The FUEL CELL Folly
(A true story)
(Sorry about my exagerated smoke stacks, but you get the picture.)
The new Hybrid Fuel Cells and how they are made. The big question is "where does the so called 'non-polluting' hydrogen come from?" It comes from a polluting process called "reforming" (or "steam reforming"). In this process a hydrocarbon fuel that contains hydrogen (coal, oil, natural gas) is "reformed" creating hydrogen and carbon dioxide (CO2) as well as other pollutants. The CO2 and pollutants are released into the atmosphere. The fundamental difference between a fuel cell car and an internal combustion engine car is that the hydrogen fuel for the fuel cell car is manufactured in a factory and the CO2 is released into the atmosphere at the hydrogen factory. In a conventional car, the CO2 is released wherever the car is being driven.
Fuel cell proponents have invented the concept of "sequestration" which means that the CO2 will be buried in the ground at the factory site, although that has not been done as yet. Like the nuclear waste to be stored at Yucca flats, the CO2 will hopefully stay underground for several centuries.
Ninety-six percent of the hydrogen used today comes from this reforming process, with natural gas the primary "feedstock" (48 percent) for the "reformation," followed by oil (30 percent) and coal (18 percent). The small remainder (4 percent) comes from electrolysis, which is a process of separating water into hydrogen and oxygen using electricity. Prepossesses as simple as cooking bacon on a cast iron skillet.
Hydrogen usage must be evaluated for its merits and weaknesses in many areas. It seems to be the ideal fuel for launching space ships. This does not mean it will be an effective replacement for internal combustion engines. It may do poorly in that area but be effective as a load leveling system for the daily and seasonal fluctuations of power production by solar or wind – no one yet knows. It is the description of it as a panacea that is questionable. The fact that it has some applicability does not make it a proven replacement for today's power networks.
An alternative approach to the fuel cell is to use the natural gas from which hydrogen is made as a fuel for natural gas powered cars and the oil from which hydrogen is made for ICE cars. Since there are already natural gas engines and Internal Combustion Engines, it is not clear why the fuel cell needs to be developed. Hydrogen is that component of "hydrocarbon fossil fuels" which is burned in conventional engines. Pollution will occur either at the factory or at the car. It is important to determine which is the most efficient way to use the resource.