Featured Resource: How Hydrogen Fuel Is Made (DNews)
Is hydrogen fuel the future of car fuel? Learn more about how it’s made. 


Do Now

Do you believe hydrogen fuel cells are a practical renewable energy option? Should companies invest in improving fuel cell technology or should automakers focus on other types of energy? #DoNowHydrogen

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Introduction

As we decrease our dependence on fossil fuels, scientist are researching alternative ways of powering vehicles, such as hydrogen fuel cells (HFC). HFCs are devices that produce electricity by using chemical reactions between hydrogen and oxygen. First invented in 1838, commercial use of HFCs as a power source began in 1965 with the launch of NASA’s Gemini 5, part of NASA’s second human spaceflight program. Capturing the public’s fascination with space, General Motors launched the fuel cell van project, creating the 1966 Electrovan, the first hydrogen fuel cell vehicle (HFCV) ever produced.

The fuel cells shelf in bay 4 of Apollo Service Module No. SM 109, with the top of oxygen tank No. 2 at lower left, at North American Rockwell NASA

Shortly after the prototype was made, the project quickly faded due to high cost of production and lack of hydrogen fuel infrastructure. In recent years, with the demand of renewable, clean fuels, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles have had a comeback. Japan is leading and expanding the car industry in HFCVs with a production goal of 40,000 models by 2020, aiming to have 160 fueling stations in the next year. The HFCV industry is still in its beginning stages and shows promise as a new fuel source for the future. However, with the rise in popularity of electric vehicles, are HFCs still a viable clean energy alternative?

Background Science

HFCs pose an efficient and clean alternative to fossil fuels. HFCs are made up of stacks of cells made up of an electrolyte membrane that separates a positive terminal (anode) and negative terminal (cathode). Hydrogen gas is obtained externally through natural gas reforming, water electrolysis, and charcoal gasification. It is then stored in a highly pressurized fuel tank in the vehicle. Refueling a HFCV is just like pumping gasoline into a gas powered car. In each cell, pressurized hydrogen is pumped into an anode and split up into hydrogen ions and electrons. The ions then travel through the electrolyte membrane, towards the cathode. Meanwhile, the electrons flow through an outer circuit, attracted to the cathode on the other side. The flow of electrons powers the electric motor that drives the car’s wheels. In the cathode, the ions and electrons recombine with oxygen from the surrounding air to produce water as waste. Although there is still room for improvement, many people believe HFCs could ultimately end our environmental fuel concerns.

The Debate

Hydrogen is an accessible energy source because it is one of the most abundant elements in the universe, making it a renewable source when produced with renewable sources of energy. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the hydrogen-fueled vehicles cut down 30% of environmental warming emission. One of the early hydrogen-fueled car models, the Hyundai Tuscon Fuel Cell SUV, only produces 286 g CO2eq/mile (equivalent carbon dioxide emissions per mile), compared to a gasoline vehicle which produces 411 g CO2eq/mile. Since HFCs create electricity chemically, instead of through combustion, they are more efficient in extracting energy. The waste products of hydrogen fuel cells are solely water (H2O), heat, and electricity, demonstrating how environmentally-friendly this energy source is. These fuel cells could also have uses beyond just automobiles. They have potential use as a household power source with the same, if not better, efficiency, maintenance, and cost as household solar panels.

However, HFCs are not without problems. Current methods of obtaining hydrogen are inefficient, and often rely on large amounts of fossil fuels to complete the process. The most common method is natural gas reforming, a process that heats methane with steam to form hydrogen and carbon dioxide. Additionally, regardless of the technological innovation, the cost of producing hydrogen-fueled cars remains an aching concern. A study at University of Chicago pointed out that the Mirai model costs $60,000, double the cost of a comparable electric car. Moreover, the refuelling infrastructure is virtually nonexistent, with only 50 within California, although the goal is to increase that number in the near future. The refueling process for some vehicles is advertised to take as little as 3 mins, but a recent study by GreenCarReports says that in practice, the refueling took 10 minutes at the least. In theory HFCs are an efficient and environmental way of powering vehicles, but until the cost of production is lowered and hydrogen can be produced cleanly and accessed easily, it could fade into the background like the Electrovan.


