Friday Night Lights

November 11, 2009

Hydrogen Fuel Cell

This past Friday, I was able to attend a lecture featuring Mr. Shogo Watanabe from the Hydrogen Energy Test and Research Center, located in the Fukuoka Prefecture, Japan.  There they are able to use hydrogen, the byproduct of the steel industry to set up hydrogen fuel stations and small hydrogen units to power people’s homes.

Because of where they are located they are able to set up a 10 kilometer (6.2 miles) pipeline between Kyushu University Ito campus and Higashida area, Yahatahigashi Ward, Kitakyushu.  They are also able to power 150 household using hydrogen fuel cells.

Now you may ask, “Why is this important?” (other then we all got free sushi after the lecture)?

So what’s the big deal about hydrogen?

Solar Flare...
Creative Commons License photo credit: Sailor Coruscant

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe.  It is the first fuel of stars.  But other then the sun, this star stuff is important down on the ground. It’s important because it can be used as fuel to power cars, homes, or anything else that uses electricity.

You may have heard of hydrogen fuel cells.  These devices use hydrogen and oxygen atoms to create electricity.  Current hydrogen fuel cell vehicles can range from 30% to 50% fuel efficiency, while the internal combustion engine only uses 20% of the fuel to make a vehicle run.  The rest is given off in heat energy into the atmosphere.

So why hasn’t the hydrogen fuel cell replaced gasoline yet?

There are a number of reasons.  There are only 65 hydrogen stations in the United States. We have been building gas stations for 100 years (with the first station being built in 1905 and the second in 1907).  It will take a while to replace gas stations with hydrogen stations.

Also, hydrogen cells are still cutting edge technology and will stay that way until it becomes proven and affordable. Only then will it get put into mass production.  It took around 50 years for the car to take off (not literally yet, but I am still waiting for my flying DeLorean.

There is also the problem of making the hydrogen.  While it is the most abundant element in the universe, it is rare on rocky blue and green planets like the one we happen to live on.  One of the ways to produce hydrogen is to use natural gas, which still leaves all the carbon around.

When I lead groups of children through the Wiess Energy Hall I stop by the hydrogen cell, tell them about it, and tell them that they are the ones who will be responsible for adopting or not adopting the hydrogen fuel cell.  But all in all, I like the idea of driving around and having a fresh cup of cool water as the fruits of my journey.

Post Script

Here is an interesting article with a fun graphic that depicts how much energy each state uses vs how much they produce.

Authored By Daniel Burch

An inveterate punster, amateur chef, and fencer, Daniel B has a double degree in History and Museum Science from Baylor. He currently serves as the Assistant Program Coordinator for the Wiess Energy Hall and Adult Education at HMNS.

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