Hydrogen Fuel Cells – A Discussion

Hydrogen Fuel Cells

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Honda FCX Clarity – The Future of Motoring

     The car above, is the future of motoring.  The Honda FCX Clarity looks like a normal, average car, but in actuality, it is one of the most important cars ever produced.  Rather than functioning with petrol, or even electricity, this Honda is powered by hydrogen fuel cells.  The question came up another day about Tesla, and my friend brought up the FCX, which completely changed my perspective and thoughts on Tesla being a viable car company.  In truth, electric vehicles are simply not good enough.  The range for the batteries is not sufficient for many, and the time needed to recharge the batteries is impractically long (10-11 hours, for many cars).  Also, although some money is saved by using electric vehicles, we mustn’t forget that electricity is created by burning and using non-renewable resources as it is.  Our petrol reserves are running extremely low, so really, hydrogen fuel cells are the way of the future.  When my friend and I discussed this alternative energy source, we really couldn’t see a single disadvantage to it.

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    Hydrogen is one of the most abundant elements in the world, it can be retrieved from the atmosphere for thousands of years without us having to worry about having to conserve it.  Compressed hydrogen is the form of hydrogen used in these fuel cells, in a gaseous state kept under pressure.  Oxygen from the air passes over the cathode and hydrogen over the anode, generating electricity and water.  Yes, indeed, the “waste” products of this reaction are energy and water.  No greenhouse gases are created in the process, hydrogen fuel cells have absolutely zero emissions.  This amazing form of energy uses a resource that is easily retrievable, runs as normally as a petrol car, and even produces (as waste), a product we could use.

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     Fuel cells, in a way, are electrochemical energy conversion devices, which convert the chemicals hydrogen and oxygen, and use the reaction to create water and energy.  Although batteries are also energy conversion devices, they are not as viable as hydrogen fuel cells because they constantly need to be recycled, replaced, and charged.  However, fuel cells will never die, because the elements hydrogen and oxygen are so readily available, therefore making them extremely dependable and efficient.

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     Hydrogen fuel cells utilize both elements of battery power and combustion to create more than enough energy to move a vehicle.  Combustion, a process that happens in petrol engines, use the pressure exerted by gases for mechanical motion.  Batteries convert chemical energy into kinetic energy.  In a way, hydrogen fuel cells are the perfect balance between petrol and battery forms of energy.  The most important and seemingly viable type of hydrogen fuel cell is the Polymer Exchange Membrane Fuel Cell (PEMFC).  The PEMFC is seen has a very likely form of hydrogen fuel cells to be used in transportation.  It creates an extremely large amount of energy, while having a rather low temperature for the generation of kinetic energy.  In fact, it’s said that the energy and power created by a PEMFC cell could sustain power for an entire neighborhood.  The lower “operating” temperature means that start-up and shut-down processes take a much shorter amount of time.

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     Compared to other forms of hydrogen fuel cells, PEMFC is the most promising of all fuel cell technologies.  Not only might these power our cars, buses, and other forms of transportation, but PEMFC could even power homes and neighborhoods in the next decade.

     The big question: are hydrogen fuel cells efficient enough? In a word, yes.  Compared to the petrol cars of even today, fuel cells are much more economical and “polar-bear friendly.” Fuel cells that work with 100% pure compressed hydrogen convert 80% of the energy content of the hydrogen used into electrical energy.  However, the car still needs to convert the electrical energy into kinetic energy, and there is no way to carry that process out without the presence of an electric motor and converter.  The electric motor and converter take in the electrical energy, and send the kinetic energy to the wheels.  These electric motors and converters also have a 80% efficiency, so overall, the perfect hydrogen fuel cell car should work with approximately 64% efficiency.  To an average person, 64% efficiency is not satisfactory by any means.  However, the potential energy of the hydrogen fuel cell engine in a car could power an entire neighborhood.  Even 64% of this immense amount of energy is more than sufficient.  Vehicles that run on gas energy, in fact, are extremely inefficient.  All the heat and greenhouse gases that are deemed as “waste” make petrol cars have the efficiency of just 20%.  Although battery-run cars have an efficiency percentage of 72%, the actual electric energy for batteries is not produced in the car, but rather nuclear, hydroelectric, or other forms of power.  In actuality, battery-run cars run on a grand total of 26% efficiency.  Fuel cell run vehicles, even with a 64% efficiency rating, are still much more efficient than battery and petrol powered cars.

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     I’m sure I’ve made my point about the viability of fuel cells as the energy of the future, however, there still are a few problems.  Cost is a major issue, as PEMFC systems need precious metals for the proton membrane, utilizing platinum (one of the most expensive elements found on earth).  Scientists are looking for a way to utilize less platinum, or find an alternative substance to act as a catalyst for the reaction.  The lack of compressed hydrogen stations, however, is the biggest problem.  It will be difficult to produce the infrastructure, especially in the economy of today, to add compressed hydrogen stations to regular gas stations, as the way it is stored is much different from regular petrol.  If the government and scientists work hard on these problems, the use of fuel cells as a source of energy would be seen as more viable.

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     Overall, I believe hydrogen fuel cells are the way of the future.  Their efficiency, availability, and plethora of advantages make them a very likely candidate for the world’s future energy source.  The fact that us, as consumers, would not have to change our habits to accommodate this new form of “juice,” makes it very viable indeed.  If we’re able to find a way to make them even more affordable, and create a new technique to compress the hydrogen effectively, several people would argue that these fuel cells could actually create a long-term solution to our energy needs.   

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     In class, we were thinking about something we could do for the betterment of society.  As an “Innovation Project,” we all got in groups to think of ways to help each other, and in my opinion, this is an extremely clever and viable innovation.  The idea of a fuel cell was actually thought of in 1842, by Christian Friedrich Schonbein, who created a phosphoric-acid fuel cell which paved the way for the future.

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