By producing hydrogen via algae growth and recycling platinum from catalytic converters, fuel cells can sustainably charge electric vehicles
As electric vehicles become more prevalent in the transportation industry, the demand for electricity will increase. The United States continues to produce most of its electricity from fossil fuels such as coal, natural gas, and petroleum. Therefore, I propose to use hydrogen fuel cell technology to power existing and future electric vehicles in the United States by installing hydrogen fuel cells in the garages of consumers. By using the existing natural gas infrastructure, hydrogen gas can be available at every household to not only charge their electric vehicle but to also partially or completely power their home. This plan avoids the need to dangerously travel with compressed hydrogen gas, as many conventional hydrogen fuel cell vehicle designs require. Using existing pipelines to deliver hydrogen gas may only be needed for the short term because recent research suggests that producing hydrogen using solar energy via cyanobacteria and green algae is possible (scienceadaily.com). Therefore, tanks of these bacteria can be installed in households which would eliminate the need to derive hydrogen gas from fossil fuels. Furthermore, fuel cells require rare-earth metals as catalysts, with platinum being the most common. Mining for these metals often pose a multitude of environmental risks. Modern gasoline-powered vehicles have catalytic converters which convert toxic pollutants such as nitrous oxides and carbon monoxide into less dangerous compounds such as carbon dioxide. These converters also use platinum as a catalyst, and it can be collected and recycled to be used in hydrogen fuel cells after the life of a catalytic converter has ended. Therefore, the proposal not only eliminates indirect fossil fuel emissions from the transportation sector, but it also provides clean energy for households and initiates recycling programs that help preserve the environment.
What actions do you propose?
The basic concept behind hydrogen fuel cells involve the production of electricity and heat through the consumption of hydrogen gas and oxygen that is available in air, and the energy it produces is sufficient to power large automobiles. Each cell contains two electrodes, one for hydrogen and the other for air (oxygen), and a catalyst which separates hydrogen atoms into protons and electrons. Since each subatomic particles takes a different path to the other electrode via the catalyst, a flow of energy is generated. Unlike most other electricity generators, hydrogen fuel cells are able to produce large quantities of electricity with zero greenhouse gas emissions, because the only waste that is produced is pure water. In order to produce a sustainable hydrogen fuel cell, the delivery of the hydrogen fuel must be efficient and safe, the platinum catalyst must be produced from recycled materials, and the water produced as waste must be collected and repurposed.
Many car companies like Honda, have been attempting to produce hydrogen fuel cell powered automobiles, but many critics are concerned about the need for a compressed hydrogen gas cylinder on a moving vehicle. Hydrogen gas is very flammable, just as gasoline is, but compressed gas also possesses explosion risks under intense impacts. Therefore, I am proposing to remove the unnecessary risk of traveling with compressed gases by placing a hydrogen fuel cell generator in a consumer’s household which will act as a charging point for the car. When the driver of the electric car come to their home or business, they will be able to recharge their car using clean electricity powered by a hydrogen fuel cell. Existing electric cars will not have to be altered as they will be able to be recharged using the same process they were designed to utilize. The only difference is that the electricity being used was generated using a method that releases no greenhouse gases. While the vehicle is not recharging, the fuel cell will be responsible for generating a significant portion if not all of a building’s electricity requirements. By installing a fuel cell generator in a household or building, it will not only transform the transportation industry’s continued indirect reliance on fossil fuels, but it will also help transform the United States’ energy supply from fossil fuels to hydrogen. Many common household appliances rely on natural gas, such as stoves, ovens, and hot water heaters. However, all of these appliances are now utilizing electricity has their energy source, and it is quite common to see electric stoves and electric hot water heaters in households. Therefore, cities or communities that have a desire to avoid consuming energy derived from fossil fuels may be able to instead supply hydrogen gas to each household by utilizing the existing natural gas pipelines. No compressed gas cylinders will be stored in households or buildings, and the electricity generated will not produce greenhouse gases. Consumers will be able to drive their vehicles knowing that they are burning 100% clean energy.
Current processes to produce hydrogen are extremely expensive and inefficient as they tend to consume large amount of energy derived from various fossil fuels. Recent research suggests that it is possible to acquire large quantities of hydrogen gas from solar energy via photosynthetic organisms such as cyanobacteria and green algae (sciencedaily.com). Therefore, it may be possible to allow households to produce their own hydrogen gas by having a large tank of cyanobacteria or algae, which will yield large hydrogen gas pipeline unnecessary. Furthermore, it will eliminate the need to consume energy in order to produce pure hydrogen.
Since fuel cells require rare-earth metals, such as platinum, to use as catalysts, they can not only be expensive, but they can also be detrimental to the environment as mining is often cited as a cause of biodiversity loss, habitat destruction, and large-scale pollution. Since conventional gasoline powered vehicles contain catalytic converters that convert harmful pollutants into less harmful gases such as carbon dioxide, the platinum in the converters can be recycled and reused as a catalyst for hydrogen fuel cells. Therefore, mining for rare-earth metals can be minimized, the cost of each fuel cell will decrease dramatically, and governments may be able to subsidize the junking of older vehicles so that owners can afford cleaner electric vehicles. Repurposing the platinum from old catalytic converters may be expensive and complex, but it is impossible to put a price on saving and preserving our environment.
Unlike gasoline powered generators which produce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, the waste of hydrogen fuel cells contains only pure water. Conventional vehicle designs that involve hydrogen fuel cells do not collect the water waste, as they tend to let the water flow out the vehicle onto the road. While this process is the simplest and cheapest, it is very wasteful considering that freshwater is becoming even more scarce. By placing fuel cells in households and building rather than in the vehicles themselves, it will be possible to produce and collect pure water that can be used for anything from cooling industrial processes to toilets. Households can then rely on hydrogen fuel cells to not only fully power their electric vehicle and partially power their household appliances, but they can also rely on it has a source of clean, usable water. Water consumption is often highest during the driest months, but since consumers use their vehicles year round, water will be continually produced thus relieving some of the stress on natural water reservoirs.
