Saturday, April 4, 2009

Future of Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Economy: Wither Fuel cell

Fuel cells need hydrogen as fuel. Hydrogen is neither a source of energy, nor readily available fuel. Hydrogen is more like electricity i.e. an energy carrier.Unlike electricity where infrastructure is already in place, hydrogen infrastructure is practically nonexistent. It is this lack of hydrogen infrastructure that is considered one of the biggest obstacles to fuel cell commercialization.

When hydrogen is a fuel, the commercialization of fuel cells, particularly for transportation and stationary electricity-generation markets, must be accompanied by commercialization of hydrogen energy technologies, namely technologies for hydrogen production, storage and distribution. In other words, hydrogen must become a readily available commodity before fuel cells can be fully commercialized. The fuel cells may become the driving force for development of hydrogen energy technologies. Fuel cells have many unique properties, such as high energy efficiency, no emissions, no noise, modularity, which may make them attractive in many applications even with a limited hydrogen supply. This creates what is often referred to as a “chicken and egg problem”—does the development and commercialization of fuel cells come before development of hydrogen energy technologies or must hydrogen infrastructure be in place before fuel cells can be commercialized? The answer lies in finding the alternate fuel to hydrogen.

Efforts must be increased to promote biofuels such as methane, ethane, methanol, ethanol as fuel in fuel cells. A recent development needs attention.

The scientists at Pennsylvania State University (PSU) found that titanium oxide nanotubes, powered by sunlight, can turn carbon dioxide into methane, which can be harnessed as an energy source. The nanotubes could dramatically reduce CO2 emissions into the atmosphere and reduce our need for fossil fuels.

The nanotubes are arranged vertically, almost like empty honeycomb. Over the top of the nanotubes sits a thin, reddish-brown layer of copper oxide. Both the copper and titanium oxide act as catalysts, speeding up reactions that take place naturally. When sunlight hits the copper oxide, carbon dioxide is converted into carbon monoxide. When sunlight hits the titanium oxide, water molecules split apart. The hydrogen freed from the water and the carbon freed from CO2 then recombine to create burnable methane and the spare oxygen atoms pair up to create breathable oxygen. The scientists have created thin membranes that cover either 3.8 or 15.5 square inches.

Adding more light and CO2 creates more methane. It is estimated that focusing the light collected from 1,100 square feet onto one of the membranes would generate more than 132 gallons of methane on a sunny day.

This is solar power by another name. Instead of storing electrons in batteries, the PSU scientists' idea would store energy chemically.

(1) H.J. Neef,"International overview of hydrogen and fuel cell research", Energy, Volume 34, Issue 3, March 2009, Pages 327-333
(2) Reuel Shinnar, "The hydrogen economy, fuel cells, and electric cars", Technology in Society, Volume 25, Issue 4, November 2003, Pages 455-476
(3) Barry D. Solomon, Abhijit Banerjee,“A global survey of hydrogen energy research, development and policy”, Energy Policy, Vol. 34,2006, pages 781–792
(4) Frano Barbir, PEM Fuel Cells, Theory and Practice, 2005, Pages 399-426
(5) Nanotube Tech Transforms CO2 Into Fuel, Eric Bland, Discovery News, March 23, 2009


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