If you spend enough time studying up on fossil fuel alternatives, you will often encounter the phrase “hydrogen economy.” But what is it? And what does it mean for the future of global energy production (not to mention global warming)?
First of all, let’s look at a fuel cell. A fuel cell is something called an “electrochemical energy conversion device.” Basically what this means is that it is a device that converts a fuel, such as hydrogen, into water – releasing heat and energy in the process. The energy is then harnessed as electricity and can be used to, say, power your electric hair dryer. There are many types of fuel cells that can use many different types of fuel sources – including fossil fuels (the waste products are carbon dioxide and water). But hydrogen just happens to be the most abundant substance on earth, and its waste product (water) does not contribute to global warming.
In fact, the combination of electricity, heat, and water make hydrogen fuel cells an excellent possibility for small-scale cogeneration projects, producing heat, hot water, and electricity for individual homes and small communities. On a larger scale, hydrogen fuel cells can power large communities and entire cities as well. Fuel cells are far more efficient than any other current means of generating electricity – there is very little net loss in the production process. On a mass scale, hydrogen fuel cells could theoretically power the entire planet without the need for fossil fuels. And although, unlike batteries, they are not made specifically to store energy, they can be modified to do so with some technological adjustments, providing a potential backup source of power for other means of electricity generation such as wind and solar. There are also some prototype hydrogen fuel cell powered cars – no more need for gasoline. This is what is meant by the hydrogen economy.
There are currently some drawbacks, however, to using fuel cells. The biggest road block is cost – they are expensive to make and operate, which means that they produce electricity at a rate of about $1000 per kilowatt. There are also some technical glitches that have to be worked out, such as the fact that the water they produce frequently causes the fuel cells to short circuit. But overall, they have a lot of potential and a promising future in the carbon-free economy.