Batteries vs. Fuel Cells

Monday, May 18, 2009

Posted by Sean Maslow | 0 Comments | Next | Bookmark and Share | rss feed

The fact is, fuel cell cars are electric cars. They are driven using electric motors, only the batteries are replaced with fuel cells. Fuel cells turn substances like hydrogen or methane into electricity. Technically it's complicated and that's where the trouble begins. Battery powered electric cars are superior to fuel cells because fuel cells are extremely complex and highly inefficient.

Let's talk hydrogen fuel cells for a minute. On the surface these seem like a fantastic idea. Hydrogen holds a lot of energy in a compact, lightweight volume. You can theoretically go a long way on a little hydrogen. Yet there aren't bottomless springs on earth that bubble up liquid hydrogen for us to bottle and use in fuel cell vehicles. It takes a lot of energy to get hydrogen into a usable form for transportation. A fairly good way to make hydrogen is by breaking up natural gas. Ah, natural gas is not a renewable resource, and converting it to hydrogen produces greenhouse gases. Damnit! If only there was a huge, renewable source of hydrogen that we could just bottle up. Wait, there is. The sun!

Our sun is an unimaginably huge hydrogen reservoir. It is a nuclear fusion reactor that combines hydrogen atoms to form helium, and in the process creates an astounding amount of energy every second. It has been doing this for BILLIONS of years. After traveling 93 million miles, this energy heats our atmosphere causing wind to blow. It drives the hydrologic cycle so rain falls and rivers flow. Plants grow in its light. Wind power, hydroelectric power and biomass are all renewable sources of electricity. Those don't even account for sticking solar cells in sunlight to make electricity.

Now, what is the best way to store this glorious spent solar hydrogen for use in our electric cars? Turning it back into hydrogen seems like a 93-million mile step backwards. For now, batteries are the most efficient containers for the electricity, and they're getting better all the time. I say let's pack our electricity in batteries for now and leave the hydrogen burning to the sun.

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