How effective is hydrogen as an energy source?

With gasoline prices beginning to skyrocket, and with the new charge to have renewable resources, hydrogen has been seen as a forerunner to replacing gasoline and other fossil fuels.  However, is hydrogen really the future of energy in the United States and the world?  How beneficial would hydrogen implementation be in our society?  Currently, the benefits do not seem to outweigh the costs.


There are two main ways to implement hydrogen energy to power vehicles: either directly into a modified combustion engine, or via fuel cells.  Currently the Hydrogen Car Company is selling “Shelby Cobras” that include a top speed of 140 mph and 0-60 mph in four seconds.  However, there is a downside to the car.  The hydrogen’s tank range is only 80 miles.  Hydrogen tanks are also very expensive to construct.  It costs around four thousand dollars to construct the actual tank and then another thousand dollars to construct a special shutoff valve for the tank.  Also, these cars cost around one hundred thousand dollars to buy.


Another issue is the problem with refueling these expensive, yet eco-friendly, cars.  Currently there are only around a dozen fueling stations in the state of California (where the cobras have been implemented), with the state planning on building another two hundred or so by the end of 2010.  However, a kilogram of hydrogen fuel can cost anywhere from a dollar to forty dollars to buy.1 Storage is also hazardous (as hydrogen gas is explosive), so many places have been limited by their storage facilities.


While some have seen fuel cells as the new revolution in hydrogen energy, recently researchers at the Carnegie Institution have discovered a new way to store hydrogen by reacting it with Xenon.  Xenon has been shown to react with H2 gas under certain pressures creating a solid that exhibits unusual bonding chemistry.  The discovery of this new material could signal a debut in new hydrogen energy technologies, including improvements in fuel cells and storage of hydrogen for use in vehicles.


The researchers subjected the gas to a pressure of nearly 41,000 times that of regular atmospheric pressure!   The lattice structure formed at this pressure was composed of both xenon and hydrogen atoms with hydrogen dominating the structure with some layers of xenon interspersed.  Differing pressures changed the spacing of the atoms in the solid.  To verify these solids, researchers used X-Ray diffraction, Infrared, and Raman spectroscopy, which are specific techniques used to classify crystalline compounds.2

Snapshot 2009-11-25 14-21-53

Figure 1: Xenon/Hydrogen crystalline structure.

However, what is interesting about the specific compound formed via this process is the relative stability of it.  Xenon, which has several uses including in anesthetics, in preserving biological tissues, and in lighting, is usually very unreactive.  Hydrogen gas, however, is explosive and very reactive.  However, the elements seem to have a weird effect that helps stabilize each other when combined at very high pressures.  The new solid represents a significant advancement in the storage of hydrogen in hydrogen rich solids, with the possibility of using these solids in fuel cells.  As one researcher put it “This hydrogen-rich solid represents a new pathway to forming novel hydrogen storage compounds and the new pressure-induced chemistry opens the possibility of synthesizing new energetic materials.”2


Even with this new advancement in hydrogen storage, it seems highly unlikely that any form of hydrogen energy will be seen in the near future.  While being “Green” and “Enviro-friendly” are certainly great benefits to hydrogen energy, the financial burden on people wanting to buy these cars is astronomical.  Even if hydrogen energy peaked someone’s interest in buying a hydrogen car, refueling it for use seems to be an impossibility at the current time.  However, with the new advances in hydrogen storage and increases in energy obtained from hydrogen, hydrogen fuel could be the next great advancement finding a replacement for fossil fuels.



~ by ianboyd2010 on November 25, 2009.

2 Responses to “How effective is hydrogen as an energy source?”

  1. I heard platinum is required to produce the catalyst in a hydrogen fuel cell. The problem is that it is terribly expensive to mine and produce because only about 3 countries do this, including South Africa. Recently however, research has lead to the discovery of Iron based catalysts that might make this process cheaper, more efficient, and make the hydrogen combustion engine more feasible, even in underdeveloped nations. Are you aware of any such research news? What do you think about it?

  2. I’m still a little confused as to how the xenon solid system would work: even if it is forced into a solid, wouldn’t it start to sublimate as soon as the pressure is released? While this may be handy for getting the hydrogen to an engine, I foresee it as a problem if pressure were to suddenly decreased (as in the event of a crash). There may still be a possibility for explosions. Also, how does one separate xenon and hydrogen gas in a fuel system? I would imagine that if the xenon were to escape with the reaction, fuel would become (even more) prohibitively expensive

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