Hydrogen is quickly being realized as the preeminent energy source of the new millennium. The primary technology that is "fueling" (how handy!) this momentum is the emergence of Fuel Cell technology. Common sense, advancements in technology, and environmental concerns have all contributed to this exciting new solution to our global energy needs.

  • Common Sense: Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe. Its most commonly thought of source is water, which covers three quarters of our globe. Hydrogen can be produced from water through electrolysis, freeing up the oxygen molecule to the atmosphere. Hydrogen can then be stored as a gas, a liquid or a solid.
  • Advancements in Technology: The Fuel Cell has undergone several hundred million dollars worth of R&D in the last century since the concept was invented in 1839. The first successful application was used in the 1960s when NASA began using the technology to supply power for on-board electronics and water for the Gemini and Apollo spacecraft. NASA still uses fuel cells to provide electricity and water to the space shuttle today.
  • Environmental Concerns: In the Automotive application, the internal combustion engine has served mankind well, but not without costs. The emissions of VOC's (volatile organic compounds) have jeopardized our air quality and the ozone layer protecting us from the sun's dangerous ultraviolet rays. Hydrogen provides as close to a perfect "closed loop" energy source as we have found, with no impact on our environment. We can obtain pure hydrogen through the process of water electrolysis (using electricity to separate the hydrogen from the oxygen), with oxygen being released into the atmosphere. Then we run the hydrogen through a fuel cell, trap the electron for DC electricity and combine the hydrogen moving out of the fuel cell with oxygen to create…water! For the stationary fuel cell we will use to supply power to our homes and businesses, we will use a fuel such as natural gas to power the fuel cell. A reformer will strip the hydrogen molecules from the gas, and the same scenario will repeat itself as above, with a small, harmless amount of water being released into the atmosphere.

A Note on Safety

In a word association game of people over 30 years old, 95% of the players will say "Hindenburg" after hearing "Hydrogen". The cause of the Hindenburg conflagration was studied extensively in 1997 and the findings were published in a Ford Motor Company report on Hydrogen Vehicle Safety. A retired NASA safety expert, Addison Bain, assisted scientists in a study of fragments of the dirigible to determine what caused the accident. Their investigation determined that the ship's gas bags were made of cellulose acetate or cellulose nitrate, both flammable. In addition, aluminum flakes were laminated to the bags as a reflective agent to keep the gas bags cool. The combination of cellulose nitrate and metal chips are the core ingredients of rocket fuel, possibly not commonly known at the time. The team of scientists determined that the initial combustion was more likely caused by the ignition (lightning?) of the flammable fabric as opposed to the properly vented hydrogen gas bags. Obviously once the fabric ignited the hydrogen added to the intense and rapid demise of the Hindenburg. As further evidence however, Bain noted a photograph of another dirigible engulfed in flames around the same time period. The critical difference between these two airships was that while the Hindenburg was filled with Hydrogen, the second zeppelin was filled with inert helium, a non-flammable lighter-than-air gas. By the way, the Ford Motor Report concluded that a Fuel Cell Vehicle (FCV) would be safer than traditional Internal Combustion Engines (ICE).