More Resources

ARTICLE: Will Hydrogen Fuel-Cell Cars Be America’s Car of the Future? (Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago)

VIDEO: “Will Your Hydrogen Car Explode?” (DNews)

ARTICLE: “Hydrogen-Powered Cars Are Better Than Electric Cars -But There’s a Catch” (Business Insider)

ARTICLE: 10 Disadvantages and Advantages of Hydrogen Fuel Cells (The Next Galaxy)


KQED Education partners with phenomenal organizations to bring you the Science Do Now activities. This post was written by the following youth from the California Academy of Sciences’ TechTeens program:

Alex O., Annika S., Daniel R., Jacob G., Julia A., June H., Kavi D.,
Kiran M., Michelle C., and Robbie P.

The TechTeens are youth leaders who use digital media to develop and communicate science stories for the public.

  • Joshua Lewis

    Hydrogen fuel cells are definitely a renewable energy option in todays fossil fuel energy crisis, but if car companies decide to implement this, they must keep in mind that their is an extremely high cost to building hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles. This new Hydrogen fuel cell vehicle industry is a huge threat to the gasoline and oil industries. Larry West a environmental issues expert shares “automakers spend upwards of $1 million to produce each vehicle, due to the advanced technology involved and low production runs” from http://environment.about.com/od/fossilfuels/a/fcv.htm and adds on the other hand, that one of the only by products of running a hydrogen powered fuel cell vehicle is oxygen and a trickle of water, neither of which will cause any harm to human health or the environment. Meaning that their are none of the negative repercussions in a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle compared to gasoline and oil options. However, automakers improving fuel cell technology as a new source of energy to power cars is important for the improvement of communities effected by severe combustion air pollution. This new technology needs to continue and grow because it is crucial to our society to help conserve energy by making the way we drive less pollutive and more affordable. However until those points are met, one of the main downsides I see to this vehicle in more peoples hands is because of the high cost and the low availability of hydrogen fill up stations, which will no doubt change over time. It is up to fueling stations to adapt to fuel cell technology to start building easy infrastructure for the Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. #DoNowHydrogen #MyCMSTArgs

    • Yasmin Gonzalez

      You make very good points of course hydrogen fuel cells to a lot less harm to us then oil and gasoline but i don’t think its the solution for our next big source of fuel for cars. Like you mention a problem with these fuel cells would be the low amount of hydrogen fill up stations over time and yes that would probably change over time but how much would it change? Electric cars have been around for a while now and there is still very limited charging stations that make having an electric car difficult and inconvenient. Car companies need to find a way to fuel cars that not only helps are environment but also appeals to the consumers. If the public does not like the cars or will cause inconveniences they won’t buy them and the money the car companies put into building these cars will be a waste. #DoNowHydrogen #MyCMSTArgs

  • Yasmin Gonzalez

    I think coming up with a new form of fuel that isn’t affecting our planet so negatively is definitely needed but maybe hydrogen fuel cells aren’t the answer. If in the process of perfecting this we’re having to use fossil fuels isn’t it going against its purpose? Maybe in the long run it’ll be worth it but only if they’re able to make these cars affordable if they can’t make them a reasonable price people will just keep buying cars that run on regular fuel. It’s also a risk for people to buy these cars because there isn’t very many charging stations. If there isn’t enough charging stations where you need to go or wherever you want to travel you can only go as far as the fuel can take you. In an article I read Tesla CEO says that at the end of the process of making this fuel along with the cost it is half the efficiency of a regular electrical car. https://thinkprogress.org/elon-musk-is-right-hydrogen-is-an-incredibly-dumb-car-fuel-d0f37a4c9bee#.rhqmofki9 I think that finding an alternative fuel is a step in the right direction but we need to further explore other options that are more beneficial for our environment while being cost effective. I think if companies try to go with the Hydrogen fuel cells they’re going to end up losing more money it would be better to wait for a better source of fuel to be discovered and tested. #DoNowHydrogen #MyCMSTArgs

