Do Hydrogen Engines have a Bright Future?

Hydrogen Cars are already on the Road (Logo)A hydrogen engine does not emit carbon dioxide (Header)

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Hydrogen Fuel Cells - A Clean Energy Source for Hydrogen Cars?

Our hunger for energy is inexhaustible. As the world population grows and emerging economies with enormous populations like China and India are joining developed countries in huge energy needs, science and technology are hard at work to produce all the energy world needs. Unfortunately, we based our entire civilization on fossil-fuel as energy source.

As a consequence, we have pollution, climate change and ozone depletion. Recent rapid development of hydrogen fuel cells is one of the answers to the search for clean and renewable energy. Hydrogen cars are already on our roads and several countries are looking into basing their entire economy on hydrogen. But, there are still many problems with both hydrogen as a fuel and with fuel cells which now power hydrogen engines.

The Power of Hydrogen

There are still problems with both hydrogen as a fuel and with fuel cells which now power hydrogen engines

While not freely available in nature, hydrogen is available in inexhaustible supply all around us. But, it has to be extracted, stored and transported in order to be used as energy carrier. Most hydrogen used today for various purposes is extracted from natural gas, which is not a renewable source. The potential lies in other sources of hydrogen, especially water, through hydrolysis, using wind or solar power and biomass, through biomass biogasification. Current replacement of natural gas with biogas is another possible direction for making hydrogen more viable fuel.

Another attractive feature of hydrogen as a fuel is that hydrogen engines do not emit carbon dioxide, therefore do not contribute to climate change.

The problems with hydrogen as fuel for hydrogen engines are multiple. Its energy output per volume is low, so there is a need for a large storage tank, which is heavy and bulky. The storage and transportation of hydrogen and its delivery to cars are complicated. The entire current infrastructure of filling stations would have to be changed, a very expensive undertaking.

Fuel Cells State of Affairs

While hydrogen can be used as fuel in internal combustion engines, its biggest potential is as a fuel for fuel cells which power hydrogen engine. The technology has been around for more than 150 years, but there are still many problems to overcome before fuel cells can effectively compete with gasoline-powered motors. The production of fuel cells is still very expensive. For example, the cost of producing a single Honda Clarity in 2009 was $300,000 per car. The biggest reason for the high cost is the need for some models to use rare and expensive materials such as platinum as a catalyst in the process. Fuel cells also have difficulty starting in cold weather and can be fragile and fail with no warning.

While in many countries legislation and intensive funding are driving the development of hydrogen cars, there are many critics claiming that there are better solutions in our search for zero-emission vehicles. They believe that money and time are being wasted on the promotion of hydrogen engines and hydrogen cars. Most are claiming that electric vehicles offer much more bank for the buck. Others are pointing the advantages of biodiesel and biogas over hydrogen. It is very probable that all sides are partly right and partly wrong.

Our need for energy and environmental problems demand instant solutions, and hydrogen engine still has some time to go before it can realistically compete with the today's petrol-guzzling cars. One thing is for sure: the intense competition is driving science to work in many different directions to develop zero-emission cars. Which scientific breakthrough will provide the ultimate solution, or whether the co mbination of all of them will be the answer, the time will tell.

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Hydrogen cars are already on our roads, but there are still problems with fuel cells, which power hydrogen engines