Hydrogen— the alternative future

Oil is now facing a serious shortage, and its application also produces environmental problems. As one of the nonrenewable fossil fuels, oil has a high demand ever since 1857. Its production has been a controversial topic whenever discussed by people. The benefits of oil are certainly appealing. Before, people often describe finding oil on their…
<a href="https://highschool.latimes.com/author/janejingblog/" target="_self">Jane Jing</a>

Jane Jing

August 24, 2016

Oil is now facing a serious shortage, and its application also produces environmental problems. As one of the nonrenewable fossil fuels, oil has a high demand ever since 1857. Its production has been a controversial topic whenever discussed by people.

The benefits of oil are certainly appealing. Before, people often describe finding oil on their land as “striking it rich”. However, it is also a nightmare for many others and certain oil-rich sites. The damages bring along with the oil exploration —cause deforestation, acid rain, air pollution, and most importantly, a high CO2 emission in the air — that triggers the greenhouse effect. The oil thus plays a major episode in today’s global warming.

The skyrocketing expansion of automobile industries prompted excessive oil explorations around the world. As the single largest source of commercial energy in the world, the heavy reliance of oil greatly speeds up its exhaustion. According to calculations by Stanford Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, current oil supplies in all nations combined would last the world for only about 41 years.

The peak oil inevitably concerns people. In an oil-deplete future, an alternative energy seems to be a key. Without one valid alternative energy supply, the oil companies will mostly shift their focus to the unconventional-heavy-oil that furthers environmental destructions. Apparently, the rash of developing such alternative is high.

Oil is popular: it creates jobs for national economy; it can be converted into electricity, plastics, wax, sulfur, asphalt, at a very low-cost. And most essentially, it meets the unique requirements of transportation: the portability, energy density, safety and ease of handling, whereas most of other sources do not. So, in order to replace oil, the chosen alternatives must either possess such qualities or outweigh them.

Based on current research, solar energy, hydropower, geothermal energy, hydrogen fuel, biomass are all potential candidates for oil replacement. Among them all, hydrogen is the most ideal one. First, considered as a clean energy, hydrogen fuels automobiles with zero carbon emissions. Second, people can produce hydrogen from renewable resources such as water and solar power. Plus, hydrogen-fuel-cells are capable of powering vehicles without any combustion. As indicated above, hydrogen should be the fittest candidate to replace most of the fossil fuels and especially oil.

People may ask then, with such a variety of advantages, why haven’t hydrogen dominated the market filed yet? The reason is that it does not exist naturally. As the lightest and most abundant element in the universe, hydrogen must be either separated or produced from other other energy resources.

Long back when its energy potential was first discovered, people started making hydrogen through steam reforming, electrolysis, and thermolysis. New scientific development of the hydrogen fuel allows hydrogen production through biomass-derived liquid reforming, biomass gasification, photo-biological processes and microbial biomass conversion.

Steam reforming separates hydrogen atoms from fossil fuels such as natural gas. It is so far the most adopted way of producing hydrogen. Through the process, the reformer reacts steam with the fossil fuels at a high temperature. However, the hydrogen yields from steam reforming results in greenhouse gas emission.

“Most of other hydrogen stations, the majority of them are actually making their hydrogen from natural gas. And that’s not green either: that’s called ‘Brown hydrogen.’ Because they are still using hydrogen carbons to produce the hydrogen,” technical operation manager at California State University Hydrogen Station, Michael Dray, said.

Electrolysis, on the other hand, is proved to be the cleanest way of hydrogen production. It electrically splits water into hydrogen and oxygen in an electrolyzer. The hydrogen is then compressed up to 6,200 psi and placed in high-pressure storage tanks. Compression will increase the density of hydrogen in the same volume and allows more energy to be delivered. Depending on the source of the electricity used, hydrogen produced from electrolysis can result in zero greenhouse gas emissions ultimately, if technology allows, to reduce the cost of electrolysis is only a matter of time. Since hydrogen via electrolysis pursues path of renewable energy, producing hydrogen from water can virtually buttress the goal of zero greenhouse gas emissions.


