Are hydrogen-fueled cars pie-in-the-sky?

By Jeffrey Yago, P.E., CEM

Issue #103 • January/February, 2007, Backwoods Home Magazine

Hydrogen-fueled cars is a topic of much discussion these days. People who want to see the U.S. freed from dependence on foreign oil often assume the hydrogen-fuel automobile is just around the corner, if only big oil would get out of the way and an infrastructure of fueling stations built.

This article, of necessity, is somewhat technical, but it attempts to explain the current state of hydrogen fuel technology and dispel some of the pie-in-the-sky myths that surround it.

What is hydrogen?

yago103-2Hydrogen is our lightest and most basic element and makes up more of the world than any other element. Unfortunately, it is almost always combined with other elements, so it must be separated back into its pure state for use as a fuel, and that takes lots of energy. For example, by now most of us recognize the chemical symbol H2O as a water molecule, made up of two hydrogen atoms bonded to one oxygen atom. I need to be careful here, as some of you teach chemistry and are not bashful about letting me know when I take too many liberties when discussing atoms, ions, and molecules in an attempt to keep things simple.

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