Why Are Hydrogen & Fuel Cells Important?
Widespread use of hydrogen as an energy source in this country could help address concerns about energy security, global climate change, and air quality. Fuel cells are an important enabling technology for the Hydrogen Future and have the potential to revolutionize the way we power our nation, offering cleaner, more-efficient alternatives to the combustion of gasoline and other fossil fuels. These benefits are explained in more detail below.
Strengthen National Energy Security
Hydrogen and fuel cell technology have the potential to strengthen our national energy security by reducing our dependence on foreign oil. The U.S. uses about 20 million barrels of oil per day, at a cost of about $2 billion a week. Much of this is used to power highway vehicles. In fact, half of the oil used to produce the gasoline you put in your tank is imported.
Hydrogen can be derived from a variety of domestically available primary sources, including fossil fuels, renewables, and nuclear power. This flexibility would make us less dependent upon oil from foreign countries.
Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Greenhouse gases are thought to be responsible for changes in global climate. They trap excess heat from the sun's infrared radiation that would otherwise escape into space, much like a greenhouse is used to trap heat. When we drive our cars, and light, heat, and cool our homes, we generate greenhouse gases. But if we used hydrogen in very high efficiency fuel cells for our transportation and to generate power, we could significantly reduce the GHG emissions - especially if the hydrogen is produced using renewable resources, nuclear power, or clean fossil technologies.
Reduce Air Pollution
The combustion of fossil fuels by electric power plants, vehicles, and other sources is responsible for most of the smog and harmful particulates in the air. Fuel cells powered by pure hydrogen emit no harmful pollutants. Fuel cells that use a reformer to convert fuels such as natural gas, methanol, or gasoline to hydrogen do emit small amounts of air pollutants such as carbon monoxide (CO), although it is much less than the amount produced by the combustion of fossil fuels.
Improve Energy Efficiency
Fuel cells are significantly more energy efficient than combustion-based power generation technologies. A conventional combustion-based power plant typically generates electricity at efficiencies of 33 to 35 percent, while fuel cell plants can generate electricity at efficiencies of up to 60 percent. When fuel cells are used to generate electricity and heat (co-generation), they can reach efficiencies of up to 85 percent. Internal-combustion engines in today's automobiles convert less than 30 percent of the energy in gasoline into power that moves the vehicle. Vehicles using electric motors powered by hydrogen fuel cells are much more energy efficient, utilizing 40-60 percent of the fuel's energy. Even Fuel Cell Vehicles (FCVs) that reform hydrogen from gasoline can use about 40 percent of the energy in the fuel.