Hydrogen Fuel Cells Vs. Gasoline: Who’s Down With HFC?
The world’s oil supply is a diminishing nonrenewable resource. Soon, a new fuel for
automobiles will be needed. Hydrogen fuel cells may very well become the chief replacement for
gasoline in our society.
In our busy world today, we often find ourselves surrounded by vehicles. But how often
do we ponder about by which means these vehicles are running? Vehicles are fueled by gasoline,
a gradually diminishing resource. As a replacement for this fuel, scientists have been
experimenting with a new technology called hydrogen fuel cells.
Swiss scientist Christian Friedrich Schönbein developed the principle behind the fuel cell
in 1838. Then in 1932, the first successful fuel cells were engineered by Francis Thomas Bacon
of Britain. The main type of hydrogen fuel cell is the Polymer Electrolyte Membrane, or Proton
Exchange Membrane (PEM). In a PEM, electrons are separated from hydrogen atoms (at the
anode), forming positively charged hydrogen atoms, or protons, and single electrons. Then the
protons are drawn toward the oxygen atoms (at the cathode) on the other side of the membrane,
where the electrons are forced to travel an alternate route to reach the hydrogen and oxygen. By
traveling this alternate route, the electrons form a current, ergo energy. Once the protons and
electrons meet with the oxygen, the byproducts created are water, heat, and some impurities
(depending on the purity of the applied hydrogen). See Diagram 1 below (How PEM Fuel Cells
Which fuel supply is more efficient: hydrogen fuel cells or gasoline? To help reach a
verdict, we will be comparing their availability, cost and efficiency, and pollution potential.
When our car runs low on gasoline, we go to a gas station to refill. There are hundreds of
thousands of gas stations across the U.S. alone. But with a new fuel comes the need for a new
type of refilling station, which would cost a lot of money. The gaseous hydrogen cannot be
contained in the same manner as the liquid gasoline because it is much less dense and requires
stronger storage facilities to compress. The facilities must be able to retain adequate amounts,
which is difficult due to hydrogen’s immensely small structure and ability to diffuse through
The transportation of hydrogen is also difficult because strong storage tanks are also
needed to compress and protect the volatile substance. However, hydrogen and oxygen are easily
accessible. The oxygen portion of the fuel cell cycle is obtained through the air around us.
Hydrogen can be obtained through processes such as biological water splitting,
photoelectrochemical water splitting, and biomass reformation. Biological water splitting is the
process of obtaining hydrogen through photosynthetic microorganisms whose metabolic
activities produce hydrogen from water. Photoelectrochemical water splitting involves the use of