Thursday, November 11, 2010

Fuel Cells a Viable Alternative Energy Source?

Fuel cells are a constantly developing technology and in our day and age they have some promising applications for the future. Although there are some promising applications for the future it cannot be said that fuel cells will one day be the dominant form of energy production in the future. One such claim of an article on the national geographic website is that one day vehicles may be powered with fuel cells that use hydrogen as a source of fuel and that these fuel cells could replace the traditional petroleum fuelled vehicles that exist today. The article was entitled “Fuel Cells: Energy Source of the Future”.

There are a number of problems with this claim and two such problems are a) petroleum fuels have been used for decades and it will be very difficult to convince the world to stop using them and switch to an alternative and b) the fact that the least expensive and most widely used method to produce hydrogen fuel produces the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.

Addressing first the problem of attempting to replace fossil fuels with hydrogen fuels it becomes apparent that this would not be an easy task. Firstly, the infrastructure for fossil fuel storage, production, and distribution has been well established for decades. A switch to hydrogen fuels would require a complete revamp of this well established infrastructure and inevitably cost enormous amounts of money. Hydrogen is a very difficult product to store because it has the ability to weaken the structure of the actual container it will be held in. This will require the production of specialized containers able to safely store the hydrogen without the fear of the containers failing. Another issue with storing hydrogen is that at room temperature hydrogen is a gas. Storing a substance as a gas is a very inefficient way to store a substance since it requires more space to store. By compressing this gas into a liquid it would make it much more efficient to store and allow a higher volume of hydrogen to be transported more efficiently. The issue with compressing hydrogen gas into a liquid is that it requires energy. The amount of energy required to compress this hydrogen gas is nearly one third of the actual energy the hydrogen contains within itself meaning that by making it more efficient to store and transport the actual energy available from the hydrogen is greatly reduced.

Perhaps the most important, if not the most important, factor in determining whether or not using hydrogen fuel as an alternative fuel for petroleum is plain and simply money. The oil industry is a massive industry with billions even trillions of dollars at stake. The estimated total worth of the proven reserves on this planet is 104 trillion dollars! That’s $104,000,000,000,000! With this amount of money at stake there is an obvious question to be asked. Who in their right mind would want to attempt to risk their money in hydrogen when there is $104,000,000,000,000 of proven oil on this planet? People are greedy and this greed in turn develops into the need and want for more and more money. Switching over to using hydrogen fuel and fuel cell technology instead of sticking with the industry worth trillions of dollars would cost these greedy people their money and convincing them that it is a good idea to spend their money would not be by any means an easy feat to accomplish. The author of the article briefly talks about the economic issues concerning hydrogen fuel and fuel cells and in short basically says that the technology is not ready to compete with the other major forms of energy technology.

The second problem I found with the claim the author made is that he did not address the fact that the least expensive and most widely used method to produce hydrogen fuel produces the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. The fact that it is necessary to use fossil fuels to produce new cleaner fuels completely contradicts itself. Sure the fuel cell is a clean and efficient form of energy technology but the fact that the fuel required for this clean form of energy technology is produced with the help of more traditional fuels produced using more traditional less efficient forms of energy production just does not make sense. The whole point of alternative energy and alternative fuel is that it produces fewer emissions, is more efficient, and is all around better for the environment. The simple fact is that there is not a way to mass produce these new alternative forms of energy and fuel in an economically viable way. That is to say there is as of yet no way to produce these technologies and fuels in such a cheap and efficient way as to claim that they will one day be able replace petroleum fuels.

Fuel cells are a constantly evolving technology and they have many potential benefits as the author pointed out in the article but the world is simply not ready to embrace fuel cells and other alternative forms of energy as the dominant form of energy production. The fact that the author says fuel cells are the future of energy production is not valid because in time perhaps other newer, more efficient, and less costly technologies will arise leaving fuel cells obsolete. Again the fact that the world currently thrives on petroleum fuels makes it difficult to imagine if it will ever change and if people are willing to part with their money in order to chase after the dream of clean energy and clean fuel.


Singh, M. (2008) What’s all the oil in the world worth?

Wise, J. (2006) The truth about hydrogen.

Fuel cells: Energy source of the future.

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