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Alternative Energy Center of Research Excellence

Hydrogen releases three times more energy per pound than burning a pound of gasoline or natural gas, and six times more energy than burning a pound of coal.

It is widely recognized that fossil fuels as energy sources are becoming a liability worldwide, from the environmental degradation associated with their extraction, processing and use, to the geopolitical and security implications of their production and distribution.  Many are looking to alternative energy sources - hydrogen, solar power, wind & wave energy – already in use to power rockets and for non-energy applications in the semiconductor, metallurgical, chemical, pharmaceutical, fertilizer, recreational and food industries – as options for replacing oil (including gasoline, diesel and heating oil), coal and natural gas in the energy picture of the future. In the nearest future production of electricity from hydrogen for peak demand will be cost- effective. Currently price for the peak kW-h is two or three times higher than for the base price. (Last year during the energy crisis in California a market price for peak kWh was 10 times higher that base one, about one dollar for kW-h.) . Like natural gas, hydrogen can be economically stored in large quantities. Current gas turbine or diesel peaking plant cost at least $300 for kilowatt installed, whereas a fuel cell cost less than $100.

Renewables-based hydrogen could compete head-to-head with gasoline in terms of fuel cost per mile driven because electric propulsion systems are up to three times more efficient than internal combustion engine systems.

Hydrogen is attractive for a number of reasons.  Hydrogen gas has no odor, color or taste, and it is non-toxic both to touch and breathe.  It is the simplest (one proton and one electron) and most abundant chemical element of the universe – found in water and the atmosphere that we breathe each day – so it is neither “exotic” nor rare.  Unlike fossil fuels (hydrocarbons), hydrogen gas emits nothing but heat and water when it is burned, so it emits no pollutants.  Because it is so light, it dissipates quickly if leaked from a container.  It has the highest energy content per unit of weight of any known fuel, making it theoretically more efficient than gasoline, oil and natural gas.  And as a renewable resource, hydrogen won’t “run out.”  Current methods for producing hydrogen are expensive.

Hydrogen and fuel cells have the potential to solve several major challenges facing America today: dependence on petroleum imports, poor air quality, and greenhouse gas emissions. The market for zero-emission generated hydrogen is as large as the oil and gas market itself. Hydrogen when burned, does not create green house gases which contribute to global warming and other health related issues. Hydrogen when burned, only produces water. Several states are adopting zero-emission standards for vehicles. Los Angeles for example has the highest number of electric cars in the world, and the emission standards still can not be met. The problem is that the power stations are consuming more fossil fuels than ever to recharge the batteries of these electric vehicles. The problem has moved from the vehicle to the power station.

Deployment of renewables in the transportation sector makes sense for the environment. Road vehicles emit significant air-borne pollution, including 18% of America’s suspended particulates, 27% of volatile organic compounds, 28% of lead, 32% of nitrogen oxides, 37% of formaldehyde, 45% of benzene, and 62% of carbon monoxide. Vehicles also release 25% of America’s energy-related carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas. These figures will rise as Americans travel ever more vehicle-miles. World pollution levels will grow even faster as millions of people gain access to public and personal transportation.


Only in the last few years has hydrogen begun to be taken seriously as a transportation fuel. Much recent activity in the field has focused on fuel cell applications in buses. In 1993, Ballard Power Systems, based 14 in Vancouver, Canada produced the world’s first fuel cell bus. Chicago and Vancouver have each purchased three second generation fuel cell buses from Ballard for delivery in 1997. In the early 1990s, DOE sponsored a program to build three fuel cell buses, now undergoing tests in the District of Columbia, Illinois, and California. In 1996, the U.S. Department of Transportation assumed leadership over the second phase of this project. Two more fuel cell buses will be built over the next few years. Fuel cell bus projects are also underway in Italy, Belgium, and Germany.


Company officials have publicly stated Mercedes’ belief that hydrogen will be the technology most likely to supplant internal combustion engines in automobiles.


The first modern-day fuel cell concept automobile, the Green Car, was unveiled by Energy Partners, Inc., in Florida in 1991. Most major automotive manufacturers worldwide now have fuel cell development projects and a few have unveiled prototype vehicles. In May 1996, Mercedes showcased its second fuel cell vehicle, a six-passenger van called the NECAR II, at a widely publicized press event in Berlin. (The NECAR I was tested in 1994.) Company officials have publicly stated Mercedes’ belief that fuel cells will be the technology most likely to supplant internal combustion engines in automobiles. In October 1996, Toyota unveiled its first fuel cell demonstration vehicle at a conference in Osaka, Japan. In January 1997, Chrysler exhibited a fuel cell vehicle design at a Detroit auto show.