When I was using simple chemicals to produce electricity during my chemistry class, I had a sudden remembrance of a video that I watched during a biology class. It was based on a revolutionary technology, the hydrogen fuel cell. Ever since I watched the video, I was fascinated by hydrogen fuel cells. It seemed like an ultimate solution to the problems we face today regarding environment and energy. As a result I decided to explore deeper into the science behind the technology and evaluate its effects and
the implications. To begin with, what exactly is a fuel cell? By definition a fuel cell is “a device that produces a continuous electric current directly from the oxidation on of a fuel, as that of hydrogen by oxygen.” When looking at the definition, it can be inferred that a fuel cell doesn’t necessarily require hydrogen. But why is it that in 2003, President Bush specifically announced a program called the Hydrogen Fuel Initiative? Well hydrogen is the lightest and the most abundant chemical element, constituting around 75% of the world’s chemical elemental mass. Also hydrogen is high in energy yet when used produces almost zero pollution. In addition, the fuel cell will produce pure water that can be reused in the process. These characteristics of hydrogen make it the most ideal candidate as a fuel source for a fuel cell. Also according to DOE Hydrogen Program, “Hydrogen-powered fuel cells are not only pollution free, but also can have two to three times the efficiency of traditional combustion technologies.”
Well now that we know why hydrogen fuel cells are ideal, lets take a look at how it works. A single hydrogen fuel cell consists of an electrolyte in between anodes and cathodes with two bipolar plates on each side (connects one fuel cell to another). When hydrogen is produced through electrolysis, it is supplied to this fuel cell. When the hydrogen enters and contacts with the platinum on the catalyst, it splits into electrons and protons. The protons move across the electrolyte, also called the proton exchange membrane, and meet with oxygen that is provided from the outer environment. During this process, the electrons that were separated from the hydrogen are sent to an outer circuit where it produces electricity that is used in motor or other material. At the end of the outer circuit, the electrons meet again with the protons and oxygen. At this moment, the protons, electrons and oxygen react to form pure water. This reaction is exothermic thus produces heat at the same time. The water produced can be reused through electrolysis to supply hydrogen to the fuel cell again. If this circuit continues, then not only will the fuel cell be able to produce electricity constantly, but also fuel cells will be able to reuse the product thus saving our limited resources.
If we just consider these benefits of hydrogen fuel cell, we wonder why it hasn’t been introduced to developing countries. Well there are also negative sides of a hydrogen fuel cell. Many of the parts in a hydrogen fuel cell are costly. As a result even though the technology can be useful in the long run, it will be difficult to spread the usage of it. Also another problem is that the whole process of electrolysis requires electricity from another source for example through burning coal. This will counter the whole purpose of creating a hydrogen fuel cell. To consider all sides to this, we must also take into account the countries or even companies that rely on selling oil. For example Saudi Arabia is ranked first in the production of petroleum and second in exporting oil to the US. Although hydrogen fuel cell won’t completely replace petroleum, expansion of such technology will have a huge impact on countries like Saudi Arabia.
The implication of this technology is huge. Despite its cost, the hydrogen fuel cells can effectively reduce pollution in metropolises. As a result understanding such revolutionary technology and attempting to improve it may possibly alleviate the devastating impacts of global warming. Even when we approach this technology using ethic’s common good approach, although it may harm some countries, it will do more good than harm to our global society. Also we are living in a world with limited resources and by using a method that will produce its own fuel, we will be able to allocate our resources more efficiently. Before this research, I was only interested in hydrogen fuel cell because someone else has told me about it. But as I reached the end of this journey, I saw the huge implication behind such technology and became fascinated with it. The idea that a single technology based on simple chemistry concepts can revolutionized the world amazed me and drew me more into the magical world of science. Also, I realized that every second we are moving towards working WITH the nature to protect what we’ve been taking for granted.
“Saudi Arabia.” U.S. Energy Information Administration. n. page. Print.