Cal. State L.A. Hydrogen Station: High pressure compressors, high pressure buffer tank

Most cars on the road today use an internal-combustion engine to burn petroleum-based fuel. The engine then generates heat and emits CO2 into the atmosphere. Hydrogen-fuel-cell cars are somehow in between the internal-combustion engine and battery-power. Those cars use hydrogen-gas to power electric motors and emit water vapor as the waste. For hydrogen-fuel-cell cars, every fuel cell has an electrolyzer that carries electrically charged particles from one electrode to the other.

During the process, hydrogen gas from the tank feeds down to the positive terminal of the pipe. When atoms of hydrogen gas reach the catalyst (such as aluminum), it splits up into hydrogen ions and electrons. As the particles travel, they will power the electric motor and drive the wheels. Eventually, when both of the particles reach the negative terminal and recombine with each other, they produce pure water: as the only waste product and making hydrogen-fuel-cell-cars the ultimate goal of environmental protection.

Hydrogen Fuel Pump

Though the race of replacing petroleum-based automobiles has been long and painful, and it has always been a challenge for governments, automobile manufactures, researchers and investors to believe that hydrogen is “legitimate”. Whereas, we should never ease ourselves in this battle of energy.

In 2016, the development of technologies proved a hydrogen-fuel economy could finally become a reality. Though doubts were rising in the community about the actual environmental benefits from FCVs (fuel cell vehicles), researchers have now found cheaper ways to produce hydrogen from water through electrolysis. The more reasonable expenses of hydrogen production lead governments and investors to invest in hydrogen utility.

According to KTH Professor, Leeching Sun, they have found nickel-vanadium monolayer as an alternative catalyst for aluminum. This low-cost material greatly lowers the cost of electrolysis. Another impediments of the breakthrough of a hydrogen economy is ultimately a chicken and egg problem: hydrogen stations need hydrogen cars first in order to earn profits and stay open, yet hydrogen cars need enough hydrogen fuel stations to leave the showroom. In order to solve this problem, automotive manufactures are building more of these cars.

As of  2016, there will be three hydrogen cars available in the market: the Toyota Mirai, Hyundai ix35, FCEV, and the Honda Clarity. In addition, conceptive cars are on their way to become publicly available.

Aside from that, numbers of advantages would  win over nodding from the majority.  As of now, school programs, career pathway, parents are working to connect teens with those cutting-edge technologies and bring awareness of the necessity to protect our environment.

“My experience (working at the Cal State Hydrogen Station) has actually been great. Just me going into this internship was very exciting because I know I will be working with hydrogen,” said high school intern Xavier Cruz at Cal. State LA Hydrogen station. “It was scary on the first day because I knew a little bit about it. And they were saying [the machines] does this and this and that. And they were just speaking a foreign language to me. It’s hard to realize what they were talking about. And as the days went by, I got used to it. It took me about a good two days to adapt to this working environment. Overall, I really appreciate this internship that I got from the pathway coordinator in my school, it really is great! ”

As we have known, the use of hydrogen reduces pollution efficiently, and using electrolysis to produce hydrogen ends us up with a sustainable production system. Compared to normal motor vehicles, hydrogen-cars can drive for longer hours and contribute zero carbon emissions to the atmosphere; they convert the fuel into electricity without combustion involved, and they only takes about eight to ten minutes to refill to drive up to 500 miles. With all that being said, what is the point of us not  devoting to this alternative future of hydrogen?

Looking beyond our society, say decades later, when the hydrogen is strongly rooted in our national economy and have made its “blue-shift” in the community, we then essentially fulfill our promise of an environmentally sustainable society. Legitimizing this desirable leap with millions of hydrogen cars strut on the road will allow a kinder human interaction with our environment. Until then, we can actually prove our care of nature has never stopped. And the historic turnover from the petroleum-based cars to the environment-friendly hydrogen-fuel-cell cars will indeed underline developments in other alternative industries. 

Opinion: An Assault on Education

Opinion: An Assault on Education

Earlier last month, the Supreme Court struck down race-conscious admissions in cases against Harvard and the University of North California. Just one day later, they ruled that the Biden Administration overstepped with their plan to wipe out $400 billion in student...