Hydrogen Economy

 

As the world’s fossil fuels are continuously depleted with increasing use we run the risk of facing a shortage soon enough in the future.  Alternatives are a must as we already face the heat here in India with capping of LPG cylinders. One of the biggest consumers of fossil fuels are petroleum-based vehicles. Whether it is a diesel car or a petrol car or a CNG vehicle it doesn’t really matter. They all use fossil fuels which are bound to run out one day or the other. We need to continuously improve current efficiencies of transportation vehicles while still improving on alternative energy sources. One of the biggest solutions to alternative energy solutions are using hydrogen instead of carbon based fuel as an energy source.

 

Hydrogen as a fuel has a lot of potential to be used as energy because it not only releases a large amount of energy when burnt but it also prevents the release of toxic fumes as pollutants.

Let’s do a little bit of math shall we?

I promise it won’t be too large.

 

 

Bond energies of hydrogen

 

The bond energy of the hydrogen bond is 103 kcal/mole. And the bond energy of the hydrogen oxygen bond is 110 kcal/mole. Also the oxygen molecule has 116 kcal/mole of energy.

Therefore the energy released on formation of the water molecule requires breaking one oxygen molecule and two hydrogen molecules first.

 

That would mean the energy required = 2 x 103 + 116 = 322 kcal/mole

 

But when water is formed the energy released is = 4 x 110 = 440 kcal/mole

 

Hence the net energy gain = 440 – 322 = 118 kcal/mole

 

And this simple math shows the huge amount of energy which is gained on burning hydrogen as a fuel. If a human being were to be powered up by a hydrogen engine he would run 52 miles on just 1 litre! Hydrogen based cars can theoretically provide mileage as good as 93 miles per gallon which is still much better than gasoline based cars providing 35 miles per gallon.

 

Yes and that’s exactly why hydrogen is a potential energy alternative.

Elements of the hydrogen economy

 

This picture shows exactly what the components of the hydrogen economy consist of.I won’t talk about all the boring points in detail but only some of the parts which are really interesting.

 

Production and delivery

Hydrogen has a huge source in the form of our vast oceans and seas which provide an ample source of hydrogen. The problem is converting the water to hydrogen which requires energy in the first place.

 

Well right now they use natural gas and other petroleum products as well as biogas to produce hydrogen. Yes production is actually the biggest hurdle to the hydrogen economy. Hydrogen requires huge amounts of energy to be produced.(It only makes sense since it produces a huge amount of energy on combustion as well.) People are actively working on getting hydrogen to be obtained from a safe source. There are many technologies like aluminium based production (still waiting to be patented) for effective hydrogen production.

And yes there are several hoaxes doing the rounds around the internet which claim to have made super efficient methods to obtain hydrogen from water and hence make cars that run miles on just plain water!!! Well NASA itself has yet to make such a breakthrough but of course there is no giving up hope as people are still trying.

 

Although I am optimistic that this  can be effectively taken care of using solar , wind , hydel power and various other renewable energy sources(like i told you before the future depends on all energy renewables working together) Then the hydrogen can be transported using storage tanks to fuel stations where the vehicles can refill their tanks!

And no I am not talking about science fiction. This is reality as industries work to implement these systems into the current economy.

 

Fuel cells

This is the talk of the town when it comes to hydrogen based economy. Fuel cells use a continuous supply of hydrogen to be directly converted to energy using a chemical reaction. This means efficiencies are quite high when using a fuel cell to power up a vehicle as compared to using internal combustion engines to power up a car.

There is huge money in the R&D for fuel cells in the automobile sector.There have been lots of hydrogen based fuel cells which are running commercially as well. Although there has been electric vehicles which have been shown to have much higher efficiencies they lack the power or speed pick up of fuel cell based cars and car maniacs out there swear by top speeds and revving pick up.

Storage

Now this is a real tricky issue hydrogen is the lightest of all elements out there and it is easily the least dense of all gases. In fact 1 gram of hydrogen would occupy as much as 22.4 litres! that too at 0 degrees celsius. Not too good when considering that we would need more than that to provide decent mileage to the vehicles. Well scientists have been looking for ways to combat this dilemma.

 

One of the ways include in-situ production of hydrogen.

It means the hydrogen would not be carried directly as a fuel. Instead hydrogen containing compounds would be used to generate the hydrogen at the time of running the car. However this method reduces efficiency significantly and renders the use of the vehicle as useless!

 

Another one of the methods include storage of hydrogen in a really efficient way

This means nanotechnology again! Yes the use of carbon nanotubes to store hydrogen has been deemed a potentially powerful method to store huge quantities of hydrogen in the vehicles. That however is a costly method and current research includes making hydrogen storage even cheaper.

 

 

Safety?

Now this is a bit of a tricky issue because hydrogen is even more susceptible to combustion than petroleum. Although that also means that fires breaking out won’t produce toxic fumes but then again they will bring out a bigger bang if they accidentally catch fire. Also current hydrogen storage techniques are not exactly 100% leak proof which means the dangers of accidents are higher! However this can be offset by using standards and protocols to enhance the safety factor of using hydrogen.

 

So what’s the real problem in implementation of hydrogen as a potential energy source?

Well this again lies in costs. Changing equipment and technology that has been built on petroleum will cost huge amounts and also current petroleum-based vehicles and fuel rates are cheaper than those of hydrogen based ones. Of course this should rapidly change in the very close future. In fact there are many companies already that provide hydrogen cars and hydrogen refuelling outlets.


Yes these are real hydrogen cars in the market out there.

 

Ocean Energy

Ocean energy
Now renewable energy sources come in various forms and make great pollution alternatives to coal and other exhaustive resources. Now scientists have been looking for all sorts of alternatives and creativity is often more valued than analytical solutions. Our great oceans store vast amounts of energy in the form of heat(anyone remember that water has the highest specific heat capacity?) mechanical (think thousands of gallons of moving water and the momentum it possesses!) as well as chemical energy (water has a lot of energy in those bonds between hydrogen and oxygen).

Some forms of utilizing tidal energy

1) Wave energy

Here the moving energy of waves is utilized. As can be seen from the figure the moving energy of the waves forces air out of the turbine when it is moving up and forcing air into the turbine when it is moving down. Hence this movement of air can be used to turn turbines . It creates a small source of power but nevertheless it is used in coastal areas for powering small lighthouses and other small electrical equipment.
Sometimes the motion of the wave itself can be used to power a piston to move up and down which in turn can turn a generator.

2)Tidal Energy
Tidal energy is the real current practical source of energy. It uses the tides to store water during high tide and then during low tide the water is released just like a hydroelectric power dam. It’s really simple but the problem is that the tides need to rise really high in order to make it work effectively.
However India’s own coastal lines are quite suitable for this sort of energy and some our IITs are working on making tidal energy a viable source of energy to provide the coastal needs of power.

3) Ocean thermal energy

There is a vast difference in the temperatures of the surface of the ocean and the bottom of the ocean. This temperature difference itself can be used to produce electricity.
Now normally one would assume this electricity produced to be of very poor voltage.(In the seebeck effect about 500 degrees celsius produces about 500 mV).
Hence it has not gained much popularity as an alternative energy source.

New research
Now don’t be so quick to cutting out Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion(OTEC). Ocean thermal energy can be used to generate electricity in new ways it seems again thanks to the potential boundless limits of nanotechnology. It seems scientists have found new ways to harness the heat to generate electricity.

Over time if this new technology could be developed to harness the temperature difference between the surface of the ocean and it’s bottom there could be potentially boundless limits since it could also use the temperatures found in factories, automobiles, deserts(think of deserts as giant energy batteries or so that’s what i think.)
Another interesting phenomenon about tidal energy is that it is not a solar based energy source(most of our energy sources are solar based directly or indirectly) but it is actually based on the lunar force of attraction. So it seems that using the moon as a potential energy source is by itself quite an innovative idea…don’t you think?

Solar Energy And The Optimistic Approach

So we have been talking about all the various problems of solar energy. And I am sorry to start it off with such a negative note but I did it because I wanted to end it on a positive note.
Yes , that’s right, solar energy holds a lot of potential And it “IS DEFINITELY” the future of our energy needs.

So why is everyone so optimistic on solar energy?
It’s simple. Because ever since life began on earth nature has always depended on solar energy for it’s continuous energy needs and evolution. Even the fossil fuels we use are indirect products of solar energy. The solar energy provided the animals and plants with energy as we know by photosynthesis and the food chain. These plants and animals died and their remains were buried under pressure and heat to form coal and petroleum as we know today.

So it’s obvious that solar energy should be our natural choice to be looking for. In fact Thomas Edison said that solar energy was the most natural as well as the most abundant source of energy available for us. Hence it is imperative that we try to find ways to harness it as much as possible.
So what’s the solution?
Simple!
Never give up!

That’s right scientists are striving today to make solar energy as much viable as possible and I have good news for you!!! Solar energy has made quantum leaps and it is proving to be a boon for many cities with abundant sunlight. Even during the night!

Here are some of the problems which are being tackled about solar energy.

Efficiency
The biggest drawback to efficiency is costs . Well scientists have been working on just those lines and they really have managed to increases efficiency and reduce costs as well. Yes they have developed new techniques and methods to greatly enhance consumer level use. It won’t be long before you will see everyone changing their power supplies just like how everyone is going digital from cable TV.

How?

1) Quantum dots
The solar PV cells are made even more tiny so that a greater surface area is exposed to the solar radiation resulting in good efficiencies.Nanotechnology holds huge promise in energy harnessing storage, as well as other industrial needs and the energy companies are no exception. And the best part is there has been steady progress in using quantum dot PV cells.
Quantum dot solar cells could offer a cheaper, more efficient alternative to conventional ...

2) Splitting the solar spectrum
Solar PV cells use only a part of the solar spectrum to produce usable energy. The remaining part is lost as heat. This heat can actually reduce the efficiency of the system. Now given how summers can be blazing hot in India especially. We wouldn’t want a power supply that runs on solar power and yet gets fried with excess heat.

Now this is where material scientists(the broader group under which falls the nanotechnology scientists) play their part in making the cells more heat resistant and usable under heat. A new technology uses a material such that it emits only those wavelengths which are harnessed by the cells to produce energy.

Some people have even used the simple fibre optics which was originally used in communications. But since it characterises no loss transmission it is also a pioneer in using correct frequencies.
optical fiber solar cell
3)Concentration cells
Concentration cells uses parabolic reflectors to focus the sunlight onto a small area of the PV cells which is found to increase efficiencies amazingly. Photoelectric emissions which requires greater frequency to produce electrons of good kinetic energy, while  photoelectricity requires greater intensity of sunlight to produce more electricity.

Hence we have a reduction in costs with materials used and we get more usable energy from the same amount of solar radiation. So it’s a pretty neat technique.

But what about the production of energy during the night and what about cloudy and rainy seasons?
Again I have good news as researchers have found more and more efficient ways to store solar energy during the night time as well. A new method that they have developed is using lots of reflectors to focus the radiation onto a tower. That tower contains a form of salt and the solar heat melts that salt to a molten state. This molten state dissipates heat very slowly and it is kept in as much thermal insulation as possible. During the night the heat from this molten salt is used to power up homes during the night!! In fact it can well last for 8 to 10 hours for commercial needs of a locality. Not bad for a salt based system!

As for the seasonal changes that’s where the limitations come in. But researchers are still working on high altitude solar panels and increased efficiency panels. In fact here again fibre optics plays an optimistic role in transferring energy from high altitudes. However it won’t be enough for commercial energy needs and this is where the other renewable sources come to play like hydel energy, wind energy.

In fact if you think about it carefully summer is the time when there is no wind or rain and solar panels would rule. But the other seasons are sufficiently more windy and rainy which means that wind and hydel power would be a boost. So the various renewable energy sources complement each other.

After reading about so many new revolutionary inventions and techniques the world doesn’t seem so bleak due to the global warming catastrophe anymore does it? However that does not give us reason to continue our wasteful ways. We must continue working on sustainable development so that our future generations continue to reap the benefits of nature and keep the human race moving forward.