    • Ryan Sotelo

      I agree that right now the creation of the Hydrogen Fuel Cells is kind of going against their purpose do to all the fossil fuels being used to create them. However, with how efficient these cars can become, and with our own technological advances in the near future, I feel like switching from coal to solar power to create the HFC’s is feasible and that it could be something that companies will start to do. #MyCMSTargs #DoNowHydrogen

    • Zoe Atava

      I somewhat agree. I believe that it is important to be practical and taking both time and money into consideration is a way to determine the likelihood of people wanting a product. HFC’s possibly aren’t the answer, however, alternative energy is. It is important for us to continue to prioritize that as well as prioritizing our earth and the effects that our waste has. Maybe, HFC’s should be marketing and targeting elite individuals. Possibly, there should be a way to “glam” it up in order to spark the interest of individuals who have the means to purchase a vehicle with that type of energy. #DoNowHydrogen #MyCMSTArgs

  • Ryan Sotelo

    I believe that HFC’s have the potential to become our practical form of renewable fuel for transportation. While the issues that are apparent now are the price of the vehicles and the environmental impact of creating the Hydrogen cells for fuel, “Automakers involved in making hydrogen-powered cars have shown that the technology provides a longer range, shorter charge time, and has the added benefit of having zero emissions.” http://www.businessinsider.com/why-hydrogen-powered-cars-are-better-2016-1. Toyota, who has been working on HFC vehicles for over 20 years is continuing to work on the process, along with other car manufacturers and Universities throughout California, including Humboldt State University and UC Davis. Technology is advancing continuously and I feel like companies have the capabilities to make HFC’s more efficiently soon. As stated in the video at the beginning of the page, we have the potential to begin using cleaner energy sources rather than fossil fuels to create the Hydrogen Cells. If the companies can find a way to start using renewable energy such as wind power or solar power, then I think that HFC’s have a very promising future ahead. Much like how other new things progress, the technology will progress to find newer ways to create these Hydrogen vehicles, and I feel like with more production of the Hydrogen vehicles will come cheaper prices for them.
    #DoNowHydrogen #MyCMSTArgs

    • Brandon Biermann

      As you said, right now with HFC vehicles being compared to battery operated cars, HFC’s has the potential to be much more convenient for our environment and the consumer. This is going to be a very important trial and error process to establish some sort of comfort level for the consumers in order to get more people to invest in these cars. Everyone cares about cost and with the manufacture price a little step, this will affect the price of final cost. Overall, there are many great benefits that can lead to a better future. #MyCMSTArgs #DoNowHydrogen

  • Zoe Atava

    I think that HFC’s need to have an important part in our means of transportation. Especially with Trump in office and his inability to recognize the fact that our environment is deteriorating, its important to mobilize all efforts of conserving energy and putting emphasis on other methods of technology. However, it is important to take everything into consideration. Possibly, from a marketing and advertising angle, there needs to me more media news on HFC’s as well as commercials promoting their product. Then, it will be easy to determine how in demand that these new vehicles will become. Time and Money are two very important factors to consider. Other alternative methods should continue to be used and sought out. I found the benefits of alternative energy on this article: http://www.ucsusa.org/clean-energy/renewable-energy/public-benefits-of-renewable-power#.WLSwrmNizow
    #DoNowHydrogen #MyCMSTArgs

    • Melanie Funk

      I like how you mentioned Trump being president. Now more than ever we need to keep fighting for the safety of our planet. I just don’t think these cars are the answer right now. Eventually, once fossil fuels are eliminated, they would be an awesome solution. #MyCMSTArgs

    • Grace Gerberich

      I agree with your point that it is important in this day in age to acknowledge and accept other forms of technology. We our environment constantly changing and growing we need to do everything we can to preserve it. I agree that there needs to be more media coverage on these hydrogen fuel cell vehicles in order to see if they would be a good suit. #DoNowHydrogen #MyCMSTArgs

  • Brigitte Dahrouj

    I understand that this hydrogen method has it’s flaws, but as stated in the video we could use greener methods of electrostatic separation of hydrogen and oxygen instead of coal. Plus, once cars begin to run on hydrogen we can make semi-trucks that run on hydrogen and that will be better for the environment. Overall, I believe this is a step in the right direction. In fact, upon research I found there are planes that run on hydrogen: http://www.cnn.com/2016/10/19/world/hy4-fuel-cell-plane/
    We need something to supplement fossil fuels so we can take the right step to helping our planet.
    #DoNowHydrogen #MyCMSTArgs

