Hydrogen is the most plentiful element on earth. We can burn it to release heat energy. We can also combine it with oxygen to produce electricity. It follows that hydrogen is the logical fuel choice for the future, but it has to overcome the following obstacles:
Where can we find hydrogen? It seldom exists in pure gaseous form but mostly combines with carbon or oxygen in chemical compounds such as water, hydrocarbons in all fossil fuels, and carbohydrates in all plants and animals.
Extracting, storing and distributing hydrogen are expensive, likewise for gasoline. If separated from substances that contain carbon, you wind up releasing more carbon into the atmosphere, which defeats the purpose of a clean fuel. After being extracted into its pure form, hydrogen must be handled with care because it is inflammable, and being the lightest gas, it easily escapes to the upper atmosphere. The proponents of using hydrogen to propel the future must compare the costs with other alternative fuels.
At present, a number of auto manufacturers have started producing their hydrogen prototypes. A hydrogen car is essentially an electric car where electricity is generated in a fuel cell rather than stored in a battery. A fuel cell generates electricity by combining the hydrogen fuel with oxygen in the air, leaving non-polluting water as exhaust. Since the fuel cell is thin, multiple cells can be stacked up to produce more electricity. The hydrogen stored in the car enables a travel range of more than 300 miles that surpass most electric cars. As far as retail is concerned, the big problem is the distributing system. Commercialization of hydrogen cars depends on how convenient it is for the driver to fill up the hydrogen fuel when going from one place to another.
The retail distribution system of hydrogen for cars must be built from scratch, like that of gasoline which has taken more than a century to accomplish in the presence of no competitive fuels. Today, besides gasoline, hydrogen fuel is facing competition from electricity, gasoline-electric hybrid, biofuels, and natural gas that runs buses, trucks and even taxis. The obstacles seem daunting indeed.
The strongest competitor comes from something whose power is not visible except in lightning — electricity. Its retail distribution to houses and factories has already been installed long time ago. The distribution only needs an upgrade by extending to more charging stations in the streets, car parks, shopping malls and gasoline retail stations where electric cars can stop by to recharge.
With regard to extraction and availability, no fuels beat electricity for the great flexibility that it can be generated from any other energy source. For instance, gasoline cannot be generated from a waterfall but electricity can, known as hydro-electricity. There are at least two sources that cost nothing and have no limits – solar and wind. Both do not require mining from the ground and extraction from another substance. They are readily available.
Solar is certainly out of this world for it comes from the sun in outer space! Since solar electricity is generated during day time on a solar panel, its daily replenishment requires only minimum storage for no more than a day. Furthermore, the solar panels installed on the roof of a building shows the independence and power of distributive production vividly demonstrated by personal computers, cell phones and the Internet.
The hydrogen future fascinates but faces tough competition from electricity which has been proven to be cheaper, convenient and limitless. The electricity future looks most promising with the development of solar and wind and perhaps tides.
The electricity future is unfolding before our eyes with gradual advances, or perhaps revolutions in the following areas:
• Decreasing size of solar panels with increasing efficiency.
• Advanced battery with more storage, less weight and faster recharge.
• Intense distributive solar and wind production in cities and suburbs.
• Widespread distributive solar and wind production in the countryside.
• Widespread charging stations for electric cars.
• Peel-and-stick solar panels for curved surfaces on cars, ships, buildings, even airplanes.
• Distributive propulsion for airplanes with multiple electric motors installed on different parts of the wings.
• Wireless electricity transmission and recharge. This will make cable transmission obsolete, probably the battery too.
All of the above are either happening in the real world or being tested in the research laboratories.