Climate Change FAQ

1. What is the greenhouse effect?

The greenhouse effect is a process by which the earth heats up due to atmospheric gasses. When the sun shines on the earth, rays come in contact with our atmosphere. Some are deflected, and others enter the atmosphere and heat the land and oceans. In normal cases, heat will radiate from the earth and escape the atmosphere. The complete loss of heat from Earth is impeded by the existence of certain gasses (called greenhouse gasses), such as methane and carbon dioxide, in the atmosphere. These help it trap heat, which is crucial for the existence of life on earth. However, human activity has created an excess of these gasses in the atmosphere. This traps excess heat and causes global temperatures to rise, causing global warming and climate instability.

2. What is a positive feedback loop?

A positive feedback loop is basically a cycle that accelerates itself! This is because the end result fuels the initial cause. An example of this is melting polar ice caps. When they melt, they are no longer able to reflect sunlight and leave dark water behind. The dark water absorbs the sunlight, which causes the water to warm up. When the water warms up, the remaining ice caps melt faster, which restarts the cycle. Positive feedback loops like these are dangerous because they fuel themselves and rapidly spiral out of control!


Hydrogen FAQ

1. What is Hydrogen?

Hydrogen is a chemical element normally found in a diatomic form (H2). The naturally formed monoatomic form (H) is generally not found on Earth because it promptly forms compounds with other atoms and molecules. (cafcp.org)

2. What is a hydrogen fuel cell?

A hydrogen fuel cell works like a battery in that there are two sides to the fuel cell, the cathode and the anode, A catalyst aids in splitting the H2 into 2H where the proton (H+) passes through a membrane (proton exchange membrane or PEM) where it combines with an oxygen molecule to form water. The electron that has been stripped off of the hydrogen molecule flow out of the cell in the form of electricity. (cafcp.org)

3. Is hydrogen more dangerous than other fuels?

Like all fuels that have stored chemical energy (gasoline, diesel, kerosene, natural gas, propane …), hydrogen will react and release energy. This is the feature that we want. The behavior of hydrogen and hydrogen combustion are different from the petroleum fuels we have become accustomed to. Guidelines and regulations for hydrogen are now in place so that when a hydrogen refueling station is constructed following those codes, a hydrogen refueling station is no more dangerous than the gasoline station we have all gotten used to. (Keller, 2012)

4. Is hydrogen better than normal gasoline?

Hydrogen is cleaner for the environment at the point of use, will produce about twice the mileage for vehicles on a per unit of energy basis and can be used in combination with a fuel cell to power electric vehicles. (Keller, 2012)  

5. How much will a fuel cell vehicle cost?

Check our H2 cars list for more details on pricing and benefits.

6. What does hydrogen cost?

The cost target from the Department of Energy Fuel Cell Technologies office is $2.00-$3.00/ (Gallon Gasoline Equivalent (gge)). Note: a gge is about 1 Kg Hydrogen in energy content.  Hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles will go about twice as far per gge of hydrogen as does a gasoline-fueled vehicle.  So if this goal is reached, the cost of driving a Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle on a per-mile basis will be about half as expensive as the conventional gasoline vehicle. (Keller 2012)  

7. Do hydrogen fuel cells still require platinum?

Proton-exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells, the ones used in passenger cars, currently rely on platinum catalysts. However, researchers are currently working to discover efficient non-precious metal (platinum) catalysts for use in the fuel cell. Researchers are also developing systems that require significantly less platinum. (Keller 2012)  

8. What about the Hydrogen Bomb?

The hydrogen bomb is a thermonuclear reaction (atomic reaction), whereas the fuel cell exploits chemical reactions. There is absolutely no similarity between these two phenomena, and hence no possibility of a hydrogen-fueled vehicle undergoing a thermonuclear reaction. (Keller 2012)  