    • Ciana Bell

      I agree, I think that the benefits of pursuing hydrogen fuel cells outweighs the flaws that come with this new method. I highly doubt that everything we have today came about in a easy and financially inexpensive way. Everything takes time, research, and experimentation, but when it works out the results are truly amazing. Having a more environmentally friendly method of fuel would be a huge step for our country to help the environment that everyone is complaining about. I hope that there is continued research into this new method. Really good post! #DoNowHydrogen #MyCMSTArgs

    • Adrian Astorga

      I agree I think if we can have semis one of the largest transportors of goods powered by hydrogen then this planet will be greener. #DoNowHydrogen #MyCMSTArgs

    • Roxanne Galdos

      I agree that once an alternative method to manufacturing hydrogen is found it has the ability to become a great replacement for the use of fossil fuels. But no one knows when this epiphany will come. Until the production of hydrogen become more sustainable I think the best option is to pursue fuel alternatives that we know work effectively. There’s no doubt that the potential use of HFC’s are a step in the right direction when it comes to sustainable fuel methods but at their current state of production I believe they’re doing more harm than good. #DoNowHydrogen #MyCMSTArgs

    • Justis Haruo Kusumoto

      While I agree with your green intentions, the KQED article points out that natural gas reforming is the most common method to produce hydrogen fuel, which produces massive amounts of Carbon Dioxide, which is most certainly detrimental to our climate, and environment. We cannot jump on board the hydrogen fuel cell train without major breakthroughs in clean production of hydrogen fuel to make it much more profitable and greener. Also, there is a huge infrastructure gap that we need to fill in order to make it economically viable to the average consumer.

  • Roxanne Galdos

    The use of hydrogen fuel cells as a renewable source of energy sounds good in theory but I think that the costs of mass producing HFC outweigh the benefits. As of now the process used to obtain hydrogen (methods relying on fossil fuels) defeats its purpose in replacing the use of fossil fuels itself. There is also a rise in the use and manufacturing of electric cars. Much like HFC powered vehicles there are limited fuel, or better known recharging stations, that electric cars must go to. But in recent years property managers are receiving tax write offs for building electric car charging stations in new developments. This incentive has increased the benefits and usage of electric cars making them more practical and affordable. While hydrogen seem like a good alternative source of energy I believe that until there are more sustainable ways to produce and transport HFC’s we should focus on expanding and promoting the use of electric cars. https://www.reminetwork.com/articles/the-benefits-of-ev-charging-stations/ #DoNowHydrogen #MyCMSTArgs

  • Melanie Funk

    I think HFC’s definitely need some work. I’m all for helping the environment and limiting our wastes, but it’s not quite practical yet. They’re not affordable for the average person and is still causing waste by using fossil fuels to produce it. This site delves deeper into why they just are not up to par yet: http://evobsession.com/more-reasons-hydrogen-fuel-cell-cars-arent-the-future/ As soon as someone can make it more affordable and less potent to our planet, I agree hydrogen cars should be much more popular. #MyCMSTArgs

    • Neve Roby

      I agree that HFC’s could use some work & I think that helping the environment and limiting our wastes are important but I disagree that it’s not quite practical yet. I understand that cars that run of HFC’s are expensive as of now but majority all cars are ranging around $26,000+, I know theres a few outliers but majority are expensive, so the fact that they’re aren’t totally affordable to the average person is something that can be changed if more people continue to buy them. I agree HFC’s have their flaws but I think they’re one of the best options we have out there as of now. #DoNowHydrogen #MyCMSTArgs

