Photo: Steve Jackson (Flickr)
You may remember, a few years back, hearing a lot about hydrogen fuel cells.
They run on hydrogen and emit only water vapor, and were going to revolutionize the auto industry. By now, we were all supposed to be driving fuel cell powered cars and using devices and appliances running on hydrogen.
So what happened?
The first thing to understand is that fuel cells work. They’re a proven technology. Pump pure hydrogen into a fuel cell and, sure enough, it will produce clean, dependable electricity.
But although hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, here on Earth it’s not easy to come by in a pure state. Hydrogen is usually hooked up with some other element, like oxygen. To pry hydrogen atoms loose takes energy–usually electricity created in power plants that burn coal or other fossil fuels, and add to global warming.
The second challenge is that there are relatively few filling stations equipped with hydrogen pumps. According to The National Hydrogen Association, as of 2008 there were sixty-one hydrogen fueling stations in the U.S. So even if scientists find a way to produce and store hydrogen cheaply, it would still take many years to build enough infrastructure to service millions of fuel cell powered cars.
Today, as gas electric hybrids sell in greater numbers, and electric plug in cars begin to hit the market, scientists keep working on hydrogen technologies. So hydrogen may still be an important part of the clean energy puzzle. But it’s a long range solution.