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Stylized Text: Hydrogen Basics - Q&A.

Q:  Why does the nation and the world want to use hydrogen?

A:  The era of a fossil-fuel based economy is coming to an end.  A number of the world’s foremost geologists believe the peak in world oil production will occur within the next 10 years.  In fact, whether or not the oil peak occurs in 10 years or in 40 years makes little difference since once it happens, oil demand will quickly outstrip supply and prices will rapidly go up .  Hydrogen has the greatest promise to be the replacement for fossil fuels.  This is called the future hydrogen economy.

Q:  Why hydrogen rather than another element?

A:  For one thing, hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe and one of the most abundant here on Earth.  In addition, it’s not controlled by a single geographical region or political perspective.  And, to top it off, it doesn't pollute – it burns cleanly and produces no greenhouse gasses.

Q:  What are the major technological challenges to a hydrogen economy?

A:  The transition to a hydrogen economy will require solution of several technologically challenging problems in the areas of production, storage, utilization, and infrastructure.  The key challenges of these areas are production of hydrogen from renewable resources, development of a viable storage medium for vehicular use, reducing the cost of fuel cells, and development of an appropriate infrastructure for distribution of hydrogen to the nation’s more than 160,000 filling stations.

Q:  Why did NASA decide to use molecular hydrogen, H2, as the fuel of choice for space vehicles?

A:  The amount of energy produced by hydrogen, per unit weight of fuel, is about three times the energy contained in an equal weight of gasoline and nearly seven times that of coal.  In launching space vehicles, NASA was just as concerned about the weight of vehicles fighting Earth’s gravity as it was about power during and after launch.

Q:  If the concern is weight and power, why not use lightweight hydrogen to fuel our cars since their energy efficiency involves the same issues?

A:  Remember that the entire worldwide automotive industry is set up to run on oil-based fuels.  It takes years of research, demonstration and application to change an industry that accounts for approximately 20 percent of the nation’s economy. In addition, the technical challenges mentioned above must be solved.

Q:  What makes hydrogen more powerful than gasoline?

A:  The simplicity of hydrogen (two hydrogen atoms held together in a single H-H bond) makes for very fast rates of energy release, or rapid kinetics.  Compare this to octane, a primary constituent of gasoline, which has 25 chemical bonds per molecule (7 carbon-carbon and 18 carbon-hydrogen bonds).  This not only bodes well for hydrogen’s use in conventional combustion, but it also opens its use in high-efficiency electrochemical energy transformers, such as fuel cells.  The electrochemical option is estimated to offer more than twice the fuel economy of an internal combustion engine-based power train while producing no polluting emissions.

Q:  So where do we get hydrogen?

A:  Unfortunately, you can’t just drill a hole in the ground and watch hydrogen gush to the surface.  On earth, hydrogen almost always exists in combined form, primarily as a constituent of water, biomass (harvested vegetation), fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, and oil), and some inorganics such as ammonia and hydrogen sulfide.

Q:  OK.  How do you separate the hydrogen from the rest of this stuff?

A:  We can separate hydrogen from what we call its “feedstock” in a variety of ways, but each separation method requires energy and costs that must be factored into the overall hydrogen equation.  There are only three feedstocks available to use – fossil, renewables, and nuclear.  The energy requirement for separation can vary considerably, depending on which feedstock is chosen and which separation technology is used.  Cost will be a deciding factor.

Q:  What is FSEC doing to solve these problems?

A:  Hydrogen Research at FSEC is the Center's most active program area with projects involving hydrogen production, storage, and fuel cells/utilization. FSEC is one of the leading hydrogen research centers in the world and home to a highly competent research faculty and staff and modern laboratory facilities for conducting advanced research on hydrogen technologies and fuel cells. FSEC's hydrogen R&D has involved numerous projects supported by the U.S. Department of Energy , the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and industry/ and other organizations.