Thu. Sep 29th, 2022

    Yes, we can convert to a hydrogen economy. Don’t roll your eyes at me. It’s true. A total conversion to a hydrogen economy is possible in the near future. How is that (you may ask)? Well, we need an interim solution. I’m sure most of you already know how fuel cells work, but for those who don’t, let me explain very quickly…

    There are many types of fuel cells, but the most common one is called a proton exchange membrane or pem hydrogen generator. This type of fuel cell usually uses hydrogen, but other fuel types can also be used (such as methanol, ethanol etc). When methanol or ethanol is used, the name of the fuel cell changes to “direct methanol fuel cell” or “direct ethanol fuel cell”. Now, hydrogen is fed into the fuel cell, and a platinum/carbon catalyst breaks the hydrogen into protons and electrons. Since protons and electrons are charged species, they cannot exist for very long in nature because they are unstable. Everything in nature moves toward neutralization or a balance of energies. For example, if something is very hot in nature, the heat is distributed to its surroundings, and eventually the temperature of the very hot object equals the temperature of the environment.

    In the case of ions, positively and negatively charged molecules cannot survive for very long without combining with another molecule to make it more stable. Now let’s get back to the discussion at hand — so in the fuel cell, the hydrogen is broken into protons and electrons. Normally protons and electrons would not be able to stay in the ionic form very long, but because the platinum/carbon catalyst layer is connected to the persulfonic acid membrane layer, the hydrogen protons are able to travel through the membrane to the cathode side of the fuel cell. In the meantime, the electrons are attracted to the hydrogen flow field plate, which is also pressed against the fuel cell layer and is highly conductive. The electrons are then drawn from the fuel cell catalyst layer to power the load. The protons that traveled over to the cathode through the membrane then combine with oxygen coming into the fuel cell and create water. Interesting stuff, huh?

    Okay Colleen, how a fuel cell works is interesting, but how are we going to convert over to the hydrogen economy? Well, first I had to explain how the hydrogen is actually used — and now I will get into how our current economy can be converted into a hydrogen one. So, do you know where hydrogen currently comes from? There is a lot of information out there on how fuel cells work, the benefits of fuel cells, and how we would be much better off using them. But, rarely do these articles get into the sticky situation of discussing where the hydrogen comes from. Well, as many of you probably know, hydrogen is not available on this planet in a purely gaseous form. It’s found everywhere in nature, but it is combined with other elements to form other types of molecules. Therefore, the hydrogen has to be manufactured.

    Many of you will not like to hear this (and I even cringe at saying it), but most of the hydrogen gas currently produced is created from petroleum-based fuels. Aha (you say)! I knew there was a catch to this! Okay, okay, okay I admit — it does seem to be a sticky situation. But, at least we currently have a way that hydrogen is manufactured. At first glance it seems like this may not be any better than our current solution — but it is. The reason why this is a better solution is because hydrogen can be manufactured using many different methods. The interim solution for converting to a hydrogen economy would be to use petroleum-based fuels and coal. Now you’re probably thinking — this person must be totally out of whack! Well, speaking from an engineer’s perspective, coal is not that bad of an interim solution. There are many reasons why I say this:

    1. Experts estimate that there is only 30 years of petroleum-based fuels left on this planet.

    2. In the United States alone, it is estimated that we have 300 years of fuel from coal that can be utilized.

    3. Countries that tap into their coal resources can be more independent, stronger and richer than countries that rely on petroleum-based fuels.

    4. The Clean Coal Technologies program in the United States (instituted in 1986), has commercialized numerous technologies for preventing pollution caused by coal processing. Coal is no longer the “dirty fuel” that it used to be.

    5. There are already numerous coal processing plants across the United States and many parts of the world. In the United States, half of the electricity is generated by coal. Therefore, new plants may not need to be constructed. We can have plants that generate electricity and hydrogen. A current project that’s utilizing this concept is the FutureGen project, which is funded by the United States government and private industry.

    Okay, you say “that’s nice.” Why would we go through all this trouble to generate hydrogen from petroleum-based fuels and coal? Well, it’s a good question. Our petroleum and coal resources are limited. A much better solution for future generations would be using pure hydrogen. So, you may ask, what are the other manufacturing methods for producing hydrogen? Well, there are many different fuels and methods that can be used to produce hydrogen. Some of these include:

    1. Nuclear energy

    2. Biomass

    3. Biofuels

    4. Water electrolysis

    Preliminary studies have shown that it is more expensive to use hydrogen from petroleum-based fuels, coal, biomass and biofuels because of the cost of producing hydrogen. The cost can be decreased. Current estimates are based upon small quantities of hydrogen produced. And there have not been many studies conducted with biomass, biofuels or water electrolysis. The best solution for hydrogen production is water electrolysis. You will not hear about this much, because large corporations are a factor in determining the outcome of the fuel cell industry. If they had their way, we would only use fuel cells that are gasoline-fed or all of the hydrogen would be generated from petroleum-based fuels. But there are better solutions.

    Now let’s get back to creating the hydrogen economy. Okay, so you say that there are many ways to produce hydrogen? Yes. Okay, so how does this translate into a hydrogen economy? I’ve heard that the cost to change the current infrastructure to hydrogen would be so tremendous that it wouldn’t even be worth doing. I’m not going to lie to you — it will be costly to change the infrastructure. But, we’ll have to do it at some point. There are many countries that are racing to get to this point sooner rather than later. For example, Japan has the tightest timeline to convert to a hydrogen economy. Their goal is to have a hydrogen economy in place by the year 2020. This is definitely within all of our lifetimes. So, additional factors to think about are hydrogen storage and transport. There are many types of hydrogen storage that are already used, and can be cheaply manufactured if mass-produced. The transport may be more of a challenge. One solution is to have many plants (as mentioned earlier) that produce electricity and hydrogen all over the country, therefore, making the transport costs low. Perhaps the best option, (or the one this author favors the most), is using solar panels to break water into hydrogen and oxygen, and then directly feeding the hydrogen into the fuel cell. There are a few hydrogen gas stations in California that utilize this concept. The solar panels are actually built onto the gas station roof to supply hydrogen to the pumps. Imagine using this concept by having solar panels on everyone’s house or car to generate all of electricity required! There are numerous ways that hydrogen can be generated, and there are countless configurations for hydrogen storage and use.

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