Studying the feasibility of hydrogen as energy

Studying the feasibility of hydrogen as energy

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By Cristian Frers

Hydrogen technology can be one of the energy alternatives to oil that allows to overcome the environmental problems posed by the current use of fossil fuels, but only within several decades, and on condition that it is invested massively from now on.

Hydrogen technology can be one of the energy alternatives to oil that allows to overcome the environmental problems posed by the current use of fossil fuels, which is unsustainable, but only in the period of several decades, and on condition that it is invested massively from now on .

Historically and for a little over two hundred years, man-made use of forms of energy with a higher density than firewood, such as coal, then oil and now natural gas, have provided, together with the technology of converting heat into mechanical work and electricity, those other technologies that facilitate and allow access to superior transportation services, motive power, communications, home comfort and improvement of commerce.

The set of technologies specially developed in the twentieth century has raised the level of energy consumption per capita in most countries. This parameter is taken as a synonym for well-being.

Also, this greater amount of energy allows increasing food production, considering that irrigation and fertilizers are largely the result of energy dominance within the evolutionary cultural baggage of humanity, facts that have made possible the vertiginous increase of the global population . All this bonanza that seemed oriented towards a continuous and better destiny, collapses and is inconvenient for the common interest.

Fortunately, human ingenuity, driven many times by the need to find alternatives, will achieve in direct renewable sources or those derived from the sun, such as wind, hydraulics, geothermal energy and biomass, the primary energy resource that allows it to maintain the consumption per capita and include the third of the world's population, today still lacking energy services. This would allow man not to be exclusively dependent on blood traction or firewood, when it is available, used directly as a source of heat.

Thus, hydrogen appears, an element in a gaseous state under normal environmental conditions, but which is feasible for storage, transport and distribution, which allows its application to any segment of demand.

Hydrogen was discovered by the British scientist Henry Cavendish, in 1776, who reported an experiment in which he had obtained water from the combination of oxygen and hydrogen, with the help of an electrical spark. As these elements, they were not known called "life-sustaining air" and "flammable air" respectively. The French chemist Antoine Lauren Lavoisier succeeded in repeating the experiment in 1785 and gave the name oxygen to "life-sustaining air" and hydrogen to "flammable air."

Hydrogen is the lightest, most basic, and most ubiquitous element in the universe. When used as an energy source, it becomes the eternal fuel. It is never finished, and as it does not contain a single carbon atom, it does not emit carbon dioxide.

Hydrogen is found throughout the planet: in water, in fossil fuels and in living things. However, it rarely appears in the free state in nature, but has to be extracted from natural sources.

Hydrogen is a chemical element that contains energy and can be stored in liquid or gaseous form. It is 14 times lighter than air, colorless, odorless and non-toxic, since its only product after combustion is water.

Hydrogen is not a primary source of energy, it is not a fuel that we can extract directly from the earth like natural gas.

The most common source of hydrogen is water. It is obtained by the chemical decomposition of water into oxygen and hydrogen from the action of an electric current (electrolysis) generated by renewable energy sources (solar photovoltaic, wind, etc.). This process divides the water, producing pure oxygen and hydrogen.

The hydrogen obtained can be compressed and stored in cells for several months until it is needed. Hydrogen represents stored energy, it can be burned like any fuel to produce heat, power an engine, or produce electricity in a turbine.

What if all vehicles suddenly got their power from hydrogen-based fuel cells?

Different studies argue that such a conversion would improve air quality, human health and the climate, especially if the wind were used to generate the electricity needed to extract hydrogen from water in a process without pollution.

Similar to how gas is pumped into tanks, hydrogen would be pumped into fuel cells that are based on chemical processes, not combustion, to power vehicles. When hydrogen flows through the fuel cell compartments, it reacts with oxygen to produce water and energy.

Such a conversion could prevent millions of cases of respiratory diseases and tens of thousands of cases of hospitalization annually.

Converting all current vehicles to vehicles powered by wind-recharged fuel cells could be done at a fuel cost comparable to that of gasoline, and even less considering the health effects of gasoline.

The advantages of using hydrogen as energy are:

It does not produce pollution or consume natural resources: Hydrogen is taken from water and then oxidized and returned to water. There are no secondary or toxic products of any kind that can be produced in this process.

Security: Hydrogen systems have a very impressive safety history. In many cases, hydrogen is safer than the fuel that is being replaced. In addition to quickly dissipating into the atmosphere if it escapes, hydrogen, in contrast to other fuels, is not toxic at all.

High efficiency: Fuel cells convert chemical energy directly to electricity more efficiently than any other energy system.

Silent operation: In normal operation, the fuel cell is almost absolutely silent.

Long life and low maintenance: Although fuel cells have not yet proven their extended life, they will likely have a significantly longer life than the machines they replace.

Modularity: Fuel cells can be made in any size, small enough to power a golf cart or large enough to generate power for an entire community. This modularity allows to increase the energy of the systems according to the growth of the energy demand, drastically reducing the initial costs.

The novelty of this technology is that hydrogen production is carried out from renewable energy sources.

The hydrogen economy enables a huge redistribution of power, with far-reaching consequences for society. Hydrogen has the potential to end the world's dependence on imported oil and to help eliminate the dangerous geopolitical game that is taking place between Muslim countries and Western countries. It will dramatically reduce carbon dioxide emissions and mitigate the effects of global warming. And since it is so abundant and exists in all parts of the world, all human beings will have energy.

Not developing in Argentina a national technology for the handling of hydrogen would be equivalent to a dependency like the one that our country had towards the end of the XIX century with the import of coal, which exceeded one million tons to be able to run locomotives and the railroad . Situation that was repeated at the beginning of the 20th century with the dependence on fuels derived from petroleum. The most pathetic case occurred when General Enrique Mosconi sought to ensure the supply of fuel for the planes that made up our incipient aviation. At that time, 1922, the conditions demanded by one of the oil giants that monopolized the sale of gasoline prompted, at the initiative of General Mosconi, our country to face a National Hydrocarbon Industry. Much of the rest is history.

In the search for a cleaner source of energy, the culmination must be hydrogen itself; technologies are being developed today to make this a reality. Hydrogen has the potential to be used in virtually all applications where fossil fuel is used today, so we could reach a hydrogen economy soon.

We are at the apex of a new historical epoch in which all possibilities remain open. Hydrogen, the very matter that stars like our sun are made of, is beginning to be controlled by human ingenuity and harnessed for human purposes. Planning the right route at the beginning of the journey is essential if we are to turn the great promise of a hydrogen age into a viable reality for our children and a valuable legacy for the generations to come.

Cristian Frers - Senior Technician in Environmental Management and Senior Technician in Social Communication

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