Confusing Times – Hydrogen and Fuel Cell History

“Regulations that shut down hundreds of coal-fired power plants and block the construction of new ones – how stupid is that?” was one of Donald Trump’s campaign utterings.

What makes a light bulb glow? – “Hydro makes it glow”, many people will answer.  “We are running out of gas”, laments an environmentally concerned motorist.  Both statements are a ‘gas’, a casual talk or informal chatter.

We are in such a hurry that we abbreviate much of what we say; twisting the true meaning of ‘things’.  For the moment, we have forgotten the origin and the history of what came before.  Has the pace of modern life accelerated so much that we have already lost sight of what we learned in earlier times?

‘Gas’, (short for gasoline, of course) is a liquid as used in North America.  It is petroleum or petrol in other countries and in the land of Karl Benz, it’s Benzin. (Different from Benzene)  Hydrogen (H2) and Oxygen (O2) are a true gas separately, but when united with other gasses they are a liquid, – water.  Why is life so confusing?

The light-giving ‘hydro’ is electricity, generated at hydro dams (meaning “water”, from Greek), at the front of the water-storing reservoirs. Like so many other terms, its meaning has changed over time, already removed from common memory; out of sight – out of mind.  Clearly, electricity is also generated in various ways other than from hydropower.

The ‘newest’ automotive technology breakthrough, using and regenerating its own electricity onboard in hybrid electric vehicles (HEV), is not new at all, and neither are fuel cells.  From the beginning of the twentieth century to the 1920s, electric automobiles counted for approximately one-third of all vehicles, HEVs included.  At that time, the majority of the population favored the non-polluting, almost silent running electric cars, but the favoritism had “batteries not included”.

Electric vehicles as a separate entity are pollution free.  But they receive their electricity during re-charging from electricity-generating stations.  Many of these plants, other than the water-powered ones, are serious polluters, as we all know.


On top of this problem, and despite all the progress made during the last century, electric vehicles (EV) are limited by their short driving range of between 80 and 200 km and the long time needed to recharge their batteries.  This limitation is related to the type of batteries used, the weight and added load of the vehicle and other factors. Cold weather will further limit the useful range of an EV. The heater and defroster needed under these conditions render the old-style lead-acid battery almost useless for half of the year in propelling electric cars, especially in colder climates. These batteries usually need 6-8 hours of recharging, perhaps acceptable for fleet- or commuter vehicles, but certainly not for many other uses.

Paradoxically, the advent of an electric motor – the ‘starter’ in engine-powered vehicles caused the downfall of the electric cars. Cranking a very ‘cranky’ engine was no longer necessary, avoiding many broken elbows.

Without a doubt, the battery bears the brunt of the blame for the lack of progress to this day, which could have advanced EVs to the forefront of transportation. What if there was an easier way, a better battery, to power EVs, and to keep laptop computers working longer, to enjoy more music on the move, or to light, heat or cool human surroundings?  Perhaps a lightweight gas battery?

Confusion and uncertainty run rampant. “We are running out of oil to sustain our industries”.  “There is enough ‘Black Gold’ in the ground for generations to come”. “Nuclear energy is the future”.  “Clean coal will prevail”.  “We have to go electric”.  Solar power, thermal power, wind power, fusion, fission…  “The hydrogen economy is the way of the future” energy experts assert.  “China and India invest in Canadian oil sands to advance and secure their mushrooming economies”, the business papers report. – Confused?

Next: Optimistic times



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