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