It’s no secret that most of our fuel sources aren’t great for the environment. Researchers have been trying to develop cleaner alternatives for years as the climate change crisis continues to worsen. One of the most promising developments in green fuel alternatives is the hydrogen cell.
Hydrogen cells, also called fuel cells, generate energy through a chemical reaction from combining hydrogen and oxygen. There’s no combustion involved and no carbon emissions, making it far more sustainable than fossil fuels. Inefficiencies and expenses have kept them from catching on, but scientists are working to change that.
Previous Hydrogen Cells
You’ve more than likely already seen hydrogen fuel cells in action. Hydrogen-powered buses have been on the roads for some time now in larger cities. NASA uses fuel cells to generate electricity onboard space shuttles.
Both of these examples come from government-funded projects, and there’s a reason for that. Traditional fuel cells are expensive, so they’re not ideal for commercial applications. While you can find hydrogen-powered products on the market, they’re usually not very affordable.
These cells can keep producing clean energy indefinitely as long as they have a hydrogen supply. Hydrogen doesn’t appear by itself in nature, though, so scientists have to extract it from chemical compounds. In the U.S., 95% of hydrogen production comes from burning natural gas, which is not a long-term green solution.
Pursuing the Artificial Leaf
Scientists have been trying to create an “artificial leaf” to provide a cleaner way of producing hydrogen energy. Plants draw power sustainably from the sun and water, which inspires this concept. Thanks to a breakthrough from researchers at Rice University, this may no longer be just a theory.
Rice University scientists created a solar-powered device that can draw hydrogen from water. This artificial leaf design has an impressive 6.7% sunlight-to-hydrogen efficiency rate. It’s also entirely self-sustaining as long as it has sunlight and water.
Water covers 71% of the Earth’s surface, so it’s far more abundant than other hydrogen sources. Since the Rice University design is also solar-powered, it doesn’t require fossil fuels at any point in the process. It takes an already-sustainable concept and makes it even more eco-friendly.
Cost and Energy Efficiency
This isn’t the first artificial leaf ever made, but it stands out in a couple of areas. Earlier attempts didn’t generate enough hydrogen at once to be effective in real-world applications. Like lots of other hydrogen cell technology, they were also too expensive for general use.
Rice’s design is more affordable because it uses different materials. Most hydrogen cells use precious metals like platinum, which drives up their cost quite a bit. The Rice University research project took a different approach to building the cell so they could use cheaper carbon materials.
The new design keeps hydrogen cells efficient without a hefty price tag. This combination of affordability and efficiency may be just what the technology needs to make it in the mainstream. As research continues, these devices will only improve further, making them an even more viable alternative to fossil fuels.
A Sustainable Future Is Closer Than Ever
These developments in hydrogen fuel cells don’t mean that hydrogen-powered products will take over the market tomorrow. The technology is still in its early stages, and these things take time to move from development into widespread usage. Still, this is a landmark for hydrogen cell technology.
Not that long ago, renewable power sources were either inefficient or prohibitively expensive. In a relatively short time, sustainable tech like hydrogen fuel cells has become exponentially more practical and accessible. With developments like this, it seems that a future of green living is closer than ever before.