9. Can excess hydrogen in the atmosphere negatively affect the environment?

In general, the consensus for this question is no. The “exhaust from the Hydrogen Fuel Cell is water.  Because vehicles and other devices will generally be at ground level, this won’t pose a threat because the water vapor would become part of our normal rain cycle. Some people are concerned about water vapor formed from commercial planes because they fly above the lower atmosphere, which does not mix with the normal weather patterns. This is an area of current research investigation and is inconclusive at this point. (Keller 2012)  

10. If we need fresh water to create hydrogen, how much are we using to produce hydrogen?

The whole idea of using hydrogen as an energy carrier (like electricity) is we do not “use it” we only “borrow it”. If hydrogen is produced from electricity and water, the energy from the electricity is “stored” in the hydrogen for use later. When used (as in a Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle) the hydrogen is combined with oxygen from the air to produce water and the power used in the vehicle. Nothing is consumed (used). (Keller 2012)  

11. If it takes energy to produce hydrogen, then why don't we just use that energy in the first place?

This is a big misconception! Hydrogen isn’t energy, it is an energy carrier. Just as a battery is not electricity, hydrogen is not energy. Hydrogen and batteries both store energy. This concept is confusing and we hope to answer this question here.

Think of it this way. We wouldn’t ask, “Why don’t we just put a lightning bolt (an electrical charge) into your Gameboy instead of using two AA batteries?”. Well, maybe we would if we could. The process would probably look pretty darn cool. In the meantime, it may be easier to think of hydrogen the way we think of batteries. Loosely speaking, they both carry energy so we can move and use it anywhere to power things. (Keller 2012)  

12. How can hydrogen be produced?

While hydrogen exists bound to other molecules (like natural gas, gasoline, propane etc.) and hence can be extracted from these molecules, the long-term goal is to use renewable energy like solar, wind, biomass, etc.) to produce electricity and then hydrogen from water splitting. When renewable energy is used to produce hydrogen from water, oxygen is released into the atmosphere. When that hydrogen is then reacted with oxygen in the atmosphere, water and power are produced. Nothing is consumed: not the water, not the hydrogen, not the oxygen. We have an unlimited supply!  — Cool Huh?  (Keller 2012)   

13. What are the most efficient ways to produce hydrogen?

Currently, steam methane reforming is the most efficient large-scale way to produce hydrogen, but we are looking towards using renewables such as solar and wind to be the sole producers in the future. (Keller 2012)   

14 . What is large-scale steam methane reforming? Where is this being done? How many of these plants exist in the US today?

Large-scale steam methane reforming (SMR) is a process used today to move the stored chemical energy in hydrocarbons (methane) to hydrogen. This process changes hydrocarbons (methane, gasoline, propane, coal, …) into hydrogen and carbon dioxide; and is very efficient (70 to 75% efficient) on an energy basis when done at large scale. It is commonly used in the crude-oil refinery industry, where the hydrogen is needed to sweeten the crude oil (add hydrogen to the oil). This process produces the higher hydrogen content gasoline, and diesel fuels from the lower hydrogen content crude oil taken from the oil wells.

Facilities capable of SMR are plentiful, as they exist at every oil refinery. When considering hydrogen production, SMR will most likely be utilized until renewables such as solar are able to meet global demand. Though this is not the ideal process because SMR is not a clean process, it is still a huge improvement when looking at the entire oil production process, which utilizes this same process as an initial step to make large volumes of fuels. Gasoline creates CO2 (greenhouse gases and other pollutants) when it burns compared to hydrogen that only produces water (when it is used as fuel). Because the product of SMR is hydrogen and CO2, we have the option of sequestering the CO2 by putting it in a hole in the ground and storing it for several years. The benefit of using SMR is that there is already a structure in place for it to produce large volumes of hydrogen. (Keller 2012)   

15. Can refueling stations produce their own hydrogen using solar energy?

Yes, this is the ideal way to produce hydrogen. In California, we already have several stations that have solar-powered hydrogen fueling stations. Check out SunLine Transit in Palm Desert. (http://www.sunline.org)   

16. Can you create hydrogen from sewage?

Yes, it is possible with the right extraction technology. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P-n1EtkSEJM  (Calif Fountain Valley Station)

In addition, waste that serves as a source of Methane can be used to create Metrol, a hydrogen-based fuel. For more information on this, see the Metrol FAQ.   

