Betting on the most abundant fuel in the universe

RoulletteRecently, two major auto manufacturer alliances publicly announced their gamble on hydrogen fuel-cell technology as a future, viable transportation fuel. Toyota and BMW’s plan to jointly develop fuel-cell and car battery technology was almost immediately followed by a similar announcement from Ford, Nissan and Daimler. Add Hyundai and Kia’s plan to offer a fuel-cell powered car for sale in 2015 and it seems like most of the major players are making big bets on this still-developing technology.

Hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles work by passing hydrogen molecules through an air chamber where it interacts with the oxygen that is naturally in our atmosphere. The oxygen and the hydrogen react with each other, producing electricity and water. This electricity is then used to power the car through the use of an electric motor. Therefore, the tail-pipe emissions consist of only water and some heat; no greenhouse gasses or toxins that are found in gasoline.

Fuel CellEssentially, the fuel that would power a fuel-cell car is hydrogen – the most abundant element in the universe – it’s the element that “fuels” the sun and all other stars. Of course, the hydrogen has to be drawn from somewhere (unfortunately, it’s not available in its pure form just anywhere on Earth). Usually, it’s drawn from fossil-fuel sources, methane and natural gas, meaning that while there are no tail-pipe emissions, hydrogen production may still result in carbon emissions (although these emissions may be less than carbon emissions from oil). The upshot about the production process is that currently, methane is largely wasted as a byproduct of oil and natural gas drilling through a process called flaring. Therefore, if there is enough hydrogen fuel-cell demand, instead of flaring excess methane, wasting energy, we can harness that wasted source to power our cars.

Why is all this so important? Wider adoption of this technology can add another fuel source, along with methanol, ethanol, natural gas and other electric vehicles, to the mix of readily available replacement fuels that can end our dependency on oil for transportation. Also, because there are various ways to produce the hydrogen needed for fuel cells, it may be less likely that one source of energy would monopolize this technology as oil has monopolized gasoline production. Like other replacement fuels, hydrogen can be produced domestically, eliminating the need to import oil.

More choice leads to more competition, which is the essence of free markets. This would prevent the unreasonably expensive fuel prices that we are all currently paying at the pump. The automaker’s gamble on this still nascent technology may just pay dividends for us all.