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Researchers Look for Ways to Bring Hydrogen Technology Home

You probably won’t be able to drive down the highway in your own non-polluting vehicle that runs on hydrogen power any time soon. And don’t start making plans to power your whole house with expensive hydrogen-based technology in the coming years. But, some day in the not-too-distant future, you might own a cell phone equipped with a hydrogen-powered fuel cell instead of a battery.

The cell phone would come with an insert-ready hydrogen pack and a small solar array for charging.

“We need to be realistic about what we can and can’t do with hydrogen right now,” says Dr. Scott Grasman, associate professor of engineering management at Missouri University of Science and Technology. “In addition to some of the more Buck Rogers things that might happen in the future, we need to study some of the things we can do in the short term.”

Grasman is one of the lead researchers working on a Missouri S&T study called “Hydrogen Fuel Cell Analysis: Lessons Learned from Stationary Power Generation” for the U.S. Department of Energy.

The technology necessary to produce hydrogen-powered vehicles that only emit water does exist, but those kinds of vehicles are not feasible for every-day drivers right now, according to Grasman. The main drawback is cost. Grasman says vehicles that run totally on hydrogen fuel cell technology currently cost anywhere from $50,000 to $1 million.

Things that are more economically feasible? Grasman says his group is looking at ways to use hydrogen to energize back-up power generators, forklifts, various types of military equipment and consumer electronic items, including cell phones.

Grasman has also played around with the idea of using hydrogen fuel cell technology in toys. In fact, he’s got a small hydrogen car and a toy hydrogen rocket in his office. He says these kinds of items will help the public understand how hydrogen technology works.

Here’s how it works at a basic level: An energy source, preferably wind or solar power, is used to send an electrical current through a substance that contains hydrogen. In water, the electrical current causes hydrogen and oxygen to separate. Compressed hydrogen is used to power a fuel cell, which is essentially a very expensive battery. The fuel cell is then able to continuously produce electricity that is stored by hydrogen in a system that discharges only pure water.

The main benefits, aside from the fact that the energy is pollution-free, are that hydrogen is an excellent source for storing electricity and that the fuel cells will last more-or-less forever, or at least a very long time. For these reasons, scientists continue to be very intrigued by the future possibilities of hydrogen, which is, after all, the most abundant element in the universe.

Next year, Grasman and his colleagues will present their findings about feasible ways to utilize what we know about hydrogen at a National Hydrogen Association Conference on strategies to bring the technology to the marketplace.

Other Missouri S&T researchers working on the DOE project include: Dr. Fathi Dogan, professor of materials science and engineering; Dr. Umit Koylu, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering; Dr. K.B. Lee, professor of chemical engineering; and Dr. John Sheffield, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering.

Lance Feyh | Newswise Science News
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