  • Ciana Bell

    I think that hydrogen fuel cells are a very practical renewable energy option that should be looked into further. As stated there are some flaws and setbacks, but I feel that the benefits definitely outweigh the costs. With that being said, I think companies should invest in improving fuel cell technology and I also feel that automakers should continue to focus on other types of energy options because we should always be looking for ways to better our environment. With the possibility of new innovations such as this it is important for our country to remain informed on all angels of the research that is being conducted with the costs, benefits, financial changes, environmental changes, and also how it will impact the majority of the population. Hydrogen fuel cells is something that I fell won’t happen for many more years to come, but knowing there is a possibility for a more environmentally safe energy source that is being looked into does give some peace of mind. Attached is a Fact sheet for hydrogen fuel cells for more information on the topic. https://www.hydrogen.energy.gov/pdfs/doe_fuelcell_factsheet.pdf #DoNowHydrogen #MyCMSTArgs

  • Brandon Biermann

    Hydrogen fueled cells (HFC) has the potential to create a new era of clean emissions. The concern right now that is effecting our infrastructure, is the amount that it costs to manufacture this vehicle, the method in which they obtain the hydrogen and the lack of HFC refueling stations. This article from Business Insider, http://www.businessinsider.com/why-hydrogen-powered-cars-are-better-2016-1 , establishes that the new HFC cars from corporations like Audi have the potential to go nearly 400 miles on one trip, which is almost doubled that of battery operated vehicles. Now my concern has to do with the process of obtaining hydrogen. If it takes fossils fuels to obtain the final outcome of hydrogen, they why would we go away from our current vehicles. Its seems counter-productive to try to get rid of one product, to replace it with another that uses the same resources. But the positives are that it does provide a much cleaner bi-product for our atmosphere. I do believe that through trial and error, this can have many great benefits to our economy. #DoNowHydrogen #MyCMSTArgs

  • Neve Roby

    Every form of energy has its own set of flaws and consequences but the benefits of using hydrogen as fuel outweigh the negatives. In the article above it says the hydrogen-fueled vehicles cut down 30% of environmental warming emission, I think this is pretty impressive as well as pretty necessary. The current president and most of his cabinet don’t believe in global warming and don’t think its an issue so I think its up to the people to come up with solutions so our planet has a chance of surviving. I think hydrogen fuel would be a stellar step in the right direction to saving the environment! Fuel cell today writes a good article about the benefits of hydrogen cell fuels http://fuelcelltoday.com/about-fuel-cells/benefits. #DoNowHydrogen #MyCMSTArgs

  • Grace Gerberich

    I believe in finding a new way to get and produce fuel that doesn’t affect our planet as much as it is being affected currently, but if we decide to implement hydrogen fuel cells we must consider a lot of factors. One being it will require a lot of money and will bring about the downfall of the oil and gasoline industries. But a benefit of the hydrogen fuel cells is that they won’t cause any harm to the environment or to human health because all these vehicles will use is oxygen and water. But if we continue to use our current fuel methods those areas with extreme pollution will continue to worsen if we don’t make a change. I believe we need this change in fuel or else our environment will continue to suffer. There comes a time where we need to be out with the old and in with the new. It will take time and money but it is necessary to take a step forward in order to support these hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. #DoNowHyrogen #MyCMSTArgs https://www.driveclean.ca.gov/Search_and_Explore/Technologies_and_Fuel_Types/Hydrogen_Fuel_Cell.php

  • Adrian Astorga

    I think Hydrogen Fueled vehicles are something this world needs. With all the burning of fossil fuels we are going to need to change how we are powering our vehicles. If we can master a Hydrogen Fueled car then soon enough we will be able to power Semi-Trucks that transport most of the products across this nation. Overall Hydrogen Fuel cars have a range of about 400 miles according to this article http://www.businessinsider.com/why-hydrogen-powered-cars-are-better-2016-1 and charge faster than the number one electric car tesla produces. I think this is a great advancement into making this planet greener. #DoNowHydrogen #MyCMSTArgs

    • Hannah Fulks

      I completely agree. At the rate that we are burning through fossil fuels, we need to be constantly thinking of how to more effectively use energy before it is too late. In my opinion, we need to make this change as soon as possible. According to the EPA, burning these fossil fuels releases nitrogen oxide, upsetting the natural nitrogen levels in the atmosphere, causing damage to our environment. #DoNowHydrogen #MyCMSTArgs https://www.epa.gov/nutrientpollution/sources-and-solutions-fossil-fuels

