Hydrogen and Fuel Cells: A Major Competitor in the Race to Replace Traditional Fuels

Hydrogen is an element that is present in a vast number of compounds, but never by itself. The challenge of hydrogen production is separating the hydrogen from other elements in various compounds such as fossil fuels and biomass.

Hydrogen Production and Distribution

According to the US Department of Energy, the most popular method of hydrogen production is a process called ‘natural gas reforming’, in which natural gas reacts with high-pressure steam to create a synthesis gas. The synthesis gas then reacts with water in a process called ‘water-gas shift reaction’ which produces large volumes of hydrogen and other elements. This compound is then subjected to the process of ‘pressure-swing absorption’, which serves to isolate the hydrogen from any other elements that are present.

According to afdc.energy.gov, Hydrogen can be distributed using three distinct methods. The least expensive method is to use long pipelines, but hydrogen’s unique properties make pipeline design challenging and costly. Another method is transportation via high-pressure tube trailers pulled by trucks, similar to those used to transport gasoline. A third method is to cryogenically liquify the hydrogen for storage in large tanks that can be carried via truck, rail, or ship.

Although many challenges exist in creating a hydrogen infrastructure that is large and robust enough to accommodate large-scale use, hydrogen’s vast number of sources makes local production of hydrogen possible in nearly any location, which greatly reduces transportation costs. The tradeoff for this convenience, however, is a higher cost due to an inability to achieve economies of scale at a local level.

Hydrogen Benefits

Hydrogen is a robust fuel that can be used in fuel cells or burned in traditional gasoline-powered engines. This gives hydrogen the ability to take a dominant role in future vehicle fuel markets regardless of whether the market sticks with internal combustion engines or shifts predominantly towards electric vehicles. When used in internal combustion engines, hydrogen produces a significantly smaller amount of greenhouse gas than traditional fuels. The ability to produce hydrogen domestically reduces the effects of foreign political instability on fuel prices as well.

Drawbacks of Hydrogen

The cost and availability of hydrogen fuel and electric vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells is still much higher than traditional vehicles and fuels. Since hydrogen contains less energy compared to its mass than traditional fuels, vehicles using hydrogen fuel must re-fuel or re-charge much more frequently than their traditional counterparts.

Other Alternative Fuels

Hydrogen is one of several alternative fuels jockeying for a dominant position in the future vehicle fuel market. Other alternative fuel sources include ethanol, natural gas, and fuel from biomass. Which of these technologies will have the power to shift our energy demand significantly away from traditional sources remains to be seen as new R&D breakthroughs in alternative fuel technologies continue to surface at an increasing rate.

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