It will not make your car explode. The concept of fueling your car with hydrogen was met with a variety of reactions from consumers, including a fear that this energy source would make everything go boom if you so much as tap your neighbor’s mailbox. Happily, those fears can be put to rest, as research has circulated about the safety of hydrogen fuel cell tanks.
Talk of renewable fuel has been all the rage lately, with consumers interested in more sustainable options and fewer emissions. We’ve written a few posts about biofuels already, including one about fuel for aerospace. But another alternative to traditional crude oil that’s been getting a particularly great amount of attention lately is hydrogen fuel. Hydrogen has substantial electrical potential, and scientists continue to explore new ways to manufacture fuel from it with more efficient and sustainable methods. The question is, what is hydrogen fuel and why does it matter?
How Is It Made?
Hydrogen fuel has the potential to be either renewable or nonrenewable, depending on how it’s produced. Pure hydrogen is not greatly abundant on earth, so the industry has had to look for ways to manufacture it. There are a number of methods of production: gasification is one. It uses a carbon source, extreme heat, and the calculated addition of oxygen to create synthesis gas (“syngas”), a mix of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen. The chemical energy in the hydrogen gas can be converted to electrical power, making it a viable fuel source. Gasification can use either biomass solids (like algae) or fossil fuel-based materials containing carbon (like coal), and therein lies the possibility of both renewable and nonrenewable production.
As you might imagine, the fuel would not be considered renewable if a given production method process utilized fossil fuel. Unfortunately, a great deal of our hydrogen fuel is currently made using fossil fuels and related materials. However, the number of biomass sources we know can be used efficiently-- in both gasification and other methods of production-- continues to expand as research progresses in the industry.
Image Source: ashden.org
Making the fuel at a lower cost, leaving fewer externalities behind, and utilizing more renewable materials in production are major goals for which the industry is striving. Electrolysis-- another method of production-- uses electricity to separate oxygen and hydrogen in water molecules, but the overall process can be rather expensive. HyperSolar, a startup looking to manufacture hydrogen fuel more inexpensively, is exploring the use of solar energy in converting water-- even wastewater-- into hydrogen.
Actually using hydrogen fuel creates only water as a byproduct, making the only true “emissions” those that are created during initial production. Gasification using coal leaves sulfuric acid and slag as byproducts. Steam reforming-- another method of production-- leaves behind carbon dioxide. While complete elimination of byproducts might not be possible (though who knows what future discoveries will find?), reduction of their impact and overall quantity is being pursued.
There’s been some appealing ideas for renewable, biomass sources for a number of production methods. In addition to wastewater, waste from sawmills and poultry farms and agriculture, algae (we’ve written a lot about algae lately, haven’t we?), and even bacteria such as E.coli can be utilized in hydrogen production.
Fuels of The Future
While it’s clear we’re still heavily dependent on crude oil-- and the industry isn’t guttering out-- consumer interest and scientific curiosity have been driving the research into greater renewable fuel options to new levels in recent years. As Syed Mubeen, the lead scientist at HyperSolar, said: “Developing clean energy systems is a goal worldwide…. Currently, we understand how clean energy systems such as solar cells, wind turbines, et cetera, work at a high level of sophistication. The real challenge going forward is to develop inexpensive clean energy systems that can be cost competitive to fossil fuel systems and be adopted globally and not just in the developed countries.” New innovations seem to be popping up increasingly frequently, and we’re keen to see what breakthroughs will come next. The energy market inevitably will only move forward and upward.