  • Hannah Fulks

    While I understand that this specific method of hydrogen power has it’s flaws, I believe that current methods also have their flaws. I believe that hydrogen power is something worth striving to know more about, as this could be extremely beneficial for everyone. Many articles have been published citing that a nitrogen powered car could soon be replacing electric cars.
    http://www.economist.com/blogs/babbage/2012/10/nitrogen-cycle
    The EPA has acknowledged many concerns with fossil fuels, and I am worried that with Trumps presidency, much won’t get done to help the environment. https://www.epa.gov/nutrientpollution/sources-and-solutions-fossil-fuels
    For example, Trump told the EPA on January 24 that it had to freeze all grants and contracts. This does not sound like a president who has the environment in mind.
    https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2017/01/23/trump-administration-tells-epa-to-freeze-all-grants-contracts/?utm_term=.fee136a38299

    #DoNowHydrogen #MyCMSTArgs

  • Justis Haruo Kusumoto

    Do you believe hydrogen fuel cells are a practical renewable energy option? Should companies invest in improving fuel cell technology or should automakers focus on other types of energy? #DoNowHydrogen

    Hydrogen fuel cells are a potential renewable energy option, but their practicality is deeply in question. Companies should invest and focus on other types of energy until hydrogen fuel infrastructure is much more developed and electric production is cleaner. The attached source to this article, at “Next Galaxy” https://thenextgalaxy.com/10-disadvantages-and-advantages-of-hydrogen-fuel-cells/ outlined a number of benefits and disadvantages to the hydrogen fuel cell technology. However, many of the advantages are immediately canceled out by the disadvantages. For one, it takes massive amounts of electricity to produce hydrogen fuel. This KQED article admits that the most common way to make hydrogen fuel is natural gas reforming, which produces copious amounts of CO2 which is detrimental to our atmosphere and climate. Furthermore, even in hydrogen friendly states like California, there are only 50 hydrogen fuel stations, limiting the economic competitiveness of this product.

  • chrisatcafcp

    The statements that producing hydrogen from natural gas is inefficient and “emits huge amounts of CO2” are incorrect. Producing hydrogen from natural gas is a chemical process that is more efficient than burning natural gas to produce electricity. The well-to-wheels GHG emissions from a fuel cell vehicle and battery vehicle are about the same when natural gas is the feedstock for both.

    Like electricity, hydrogen can be made from many sources, including biogas (wastewater treatment, landfills) and biomass (animal manure, crop waste) as well as from solar and wind electrolysis. As a bonus, hydrogen can store energy from wind and solar similar to how a battery can store excess energy.

    ZERO hydrogen for fuel comes from coal.

    Chris White
    California Fuel Cell Partnership
    http://www.cafcp.org
    (and a Honda Clarity owner)

  • Chris Peeples

    Dear Whoever Is In Charge:

    The Alameda-Contra Transit District, across the bay in Oakland, has been running fuel cell buses for over 12 years. AC currently have the largest fuel cell bus fleet in the world and are about to almost double it. AC has operated over 2,144,265 zero emission miles and boarded over 10,000,000 people. If you have questions about fuel cells, you should contact us. We would be happy to give you a tour of our fuel cell facilities. More information at: http://www.actransit.org/environment/the-hyroad/.

    — Chris Peeples —
    =====================================
    H. E. Christian (Chris) Peeples
    At-Large Director
    Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District
    1600 Franklin Street, 10th Floor
    Oakland, California 94612-2800
    cpeeples@actransit.org http://www.actransit.org
    =====================================

  • Hillary Clintub

    The biggest obstacle is the already sunk investment in other kinds of fuel technologies. We can’t just change our whole infrastructure overnight.

Author

California Academy of Sciences

The California Academy of Sciences is a leading scientific and cultural institution based in San Francisco. It is home to an aquarium, planetarium, natural history museum and research and education programs, which engage people of all ages and backgrounds on two of the most important topics of our time: life and its sustainability. Founded in 1853, the Academy’s mission is to explore, explain and sustain life. Visit www.calacademy.org for more information.

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