Friday, June 13, 2008

Hydrogen Fuel Stations: Wave of the Future

You may have heard about hydrogen fuel recently. Hydrogen is the same chemical used as fuel by the sun, and when you burn it, you get lots of energy and very little pollution; burned efficiently, the only by-product is water. Even better, hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, and can be processed from the same water that it creates in an endless cycle We have the technology right now to build hydrogen-powered cars. So why don't you see them all over the road?

Because we do not yet have the infrastructure. In order to make hydrogen fuel a viable alternative to fossil fuels, we need to have a strong hydrogen fuel station infrastructure - a network of fueling stations throughout the country. After all, how would you fuel your gas-based car if you didn't have a gas station to stop at?

How Hydrogen Fuel Stations Work

There are two different types of hydrogen fuel stations right now: public stations, located only in a very few areas and concentrated in Southern California, and home stations, built into garages and set up with complex systems to provide appropriate water and energy supplies.

Both types of hydrogen fuel stations create hydrogen on the spot using some form of electricity, from standard power hookups to solar power cells. The cheapest hydrogen fueling stations are based around solar power cells. Water is purified, usually through reverse osmosis, and put through electrolysis with power provided by the solar power cells. The process of electrolysis divides water into its component atoms hydrogen and oxygen, and the hydrogen is stored in a separate tank. Oxygen may be stored, or it may be released as a non-polluting by-product.

The result: if you have a home station, you fuel your car for free (provided you've used solar energy), and if you don't, you fuel it up at the public station using an air-hose style pump and pay whatever the charge is

Where Are Hydrogen Fuel Stations Located?

With the exception of Southern California, you won't find many hydrogen fuel stations yet. There are a handful in Europe, where they are used to power hydrogen buses. Iceland is the first country to implement a nationwide process of replacing traditional fuel stations with hydrogen stations. Japan, always fast to embrace new technology, is following suit, and you'll find scattered fuel stations in a few other places: New York City, Washington DC, and British Columbia (in advance of the 2010 Winter Games).

The problem right now isn't a lack of technology. Instead, it's three other very practical considerations:

* The cost of building a hydrogen fuel station is prohibitive, though it will certainly drop in the future, and currently only projects subsidized by a government are viable.

* There isn't a huge demand for hydrogen fuel stations yet, partly because there aren't enough stations to support a large number of hydrogen cars yet.

* All hydrogen stations must be built in population-dense areas right now, so the range of hydrogen cars is limited, which limits their use enough to discourage widespread adoption.,

A combination of consumer demand and government subsidy is certain to edge hydrogen fuel stations to the point where they become a viable and vital part of our transportation networks.

It is certain that when we do have adequate infrastructure to support hydrogen-based vehicles, energy prices will drop sharply and output of carbon-based pollution will follow suit. Not only is the technology clean and reliable, it's probably going to be a new starting point for a burst of human development, just as the first steam engine, the first car, and the first airplane were.

So when will this be? Current estimates put widespread adoption of hydrogen cars at about five years. The process may be accelerated by government support of fuel station building, but it's more likely that the process will be a little slower, with the dense metropolitan areas adopting long before more remote areas and private fleets adopting the technology before anyone else.

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