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Essential Science: Zero emission vehicles are on the horizon

One reason for the interest in hydrogen is because it can be produced at a low cost; it is relatively efficient to other fuels; and it is low polluting. This makes hydrogen an ideal material for fuel cells for use in electric vehicles. Not only would these vehicles be more efficient, they would help foster a new generation of zero-emission cars.

To look into the future efficiency of hydrogen, the U.S. Department of Energy has begun a scheme called “Hydrogen at Scale
(H2@Scale). This initiative aims to examine the potential for large-scale hydrogen production and its utilization across the U.S., for various sectors of the economy from motor vehicles to agriculture.

The research is looking at hydrogen production from methods like water splitting, such as electrolysis (using electricity to split hydrogen atoms), photoelectrochemical cells (which use sunlight), and solar thermochemical systems. Although hydrogen is abundant on Earth it does not exit in a pure form and therefore it needs to be manufactured.

Core potential applications, that the U.S. Department of Energy has in mind, include applications include fuel cell vehicles, metals refining, and synthetic natural gas production.

File photo: The Tri-Gen plant will produce enough hydrogen to power about 1 500 vehicles on an avera...

File photo: The Tri-Gen plant will produce enough hydrogen to power about 1,500 vehicles on an average daily use cycle.
© Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc.

One institution where research is progressing well is at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Speaking with the magazine Laboratory Manger, one of the principal researchers Dr. Adam Weber said: “Hydrogen is a very nice intermediate energy carrier. There’s a big focus now to use hydrogen for other end uses, not just fuel cells and vehicles.”

The researcher goes on to explain why the research is of such potential importance: “We believe if you look at the way solar and wind are going, electricity prices will be much lower in the future, and at off-peak times, the price can even go negative.”

Dr. Weber has in place several projects for both low-temperature and high-temperature electrolyzers. Of these, electrolyzers function much like fuel cells and they consist of an anode and a cathode separated by an electrolyte. He is also looking at artificial photosynthesis, which involves splitting water into hydrogen on one electrode and oxygen on the other.

A hydrogen vehicle.

A hydrogen vehicle.
The National Hydrogen Association (NHA)

The research group are also looking into techno-economic analysis for grid integration and with making future hydrogen vehicles more efficient. With the latter hydrogen is being looked at for use in fuel cell electric vehicles.

Hydrogen fuel cells: In a hydrogen fuel cell, hydrogen reacts with oxygen without burning. The energy released is used to generate electricity, which is used to drive an electric motor.

Research into vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells has shown that fuel cells have a higher efficiency than diesel or gas engines. Moreover, provided the hydrogen comes from the electrolysis of water driven by renewable energy, then the application of fuel cells eliminates greenhouse gases over the whole cycle.

Essential Science

This article is part of Digital Journal’s regular Essential Science columns. Each week Tim Sandle explores a topical and important scientific issue. Last week we considered how information about how our internal body clocks influence health and disease can help with cancer treatments, especially the fact that the time of treatment plays a critical role.

The week before an electricity-conducting, environment-sensing, shape-changing cell-sized machine, used for medical diagnosis and based on graphene was profiled.

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Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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