Hydrogen Fuel Cells

One of the main problems with fossil fuels is that they release large quantities of carbon dioxide when they are burned. But what if there was a fuel you could burn that produced no carbon dioxide at all? In fact, there is such a fuel, namely hydrogen. Hydrogen is a flammable gas, which, when burned with oxygen, produces harmless water vapour. Combining oxygen with hydrogen is a clean, efficient way to make huge amounts of both heat and electricity!

Instead of burning the hydrogen in the presence of oxygen, fuel cells allow the two gases to pass near each other on opposite sides of a thin membrane. The chemical interaction of oxygen and hydrogen across this membrane produces an electric charge, similar to that produced by a regular alkaline battery. But unlike the battery, which goes dead after the chemicals inside it are used up, the fuel cell continues to produce electricity as long as it receives fresh supplies of air and hydrogen. The only by-product of the process is water, which the fuel cell releases as steam.

The biggest difficulty faced by engineers designing fuel cells is figuring out how to store and handle the hydrogen gas safely. Hydrogen is composed of extremely tiny molecules that can squeeze out of most materials normally used to contain gases. Hydrogen is also highly explosive and flammable. For efficient storage, it must be compressed and cooled to minus 253o C to form a liquid. Liquid hydrogen must be stored in specialized containers and pumped through high-tech valves and tubes, all of which make hydrogen expensive and tricky to handle.

Another technical problem is in making the hydrogen gas. Currently, hydrogen is made by “stripping” methane or natural gas-a fossil fuel. This process produces carbon dioxide, one of the greenhouse gases associated with climate change. In the future, hydrogen gas may be manufactured in large quantities from ordinary water at solar-powered production facilities. The only by-product of this process would be oxygen, a gas with many practical uses that is already present in the atmosphere in large amounts.

Hydrogen fuel cells are now being used to produce electricity in remote settings such as in Canada’s Arctic, and at mountaintop communications installations. They are also being tested for use in city buses and cars, and may soon be used to power everything from wristwatches to golf carts.

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