Scientists now believe that in order to avoid or at least slow global warming, we have to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50%. In our efforts to lower our dependence on fossil fuels and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions there are many technologies both old and new being researched and developed. One of the most promising is hydrogen technology. Hydrogen offers electricity, transportation and heating systems free of greenhouse gas emissions and virtually free from pollution.

Hydrogen is an element consisting of one proton and one electron. Hydrogen can be converted into energy by burning it like existing fossil fuels or converting it into electricity using fuel cells. Even though hydrogen is one of the most abundant elements in the universe, it cannot simply be extracted from the ground like oil or coal. Hydrogen must be manufactured. At present there are two methods for manufacturing hydrogen.

One method, known as steam-methane reforming or SMR, manufactures hydrogen by combining natural gas and steam. SMR is very efficient when done on a large scale but also produces the very thing we want to avoid, carbon dioxide. A second method is called electrolysis. Electrolysis produces hydrogen by separating ordinary water back into oxygen and hydrogen. In order to make hydrogen using electrolysis, electricity is needed. It would make little sense to use electricity generated by the burning of fossil fuels because carbon dioxide would be released. One proposed method of generating the electricity which would be needed for large scale electrolysis would involve using the excess electricity generated at nuclear power plants when demand is low. There is also the possibility of designing and building a new generation of nuclear power plants capable of producing greater heat which could be used for hydrogen production.

Transportation is the source for 30% of the greenhouse gases produced. Hydrogen can be burned directly in modified internal combustion engines similar to the engines that automobiles use today except the exhaust is composed of water vapour and a small amount of nitrogen. Proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells convert hydrogen into electricity for use in electric-powered vehicles and only produce water vapour as a by-product.

proton exchange membrane fuel cell
PEM fuel cell.

PEM fuel cells are one of the technologies many automobile manufacturers are experimenting with. Already there are hydrogen-powered buses in Europe, Japan and the United States and some automobile manufacturers plan to have prototype automobiles on the road as early as 2008.

Ballard Power Systems of Canada is the world leader in the research, development and manufacture of PEM fuel cells supplying the world’s leading automobile manufacturers.

Not only are vehicles using hydrogen PEM cells non-polluting they are so quiet, many drivers do not realize they are running.

On one side of the PEM fuel cell, pictured above, hydrogen atoms are split into protons and electrons on a thin sheet of metal, usually platinum. On the other side of the cell, oxygen atoms supplied by the atmosphere are ready to combine with the hydrogen atoms in a form of quiet combustion.

The two sides of the cell are separated by a special PEM which will allow protons to pass through to the other side but not electrons. When the two sides of the cell are connected with a conductor, an electric current is created which can be used to power an electric motor.

PEM cells have been used for decades in the space program to produce power in manned space craft. Until recently PEM cells were very expensive. Today these amazing cells can be found in warehouses powering emissions-free power to forklifts, in mines powering large underground excavators so there are no exhaust fumes to contaminate the air supply, and in some cities, providing emissions-free public transportation. In Canada hydrogen-powered buses were used in Vancouver to transport tourists and athletes during the 2010 Olympic Games.

In Japan, there is an aggressive plan not only to use PEM fuel cells to power two million cars by the year 2020, but also use them for cogeneration. Cogeneration technology uses fuel cells to provide heat and electricity which can be used in residential homes and businesses.

All of this innovative technology is being called “The Hydrogen Economy,” because if hydrogen power is to become a reality, an entirely new infrastructure will have to be built. Electrical generating stations which do not use fossil fuels will have to be built to provide electricity for the electrolysis process. Hydrogen manufacturing plants and storage facilities will have to be built. The automobile industry will have to re-tool many of its factories in order to produce fuel cell vehicles, and service stations offering hydrogen fuel will also have to be constructed. All of this activity will mean not only the creation of many new jobs and careers, but will also lead to new products and innovations while protecting the environment.

fuel cell bus
Fuel cell bus.

Some in the media have made references to hydrogen as being dangerous and hydrogen cars as Mini-Hindenburgs, because it is an explosive gas. The explosion of the Hindenburg over Lakehurst airfield in New Jersey on May 6, 1937 effectively ended the air-ship industry even though many passengers survived the accident. Hydrogen is no more explosive than gasoline which has been used for over a century in millions and millions of automobiles. Because hydrogen is a lighter-than-air gas, it disperses rapidly should there be a leak, reducing the risk of fire. When hydrogen burns, it produces very little radiant heat, which can cause fires to spread. In most respects hydrogen is a safer fuel that the compressed propane used in BBQs and propane fireplaces.

The hydrogen economy may be as far as 20 years away, but it has the potential to revolutionize our planet in much the same way as the steam engine, the telephone, and the computer have done in the past, by offering us almost limitless affordable clean energy, free of greenhouse gases, that can be produced anywhere electricity is present.