HYDROGEN: Fuel of the (near) Future

March 2003
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     the HFC is quiet,
has no working
parts and converts
a whopping 60 to 80
percent of its fuel's
energy into work.

The big breakthrough in hydrogen fuel research and development over the past two decades has been the development of an electric hydrogen fuel cell engine based on proton exchange membrane (PEM) technology. Before the development of an efficient HFC, transportation options were limited to upgrading the internal combustion engine to run on hydrogen (or other alternative fuels). Hydrogen internal combustion engines, of course, represent a significant improvement over fossil-fuel engines. But internal combustion engines are still noisy, full of working parts that can break down and limited in their scope of application—they can only get so big or so little. Most importantly, they are of limited efficiency, converting, at best, about 40 per cent of the fuel's potential energy into work.

Electric HFCs have none of those limitations. Using hydrogen to generate electricity within a box that resembles a battery, the HFC is quiet, has no working parts and converts a whopping 60 to 80 percent of its fuel's energy into work. The HFC's potential scope of application is vast, ranging from tiny flashlight batteries to units capable of powering ships.

Ballard fuel cell


The PEM works on a simple principle that had actually been explored, and, unfortunately, abandoned some decades before its recent revival. Imagine a box divided into two compartments separated by a polymer membrane, the PEM. Air, with it's 20 percent free-oxygen content enters one side of the box, hydrogen gas the other. The hydrogen and oxygen are strongly attracted to each other—the "driving force" of the cell—and react to form water. But before it is allowed to react, each hydrogen atom must pass through the membrane which temporarily separates its electron from its proton. The protons (called, sans their electrons, ions) go through the membrane and join the oxygen ions on the other side. The electrons go through a terminal and enter a wire, creating an electrical current. As the electrical current passes through the device it powers—it could be a radio or a truck—it returns the electrons to the opposite side of the membrane where they rejoin their protons to complete the chemical reaction with the oxygen ions and create water.

For the development of the modern PEM HFC we have to thank the dedication and hard work, beginning in 1975 and continuing through today, of the Canadian engineer Geoffrey Ballard and his associates. Ballard and company not only revived an abandoned PEM technology, making it practical, but they risked their company on a successful gamble to bring the engine to the attention of, and gain the support from two major automotive manufacturers, Ford and DaimlerChrysler. The transportation giants have bought into the Ballard corporation and are rapidly developing HFC powered cars that use what has been dubbed the "Ballard Fuel Cell." The Ballard web site is worth visiting, both to learn more about this exemplary company and HFC technology. The site features a nifty animation illustrating the basic operation of a PEM HFC (click on "see how a fuel cell works").

The temptation, given
the fueling possibilities,
is to build even more
vehicles and more roads
when what is needed are
more compact cities,
public transportation
and a scaling back
of consumerism.

HFCs working on the principles other than the PEM exist, and offer a wide range of possibilities for generating power for stationary industrial applications or heating buildings, but not for transportation. Most non-PEM HFCs need special chemical agents or must be heated to reach their maximum efficiency, and are too bulky, at their maximum outputs, to fit into vehicles. The PEM HFC is the is the long-sought-after answer for the transportation sector.

Ecological designers adapt a systems perspective which tells us that using hydrogen for fuel will not answer all of our problems. Even with a cheap, plentiful, clean fuel available, the world will have to deal with the biodiversity crisis and climate change that are already underway. The temptation, given the fueling possibilities, is to build even more vehicles and more roads when what is needed are more compact cities, public transportation and a scaling back of consumerism. To lead to a truly sustainable future, hydrogen development must be coordinated with other forms of renewable energy investment, continued growth and democratization of the information infrastructure, bioregional planning, an organic agricultural revolution and an ethos of stewardship. Still, energy is at the center of all of these activities, and the excitement, in limited but rapidly growing circles, over the coming hydrogen era is well founded.

Like any revolution, the coming hydrogen age will be driven by the collapse of the old order—the demise of fossil fuels and centralized electrical production—and the consequent need for and vision of new possibilities. From this juncture, the fossil fuel age seems like a bad dream and the possibilities of the hydrogen age seem endless.


Concurrent with this article, ECOTECTURE has published reviews of three of the leading books on the coming hydrogen age.

In The Hydrogen Economy, Jeremy Rifkin proposes a radical approach to energy development following the distributed network principle on which the internet is built. If the hydrogen economy is built as Rifkin envisions it, the possibilities for planet-wide prosperity seem to be within our grasp.

Peter Hoffman's Tomorrow's Energy offers a much needed nuts-and-bolts introduction to the current state of hydrogen fuel technology. Long-time editor of The Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Letter, a standard resource for the entire industry, Hoffman is one of the world's top experts in the subject.

Powering the Future by Tom Koppel tells the full story of the Ballard Fuel Cell, from its more-than-humble beginnings in a deserted motel on the Arizona-Mexican border that Ballard rented for his first lab to the strategies of today's rapidly growing Canadian corporation for becoming the INTEL of hydrogen transportation.

Web Sites, other than those mentioned in the article above, include:

Hydrogen Fuel Cells and Infrastructure Technologies Program, U.S. Department of Energy This good, free site (it's your government) includes downloadable PDFs on a joint-government/business "vision" of the coming hydrogen economy and how to implement it, basic information and facts, a calendar of events and conferences and other useful information. The site is a little rah, rah about the 1.2 billion President Bush has committed to hydrogen research, but they work for the guy and even though 1.2 Billion is way little and way late, it is at least a gesture in the right direction, a direction we all want to encourage.

Useful Hydrogen Fuel Cell and Renewable Energy Links, (REB Research and Consulting) . A straight-forward, mess-o-links page with the following headings: Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Information, Selection of Corporations, Hydrogen Energy Research and Resources, News and Investment, Other Energy Resources, and Scientific Societies.

Fuel Cell Today is a free newsletter/information bank focusing on events and updates with a strong commercial and investment component.

California Hydrogen Business Council Cool site with lots of links, including one to the recent E magazine Hydrogen article.

Renewable Energy Policy Project, Hydrogen Page, Lots of quick, to the point information and a comprehensive list of hydrogen links.

California Fuel Cell Partnership This unique partnership brings together government agencies, businesses and environmental groups to share information, coordinate activities achieve common goals. The partnership has a physical site, near Sacramento, California, where fueling and transportation equipment is tested. Tours are given monthly and the partnership sponsors an educational outreach program.