A hydrogen vision has been endorsed by numerous world leaders and decision makers in both public and private sectors and hailed as the key to a clean energy future. In 2003, United States president Bush and European Union president Prodi both embraced the vision of hydrogen economy. The vision calls for transforming the global transportation energy economy from one dependent on oil to that based on sustainable hydrogen. The rationale for this change is that hydrocarbon based automobiles are a significant source of air pollution while hydrogen powered fuel cell vehicles produce effectively zero emissions, i.e. no criteria pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions. In the U.S., the 2001 greenhouse gas emissions from transportation sector alone were more than 500 million metric tons of carbon equivalent. Furthermore, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), in 2002, two-third of all carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel combustion were generated by the transportation and energy production sectors. Besides transportation area, fuel cells can also reduce emissions in other applications such as the residential or commercial distributed electricity generation.
To make hydrogen vision a reality, U.S. government has launched the Hydrogen Fuel Initiative aimed at developing the technologies needed to make hydrogen-powered fuel cells commercially viable by 2020. In the U.S., these actions have been supported by the automakers whose ambition is to minimize (if not eliminate) the environmental footprint of vehicle use altogether. To do that, auto industry intends to come up with a power train for vehicles that generates no air emissions utilizing battery and/or fuel cell driven electric propulsion. Automakers prefer electric power train in automobiles because electric motors generate higher torque and power output than that delivered by the internal combustion engines. Despite that, power train electrification has so far eluded automakers mostly due to the difficulties of storing and/or generating sufficient quantities of onboard electricity. After many years of research and development, the battery technology is still unable to deliver high enough energy density to allow a reasonable vehicle range before recharging. Therefore, automobiles remain as one of the last application areas still immune to electrification. Many believe that hydrogen fuel cells have the potential to overcome the limitations of battery power and allow electrification of automobiles. Application of fuel cells in transportation is the key to realizing hydrogen economy and its environmental benefits to the society.
This text was originally published in IEEE Power & Energy, Vol. 2, No. 6, Nov-Dec, 2004 pages 40-41 "Hydrogen: Automotive Fuel of the Future" by FSEC's Ali T-Raissi and David Block