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Things You Need To Know About Hydrogen As A Fuel

In the quest to achieve more sustainable motoring, there are three main players: biofuels (i.e. producing petrol and diesel that will run in conventional internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles from renewable sources rather than fossil fuels), electric vehicles (we’ve heard heaps about these) and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (HFCV).  Electrical vehicles seem to be the hottest of the hot at the moment and they grab quite a lot of the attention from the media and from the government.  To take one hot off the press example, they’ve just given the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for this year to the guys who invented the rechargeable lithium-ion battery, even though this tech has been around for a fair few years now and first got onto the market in 1991.

However, let’s not completely overlook the other two members of the sustainability team. If you asked me to take my pick of the three, I’d go for HFCVs. This is because it gives the best of both worlds: the zero-exhaust factor of EVs and the ease of refuelling of ICE vehicles.

Hydrogen is the lightest element on the periodic table and it’s one of the most common elements on earth – actually, make that THE most abundant element in the universe.   As we all learned in school, good old water is made up of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. In fact, you could say that all energy is, technically speaking, hydrogen powered.  Our sun is one great big ball of hydrogen undergoing a massive nuclear reaction (fusion rather than fission), and it’s the energy given off by this that is ultimately the source of all energy on Earth – even the fossil fuels, which are ancient forests that once trapped sunlight through photosynthesis.

If we could somehow replicate this process on Earth at a smaller scale, most of the world’s energy problems would be solved and it would generate all the electricity to meet our needs and more. However, the problem would be to stop it getting out of hand or an H-bomb would be the result. Cold fusion is the dream of many a scientist…

The first thing you need to understand about HFCVs is that when you put hydrogen fuel into the vehicle, the fuel isn’t burned the way that the fuel in an ICE burns. NASA uses this tech in rockets but it’s far, far too explosive for more down to earth uses. Instead, the hydrogen is used to generate electricity, which is released when hydrogen combines with oxygen to produce (you guessed it) water. This takes place in fuel cells, which do the job of converting good old oxygen and hydrogen to water.

Quite a lot of vehicles around the world use hydrogen fuel cell tech already. These are mostly forklifts and buses; however, cars are coming onto the scene and they’re beginning to get a fair bit of interest.

The big question about any sustainable energy source is to ask where it comes from and how one gets it – a question that people aren’t quite asking enough in the case of EVs, if you ask me.  In the case of hydrogen, there are two main sources. One is from electrolysis of water and the other is from steam reformation of methane. Of the two methods, electrolysis of water (where the water molecule is split into H2 and O by a current of electricity) is the cleaner of the two – as long as the electricity used comes from a sustainable source, such as wind, solar or hydro (using hydro to produce hydrogen seems appropriate). The other method uses methane – thus busting up and reducing something that is both a waste product and a greenhouse gas – but it also produces a bit of carbon monoxide during the production stage.  There are quite a few other methods out there but these are the most common.

Hydrogen is produced for commercial use already on quite a large scale. It’s used quite extensively in, of all things, the petrochemical industry during the process of refining petrol. You could therefore think of a switch to hydrogen fuel cell tech as cutting out the middleman.  The other major commercial use of hydrogen gas is in electrical power stations, where it acts as a coolant.

The biggest issue with hydrogen fuel is storage and transport, as hydrogen is a slippery customer that can explode and burn with the ferocity of rocket fuel simply because it is rocket fuel. On the other hand, liquid hydrogen is super-cold (even colder than the liquid nitrogen the doctor uses to remove warts and low-grade skin cancers) and needs to be kept that way. It’s the storage and transport issue that our very own CSIRO is working on.  Nevertheless, the potential is out there and is being used in many parts of the world. In the US, for example, there are already 40 retail outlets for refuelling hydrogen cars just in a single state (California), with more in other states and more to come.

Over here, we’ve already got one public hydrogen fuel station in Canberra, with more being planned. As renewable hydrogen is a hot topic (or maybe a cool topic, given that liquid hydrogen has a temperature of about –250°C), there are a ton of hydrogen projects going on at the moment, and there are hopes that renewable hydrogen fuel will become one of Australia’s biggest exports.  Just a couple of days ago, there was news out that Siemens was launching a big plant in Western Australia to produce hydrogen fuel, and that’s just the latest one. We’re going to be producing it ourselves, so it makes sense that we should put it on our cars as well.

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