May
29
2008

Fuel cells kill!

The law of unintended consequences, part 4,937: Fuel cells don't pollute. But the process of making the fuel that goes in to them does.
The law of unintended consequences, part 4,937: Fuel cells don't pollute. But the process of making the fuel that goes in to them does.Courtesy geognerd

Fuel cells are sometimes promoted as a clean energy alternative. They work by combining hydrogen and oxygen to create water, with some left over energy that can then be turned into electricity. The only waste products from a fuel cell are water and heat.

Two small problems:

  • Water vapor, it turns out, is a major greenhouse gas.
  • Getting hydrogen to go into the fuel cell requires either zapping water with electricity, or treating natural gas with steam. Both of these processes require power, which currently comes from—burning coal.

So, while the fuel cell doesn’t pollute, the process of making the fuel for it does. (Though that could change if a hydrogen plant could be designed to run on wind, solar or other clean energy.)

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

isnt the only practical means to generate that much hydrogen, nuclear?

posted on Fri, 05/30/2008 - 7:33am
Gene's picture
Gene says:

Not sure what you mean. There are two main ways to produce hydrogen gas. One is to treat natural gas. Natural gas is a combination of carbon and hydrogen. Apply steam to the gas, and you can separate the two elements. The problems are a) what do you do with the leftover carbon? and b) where do you get the energy to heat water to make steam?

The other way to make hydrogen gas is to apply electricity to water. Here, there is only one problem: where do you get the electricity?

In both cases, you can get the energy / electricity from burning fossil fuels (bad--produces pollution and releases carbon); you can get it from clean, alternative sources like wind and solar (good, but right now the technology is limited); or you can get it from nuclear (good because it doesn't pollute; bad because it creates radioactive waste).

So, nuclear power plants do not produce hydrogen themselves, but they -- like any other energy source -- can power the hydrogen plant.

posted on Fri, 05/30/2008 - 8:15am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

yes, thats what I meant. The only practical non-fossil means to create that much electricity is nuclear.

posted on Fri, 05/30/2008 - 2:19pm

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