Fuel cells powered by hydrogen represent the latest technology in the push to reduce fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emission. The internal combustion engine’s design limitations have been pushed to their limits and fuel economy has been maxed out. While a shift in consumer preference to smaller and more fuel efficient automobiles would decrease consumption and emissions, the economic model alone will not prompt such a change. The hydrogen fuel cell’s new technology calls for a radical change in design approaches that will test the automakers that choose to mass-produce this technology. The hydrogen harvesting methods required to power the fuel cells have environmental challenges. Regardless of the challenges, the utility of hydrogen fuel cells as a means of propulsion should be explored and experimented upon.
As the push for more economic and environmentally friendly modes of transportation expands into plug-in hybrids and fully electric vehicles, the sustainability of our electric grid will come under greater scrutiny. According to a report from the Government Accountability Office, 70% of electric power in the United States comes from natural gas and coal (Johnson). Moreover, 50% of the power generated from fossil fuels comes from plants built before the Clean Air Act of 1978 and lack the now required emissions safeguards (Johnson). The source and sustainability of today’s energy sources dominates debate about the environment.
The use of hydrogen as a fuel source dates back to the 19th century when William Robert Grove created the first hydrogen fuel cell in 1839 (Lampton). The “gas voltaic battery” as it was called reversed the electrolysis to produce water from hydrogen and the oxygen in the air. Electrolysis occurs when water is separated into ions and electrons (Lampton). General Electric used fuel cells to power space vehicles in the 1960’s (Lampton). The push to design and develop different methods of propulsion for motor vehicles came only after petroleum solutions became exhausted. Emissions reduction policies and the rising price of oil forced automakers to pursue more fuel efficient vehicles and eventually alternatively fueled vehicles. While the hybrid electric vehicle and the plug-in electric car have proven to be more viable solutions in the near term, the need for hydrogen fuel cells will only increase.
The technology behind hydrogen fuel cells is rather unremarkable, however, the difficulties and dangers created by the fuel cells will require extraordinary engineering. Today’s fuel cells use the same reverse electrolysis phenomena that Grove’s battery did over a century ago (Lampton). Hydrogen is ionized and passed through a membrane that separates the electrons from the hydrogen ions. The electrons are formed into an electrical current while the hydrogen ions react with the oxygen in the air to form water vapor, the heat generated by the reaction typically boils the water (Lampton). The...