By Huck Fairman
PBS NewsHour and science correspondent Miles O’Brien recently presented an encouraging report on the development of fuel cell powered cars and trucks that are powerful, have superior range, and produce no emissions – only water.
This development has stemmed in part from the research and development coming out of the National Fuel Cell Research Center in Irvine, California. A spokesman for the center claimed that a fuel cell engine can match the performance of any battery or conventional engine.
How does it work? A fuel cell engine generates electricity by using the natural attraction between hydrogen and oxygen molecules. Inside the fuel cell, a membrane allows positive hydrogen particles to be drawn through to the oxygen coming from ambient air. The negative hydrogen particles are split off and are sent on a detour, which creates a flow of electrons, or electricity, which powers the motor. After that work is done, all the particles reunite (hydrogen and oxygen) producing water – the only emission.
In addition to being a green fuel, hydrogen is very light, enabling large quantities to be loaded in a vehicle and extending its range.
But until recently, fuel cells did not seem beneficial, as hydrogen was produced from methane, a heat-trapping gas.
But now the increasing presence of green energy sources, solar and wind, can be used to split the water molecules, leaving hydrogen carbon free, or green hydrogen. This allows a “hydrogen renaissance.”
And this advance is necessary because batteries alone will not provide the power and energy needed for cars, trucks, planes and trains. Hydrogen requires less weight and produces greater range.
Toyota has been testing fuel cell vehicles, trucks notably, and has found that the fuel cells produce greater torque and power, and are quieter. Because they produce no emissions, the health problems (asthma and others) from fossil fuel vehicles are eliminated. The report noted that 16,000 trucks daily haul freight in and out of the Port of Los Angeles – impacting the air quality. Having been testing fuel cell vehicles for 30 years, Toyota believes that the technology is now viable.
The State of California is assisting in this transition by providing hydrogen fueling stations. But several other steps need to be adopted to make hydrogen fuel cell vehicles widely used. To use hydrogen as a fuel, it must be compressed into a liquid. The National Renewable Laboratory in Colorado, and the Department of Energy are helping with both the necessary development and investment to bring the hydrogen cost down and to economically “pull hydrogen out of water,” using “electrolizers,” running on as little electricity as possible.
An added benefit of using hydrogen fuel cells is that they may be used to produce electricity when wind and solar are not available. But perhaps the greatest benefit in turning to hydrogen fuel cells, is their potential to help wean the world off fossil fuels.