogen fuels in a new one. In fact, it is not. The first one was created in 1839. The problem, of course, was it was inefficient and there wasn’t much interest since fossil fuels were plentiful and our energy needs were tiny compared to today. It wasn’t until the 1960s that much interest was shown in the energy platform. As with many advances, NASA decided to use fuel cells to power the Gemini and Apollo spacecrafts. Unfortunately, the trick has been translating this limited use to wide spread applications in daily life.
A common misconception is a fuel cell represents renewable energy. Very clearly, it does not. It is a device, not an energy platform. It is like saying a hydroelectric dam is a renewable energy. The dam is a machine to harness a renewable energy resource, but not an energy source in and of itself. The fuel cell works much the same way. It is a methodology for harnessing energy from hydrogen. The particular method can be clean or dirty, to wit, one can use water or coal for the base material. Obviously, coal is not much help.
Fuel cells can be run, in theory, on any material containing hydrogen. This means renewable energy sources such as hydrogen, biogas, and so on. The primary goal is to focus on water and other renewable sources because of their inherent clean advantages. When hydrogen is used, for instance, it produces no tangible pollution or greenhouse gases. The byproduct, instead, is simply water.
There are a few hurdles that must be overcome before hydrogen fuel cells really become a viable energy platform. First, the technology is such that the fuel cells are far too large and heavy to be used for practical purposes. The infamous hydrogen car is not currently viable because of this, although test cars from primarily German manufacturers are being evaluated. The second problem is efficiency, which is to say fuel cells are not. Currently, fuel cells produce energy at a cost of about 10 times that of fossil fuels, and that is a positive estimate. Again, not a viable option.
While these may seem like significant hurdles, they actually point to the viability of hydrogen fuel cells as a power source. These problems are focused on technical aspects of delivery, not on whether the process works. If there is anything we are good at as a species, it is making technological breakthroughs. If we can build a hydrogen nuclear weapon, surely we can build a hydrogen fuel cell.