As automakers improve their technology to reduce emissions, one technology that’s slowly coming to fruition is the hydrogen fuel cell. The fuel itself is another matter.
In fact, we’ve seen a number of hydrogen fuel cell vehicle prototypes, some of which could be on the road as soon as 2015, in spite of the fact that some believe it’ll be at least another decade. The technology is sound, but still moderately expensive, due to the necessity for some very expensive materials that enable the hydrogen fuel cell to generate electricity from the flow of hydrogen electrons. Improving the technology has helped to reduce costs, such that the Toyota FCV-R, for example, could start as low as $50,000. That’s expensive for a small sedan, but pretty reasonable for hydrogen fuel cell technology.
OK, so the automakers have gotten down the manufacture of the vehicle, and we could see it soon, but what about the generation of the hydrogen fuel itself? Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, themselves, don’t produce any emissions, other than water vapor. On the other hand, hydrogen fuel production could be emissions-free, using solar power, but researchers are, again, running up against cost and efficiency problems with the process. The materials that enable the hydrogen fuel cell to convert hydrogen fuel into electricity and water are the same materials that enable the reaction converting water into hydrogen and oxygen gases, using the power of the sun.
The problem, at the moment, is that the catalyst materials required for solar-powered hydrogen fuel production, not electrolysis, but direct reaction, is too expensive. University of Wisconsin at Madison (UWM) researchers believe that, if hydrogen fuel is to compete with electric vehicles and conventional vehicles, they really need to boost efficiency and reduce the costs. Kyoung-Shin Choi, UWM professor of chemistry, and Tae Woo Kim, postdoctoral researcher, recently turned to oxide-based catalysts, iron oxide (rust) and nickel oxide, plated on bismuth vanadate. The resulting solar hydrogen fuel generator is far cheaper than rare-earth-metal-based catalysts, and is 1.7% efficient, the highest efficiency reported for any oxide-based system. With a little more research, this cheap technology could effect the future of clean hydrogen fuel production at a cost comparable or better than conventional fuels.
Image By FK1954 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons