Drive to crack hydrogen fuel cell technology powers ahead
Researchers in Ireland have come up with one of the cheapest methods to generate hydrogen yet
You can’t beat hydrogen as a clean-tech fuel. When it burns to produce energy the only thing left behind is pure water – no chemicals, no particulates
The use of hydrogen as a general purpose transport fuel may have taken a step closer given a research announcement at Trinity College Dublin. Scientists at its Crann nanotechnology research centre have discovered a new way to generate hydrogen, an ultra clean fuel that holds promise as the energy source of the future.
Hydrogen is an ideal fuel for producing electricity via a fuel cell. These devices produce a steady stream of electricity so long as they have a supply of fuel, and were used to power all of the space capsules used to orbit the earth and go to the moon during the early days of the space programme. A similar fuel cell device could be used to generate the electricity needed to power an electric car, forklift or bus - so long as the hydrogen was cheap enough.
You can’t beat hydrogen when it comes to finding a clean-tech fuel. When it burns to produce energy the only thing left behind is pure water, no chemicals, no particulates. One handy way of getting the gas is to split water, breaking the chemical bonds that hold H2O together. And think about it - there are no supply issues if water is the fuel stock, it comes down as rain for free or you can dip into the ocean but never run out.
What makes it such a promising transport fuel, the energy it releases when rejoined to produce water, also unfortunately makes it a serious nuisance when it comes to handling and storing it. Hydrogen it tremendously explosive if ignited. Think about the Hindenburg zeppelin, it was full of hydrogen gas. If used in transport it must be secured in a fuel tank that can survive collisions, and special piping and couplings are used to refuel so that hydrogen cannot escape. Current dispensing systems run at between 350 and 700 bar so the pressures involved are considerable.
There is also a slight issue about production - it pretty much takes as much energy to make hydrogen by splitting water as you get back when hydrogen and oxygen are rejoined. Lots of methods are used, for example using “free” solar energy to power electrolysis (using madly expensive solar cells), using electricity to split water, and some industrial processes can produce hydrogen as a byproduct. Volume production is based on steam reforming of natural gas but this is unsustainable due to cost. So cheaper methods are needed if hydrogen is ever to become an important energy source. For this reason researchers all over the world are looking for cheaper ways to produce the stuff in the hopes of making hydrogen a viable fuel.