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  • 2016-10-07 16:05:21
  • Article ID: 662443

Six Things You Might Not Know About Hydrogen

  • Credit: science photo/Shutterstock

    Hydrogen fuel cells, like the one shown above, could provide many advantages and pathways for cleaner energy use.

October 8th is National Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Day. To celebrate, here are a few things you might not know about hydrogen and fuel cells.

Why is National Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Day celebrated on October 8th?

The day is celebrated on October 8 (10/08) because the atomic weight of hydrogen is 1.008 atomic mass units.

Why should I care about hydrogen? What is it good for?

Hydrogen is an important chemical for many industrial processes, most notably in the production of ammonia, which is used to make the fertilizer used to grow food, and in petroleum refining, where hydrogen is used to produce gasoline. Other uses include metal refining and the semiconductor industry, where it is used to make computer chips in phones and tablets.

Hydrogen can also be used as a fuel to power cars and heat buildings. The most important benefit of using hydrogen as a fuel is that when you burn it, the byproduct is just water. Hydrogen can also be used as a way to store energy, and this use has the potential to have a large impact on our future. Hydrogen can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, integrate renewable energy into the grid and reduce the use of petroleum and other fossil fuels.

What is a fuel cell and how does it work?

A fuel cell is a device, similar to a battery, that converts the energy stored in chemical bonds to electrical energy. Fuel cells are more efficient than traditional combustion methods to convert fuel into electrical energy.Unlike a battery, a fuel cell isn't recharged, but is rather supplied with a flow of fuel (like hydrogen) that it reacts with an oxidant (like air or pure oxygen), which is then converted to electrical energy.

It's cleaner, too. When hydrogen is the fuel, the only byproduct is water — unlike our common combustion engines, which can create harmful byproducts like nitrogen oxides.

What are fuel cells used for?

Fuel cells can be used almost anywhere that there is a need for electrical power. They are more efficient than combustion engines and have higher reliability and lower emissions. In cars, fuel cells can provide faster refueling and longer ranges than current generations of batteries.

Over 60,000 fuel cells were shipped worldwide in 2015. Fuel cells are being used to provide backup power to telecommunications centers and cell phone towers, where their higher reliability and lower maintenance more than makes up for the higher initial equipment cost.

Hydrogen fuel cells can also replace natural gas in combined heat and power plants, which are used to generate usable heat and power simultaneously as decentralized generation. Fuel cell systems can convert up to 90 percent of the energy in the fuel (natural gas or hydrogen) into electrical power and useful heat. There are currently thousands of small units providing electrical power and hot water to homes in Japan, as well as in hospitals, hotels and at companies with a large demand for hot water or steam. Fuel cells are also being used at electric utilities to provide clean, reliable power to the grid.

In transportation, fuel cells offer the potential for efficient electric vehicles with the same range and refueling times customers have become accustomed to, while limiting the tailpipe emissions to only water. They are already being used in bicycles, cars, buses, trucks and even trains and planes. In California, there are now over 700 hydrogen fuel cell cars on the road and over 20 retail hydrogen fueling stations, with another 20 in development. Fuel cell cars can travel long distances before needing to be refueled (250-350 miles), and can be refueled in approximately the same time it takes to refuel your current gasoline-powered vehicle (three to five minutes).

What's holding fuel cells back, and what's being done to get more fuel cells out there?

While hydrogen and fuel cells are competitive in some applications, and some fuel cell vehicles are on the road, costs are still too high to be widely accepted in the market. Fuel cells have to get cheaper, while still achieving the durability and performance that people are accustomed to. Researchers have identified several key areas for cost reduction, including hydrogen storage and delivery and fuel cell materials costs.

Current commercial fuel cells use platinum, a rare and expensive metal, as the catalyst. Researchers are working on new catalysts that use less of this expensive metal, or that don't need platinum at all.

Lastly, for the adoption of fuel cell-powered cars, the number of hydrogen refueling stations must increase and they must be distributed across the country.

What research is Argonne doing on hydrogen and fuel cells?

Four different divisions at the lab conduct research in hydrogen and fuel cells, ranging from studies of the environmental impacts of fuel cell vehicles to developing new catalysts. Argonne is a partner in two new U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) consortia aimed at reducing cost and improving the performance and durability of fuel cells to extend their adoption in the marketplace. Argonne researchers lead efforts in modeling and validation and in studies of fuel cell electrode layers for DOE's Fuel Cell Consortium for Performance and Durability. These studies focus on determining the relationships between structure, composition and performance in the electrode layer of fuel cells to optimize the performance and durability of polymer electrolyte membrane fuel cells, the most commonly used commercial fuel cell.

Argonne and Los Alamos National Laboratory co-lead a second DOE fuel-cell-focused consortium, ElectroCat, that is accelerating the development of fuel cell catalysts that do not use expensive platinum-group metals. ElectroCat focuses on generating, analyzing, and evaluating catalyst candidates in a high-throughput laboratory.

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation's first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America's scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science.

The U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit the Office of Science website.

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