Is Hydrogen the Key to Energy Independence?
Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe and is found in roughly ¾ of all matter, which makes it an excellent candidate to replace nonrenewable fossil fuels. It is the first element listed in the periodic table because it is the smallest with an atomic number of 1. It is an invisible, tasteless, and odorless gas that is non-toxic and non-irritating. There are several ways to obtain pure hydrogen for use in fuel cells, but the most straightforward is splitting molecules of water. Although this process does require a significant amount of energy, which is often obtained from burning fossil fuels, when hydrogen reacts with oxygen within a fuel cell, the reaction produces electricity, water, and waste heat only.
Currently, the primary production method for hydrogen for fuel cells is by reformation of natural gas, but multiple other fossil fuels such as JP-8 can be used. Although potentially more efficient than other transportation fuels, long term dependence on natural gas would still require energy imports and result in hefty greenhouse gas emissions. However, hydrogen can also be produced via various renewable energy-based methods, such as biomass/waste, and wind- or solar-based electrolysis of water.
The basic concept of a fuel cell is to transform the chemical energy in a fuel source to electricity, generating water as a byproduct. Traditionally, fuel cells have been used mostly in space flights, but recent technological advancements have expanded the use of fuel cells for use in electric vehicles because they are more efficient than internal combustion engines and reduce air pollution. Using fuel cells in electric vehicles is also more efficient than battery-powered electric vehicles because they are not limited by battery life and refueling is much faster.