Who will take these actions?
Since this concept’s primary purpose to recharge electric vehicles, the fuel cell generator should be designed, manufactured, and sold by the automobile industry as a possible add on to an electric car. Tesla Motors currently advertises a “powerwall” which is essentially a battery pack attached to the side of a building or household that stores energy produced via photovoltaic cells so that it can be used at anytime of day (teslamotors.com). This device can be purchased with any Tesla vehicle. The same model can be employed for a hydrogen fuel cell generator. An automobile company, such as Tesla Motors, can sell a generator along with one of their electric vehicles with the added benefits of providing electricity and water for the consumer’s household. Its main purpose would be to charge the electric vehicle. Governments may be able to subsidize the sale of these generators just as they do with electric vehicles today. This would not only encourage consumers to move toward electric cars, but it would allow them to have a fully sustainable energy supply.
Where will these actions be taken?
Unlike solar and wind energy, hydrogen fuel cells can operate anywhere as long as there is a supply of hydrogen gas. However, benefits can be maximized where personal private transportation is common, such as in large cities like Los Angeles. Furthermore, considering the fuel cell system will require replacing natural gas appliances with the corresponding electric appliances, cold climates may not be ideal for this system, as most furnaces tend to rely on natural gas. While there are electric furnaces, it is one more appliance consumers will need to replace before adopting the system. Therefore, the system can be employed in any region of the country, but consumers will have to be willing to acquire new electric appliances to maximize the benefits of hydrogen fuel cell technology.
How much will emissions be reduced or sequestered vs. business as usual levels?
Since 27% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the United States can be derived from the transportation sector, the number will begin to approach zero as more people switch to electric cars. However, since much of this electricity is derived from fossil fuels, it is important to institute transportation energy supply reform early. It is difficult to quantify the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions that will occur as a result of this proposal but it is not disputed that providing sustainable energy production for electric cars will be necessary as more of the populace begin to switch to electric vehicles. If there is not change, we are simply switching emissions from the transportation sector into the energy supply sector. This proposal will help provide true sustainable transportation.
What are other key benefits?
The transportation sector accounts for about 27% of all greenhouse gas emission in the United States. As more automobile companies pour money into the development and production of affordable electric cars, it is clear that many consumers will make the switch from conventional gasoline vehicles to cleaner electric cars. By utilizing a hydrogen fuel cell based in a household or building to provide the electricity for electric cars, not only are consumers able to stick with their existing vehicle, but it will also provide energy and water for their household or business. Any residual energy that may be generated can be used to power appliances or even an entire home if the generator is large enough. The waste water can be used for toilets or irrigation of gardens and lawns. The primary purpose of the fuel cell is to charge the electric vehicle without indirectly polluting the environment.
What are the proposal’s costs?
The hesitation from the automobile industry to adopt hydrogen fuel cell technology derives from the fact that isolating hydrogen gas is fairly expensive and requires large amounts energy using current methods. However, research has suggested that it is very possible and practical to generate large quantities of hydrogen using solar energy via cyanobacteria and green algae (sciencedaily.com). While the process is very complex, it is easy to scale and can even allow every consumer to produce their own hydrogen within their own household. Therefore, it may be possible to eliminate the need to send hydrogen gas to each household via pipelines thus minimizing the cost of the proposal. Currently, it costs about $18 an hour to operate a 1 kW fuel cell on hydrogen gas from a cylinder (fuelcellstore.com). While expensive, the concept clearly has room for improvement. Furthermore, the recycling program for the platinum catalyst that this proposal suggests also limits the cost of the fuel cell system, as the majority of the cost in production derives from the rare-earth catalyst. There is also a projected 80% increase in efficiency of platinum as a catalyst from 2008-2017 leading to even lower costs. Furthermore, in ten years, fuel cells are estimated to need 10 grams of platinum, which is retrievable from 3-4 catalytic converters. However, the important of this proposal is not necessarily the costs, but the savings. The initial costs to implement the system will be high, because updating society’s energy supply for the entire transportation sector will never be cheap. The resulting savings that will be generated over decades of use, however, will be even greater. Not only will the environment benefit, but jobs will be created and the cost of driving will diminish.
In the short term, a larger research budget must be employed in both the public and private sectors. Progress concerning the production of hydrogen via bacteria and algae growth must be made before the system can be employed on large scales. However, the proposal can be employed in increments. Hydrogen fuel cell technology exists, and therefore, it can be employed in the near future but efficiency will be limited. Processes need to also be developed to convert the platinum in catalytic converters into a platinum catalyst. It is important to note that each of the proposal's three parts (the fuel cells itself, hydrogen production via algae growth, and recycling platinum from catalytic converter) do not need to be employed at the same time. Using a hydrogen fuel generator can and should be employed in the short term while research developments concerning fuel production and catalysts begin to take form. In the medium term, the proposal should be able to be employed fully in many households across the country. While it may be expensive at first, the price will eventually fall so that most consumers can reap the benefits of hydrogen fuel cell technology. Progress should also be made so that hydrogen production can be produced via algae growth, and old catalytic converters can help supply the platinum catalysts. In the long term, most drivers should be utilizing electric vehicles thus increasing the demand for a clean fuel source. Within 100 years, the technology behind the proposal should be fully developed provided a large enough research budget.
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What initiatives, policies and technologies can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector?