One of the greatest challenges facing renewable energy is making it affordable and cost effective, to the point where it will naturally offset such sources as fossil fuels and coal. And when it comes to hydrogen fuel cells, a recent development may have accomplished just that. Quite surprising when you consider that it came from Alberta, home of the Athabasca Oil Sands and an output of roughly 4 million barrels of crude a day.
It all happened late last month, when researchers at the University of Calgary published a paper in the Journal of Science that they had come up with a much cheaper and easier way to build an electrolyzer. This is the device that uses electricity to break up water into hydrogen and oxygen, which are then used to power hydrogen fuel cells.
For some time now, these fuel cells have been considered the most promising means of powering automobiles with a clean, renewable energy source. By recombining the two basic elements of hydrogen and oxygen, energy is generated and the only waste product is water. The only difficulty is the means of production, as electrolyzers often depend on expensive and sometimes toxic metals.
The most common of current methods involves the use of expensive rare earth metals in precise crystalline arrangements to catalyze, or speed up, the reaction. But with the new process developed by Chris Berlinguette and Simon Trudel comes into play, which involves catalyzers built out of common metals without the need for the crystal structure, the process will not only be vastly simplified but extremely cheaper.
Based on the estimates presented in their paper, Trudel and Berlinguette estimate that their new eletrolyzer will deliver results comparable to current techniques but at a cost of about one-one-thousandth the norm. The implications for clean, renewable energy, such as wind or solar generators, could be enormous. Not only would it be far cheaper and more efficient, there would be far less toxic waste materials produced.
Not only that, but another major stumbling block for clean energy could be overcome. As is the case with just about any type of renewable power source – wind, solar, tidal – is that it is dependent on conditions which limit when power can be generated. But stored hydrogen energy can be used at anytime and could easily replace gas and coal, just as long as the production process is cost-effective.
If you think of a wind turbine producing electricity at two o’clock in the morning, there’s no one around to actually use that electricity, so it just gets dumped. If you could set that up with an electrolyzer, you could convert that electricity into hydrogen, then the next day, when there is demand, you can sell that electricity at a premium during periods of high demand.
In anticipation of the inevitable investment this will attract, Berlinguette and Trudel have already formed a company called FireWater Fuel Corp. to market their work and expect to have a commercially available electrolyzer by next year. So for those of you with money to invest and a socially-responsible, environmental outlook, get out your check books out and be prepared to invest!