The Pros and Cons of Hydrogen Fuel

Posted: September 29, 2021


Hydrogen fuel could revolutionize the way we use energy and could be one of the most important discoveries of the 21st century. Many companies and countries have begun to take hold of this fact and have begun to make major investments. However, despite all the hype around the fuel source, there are several questions that remain about this new technology. These questions concern its use use in cars, the energy it produces, and its overall effectiveness as an alternative fuel source.

What is Hydrogen Fuel?

Hydrogen fuel is essentially hydrogen in its pure form, H2. Hydrogen is rarely found in its pure form because it is lighter than air, causing it to rise in air. Thus, we have created artificial means for creating hydrogen fuel, which include using steam and methane (~95%), biomass gasification, or electrolysis of water. Creating hydrogen fuel from methane uses heat and water to create a carbon monoxide and hydrogen as a bi-product in a “steam-methane reforming reaction”. This carbon monoxide is further used in a reaction with water termed “water-gas shift reaction” to produce even more hydrogen with a byproduct of CO2.

Hydrolysis means for creating fuel is an upcoming way of separating hydrogen from water. This method uses a supply of electricity with an anode and cathode, which is separated by an electrolyte, to cause water to separate into H2 and O2.

Once we have hydrogen in its natural form, we have created fuel. Hydrogen fuel can produce energy through a reaction that takes place between hydrogen (which has been created through one of the processes previously mentioned) and oxygen (supplied from the air we breathe). The reaction creates water and a small amount of nitric oxide (due to the nitrogen that is also present in air) as a byproduct while also producing heat energy, which can be harnessed for power production.

Due to the large energy that a hydrogen-oxidation reaction can cause, one of the most wide uses of hydrogen fuel is in rocket fuel. This has allowed the launcher to be lighter than it would be using traditional hydrocarbon fuel. The recent European rocket Ariane 5, was launched sole on liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen (liquid oxygen because of the lack of oxygen in space). This fuel has also started to be used for energy and electricity generation which has lead to the formation of many new products including hydrogen-cell cars.

An illustration of a hydrogen fuel cell

Advantages of using Hydrogen Fuel

Hydrogen fuel has some advantages when contrasted with traditional hydrocarbon and electrical means for providing energy. As previously mentioned, hydrogen has the capability of providing a large amount of energy, for a relatively small amount of mass. It is estimated that it has provide up to 3x the amount of energy per the same weight of gasoline. This allows for several unique applications for the fuel source, such as rocket launches. This also allows industrial applications such as hydrogen-cell cars to be lighter and allow the car to get better fuel efficiency and drive further, than battery-powered cars.

How Hydrogen and Fuel Cells Can Help Drive the Clean Energy Transition

Hydrogen fuel can be also stored, either in high pressured tanks as a gas or as a liquid. This allows for the fuel source to be supplied to places that are removed from an electrical grid and is becoming increasingly prevalent in many remote backup-generators. Additionally, without the need to recharge your car, most cars can refuel in around 5-7 minutes, which is around 6x faster than most world-class electrical fueling stations.

Disadvantages of using Hydrogen Fuel

One of the largest disadvantages, has to deal with the process of creating hydrogen fuel. Although many cars and ads advertise the fuel source as a a “zero-emission fuel”, although this is not true. The most widely used industrial process of creating hydrogen, creates CO2 as a major biproduct, and the hydrogen-fuel cell also creates some nitric oxides, both of which are greenhouse gases. Although there is hope with water hydrolysis in promoting hydrogen fuel as a more clean fuel, there are also several issues associated with this process. Much of the electricity that is currently being supply to our grids is coming from fossil fuels that provide more emissions to the environment. Additionally, water hydrolysis requires significant amounts of electricity, which make this process only a slight positive energy process when converting the electricity into hydrogen fuel. Thus even if we were able to supply all the electricity for this process from renewables, the process is not super efficient.

Fact of the Month #18-01, January 29: There Are 39 Publicly Available Hydrogen  Fueling Stations in the United States | Department of Energy
All publicly available hydrogen-fueling stations

Possible due to some of the previous speculation on the cleanliness of the fuel source and its ability to provide reliable energy, there are few places where cars and other transportation vehicles can refuel, which limits the production and research that is put into utilizing this fuel for transportation. Most of these places are located in the state of California.

Future of Hydrogen Fuel

In May of this year, Toyota entered a Hydrogen-powered vehicle into the Super Taikyu Series 2021. This car utilized a hydrogen combustion engine, one of the first of its kind. The idea of the use of the fuel source to create a combustion engine gave hope to many viewers for the potential future uses of hydrogen in many different applications in our lives. However, in the race the car completed only around half the laps that the winning car was able to complete. This was attributed to the 7 minute fuel up times that were required, which the drivers had to do 35 times (around 4 hours of total refueling) over the course of the 24-hour race. On top of that, the car began to have mechanical and maintenance issues which caused the car to have to be withdrawn from the race.

Hydrogen fuel is largely underdeveloped for many uses and much research is needed if this fuel source will ever allow us to fuel our cars with water. There is much hope and anticipation that the fuel source can be a means to provide energy to power larger scale transportation means such as trains, buses, places, and much more. There have been many promising developments, including a new hydrogen fuel cell train that has appeared in Germany. However, there is significantly more research that needs to go into the process of creating and storing the source, as well as how to harvest the energy best for our energy needs. With many of the pledges that countries and various regions of the world have made, it is likely that in the coming decade we will see significantly more research performed with this fuel source and some potential positive developments.



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