17. Can you produce hydrogen with salt water?

Yes, we would have to remove the salt from the water and then process it through an electrolyzer (an electrolyzer is a device that splits water into hydrogen and oxygen).

We are working hard to make producing hydrogen from renewable, sustainable energy resources a commercially viable solution. (Keller 2012)   

18. How much water does it take to produce a kilogram of hydrogen with an electrolyzer?

9 Liters. A liter of water at 4 °C is almost exactly 1Kg (mass). Of 18 kg of water 2 kg is hydrogen – the other 16 kg is oxygen. So to produce one Kg of hydrogen, it will take 9 liters of water.  (Keller 2012)   

19. Do hybrids have a lower greenhouse gas emission than fuel cell vehicles?

All studies say that the use of hydrogen in fuel cell vehicles contains about 40% less greenhouse gas than a gasoline hybrid. The process of using electricity from a coal-fired power plant to electrolyze water will emit more greenhouse gas, but most hydrogen is generated through electrolysis at a solar or wind energy station, which does not contain any greenhouse gas. (cafcp.org)   

20. Are hydrogen vehicles better than battery-powered vehicles?

Because both vehicles are electric vehicles, the real question here is hydrogen vs. batteries. Batteries must be recharged, which can take between 45 minutes to 97 hours depending on the power source, while refilling a hydrogen tank takes only about 8 minutes. Batteries also weigh much more than hydrogen, and unlike hydrogen cars, experts predict that battery cars will not be practical for long distance or bigger vehicles. In addition, batteries must either be purchased or leased and eventually, they must be disposed of. This brings up the cost of dealing with toxic waste and its impact on the environment. Hydrogen is an energy carrier that is abundant because it is part of water (hydrogen and oxygen make water), and because we simply borrow the hydrogen from the water and it rejoins the oxygen, making its only output water. (Keller 2012)   

21. Are hydrogen vehicles more efficient than battery-powered vehicles?

This question can be somewhat confusing. Batteries tend to be more efficient when they are directly powering wheel motors. However, we need to consider the battery’s weight, ability to be recycled, physical size (size is important when considering hydrogen as well), time it takes to recharge, lifespan, and initial power source. This is a lot to consider. In order to analyze the different components, the terms “Well to Tank” and “Tank to Wheels” help us understand real costs of producing energy. Well to Tank means that we are calculating the efficiency of getting energy from its source (solar panels, power plants, etc) to the car tank, while Tank to Wheels means the efficiency of getting energy from your car’s tank to the engine or motor.

As a general rule, hydrogen tends to be more efficient from Well to Tank, while batteries tend to be more efficient Tank to Wheels. We consider hydrogen to be the more efficient energy carrier when factoring both Well to Tank and Tank to Wheels efficiencies. (Keller 2012)   

22. What is the difference between storing energy in batteries and hydrogen fuel cells?

Clarification: Hydrogen fuel cells do not store energy, fuel cells are used to process hydrogen so that it produces electricity. In cars, hydrogen is commonly stored in a tank.

There are two major differences to storing hydrogen in a tank vs storing energy in a battery.

(1) The amount of hydrogen stored in a tank increases as the volume of the tank increases (r3). This means if we increase the size of a hydrogen tank by 3 times, it will store 27 times the original amount of hydrogen. Batteries store energy linearly, which means that the increase in energy potential you get out of having 3 times as many batteries for example is, well, 3 times more.

(2) Though both hydrogen and batteries require an oxidizer to produce electricity, hydrogen has the benefit of being able to use the air in our atmosphere to accomplish this task. Batteries, on the other hand, are limited to having to store their chemical oxidizers inside of their casing. This means batteries use up unnecessary space and add more weight in order to be able to utilize their oxidizer. (Keller 2012)   

23. How long will it take to build a hydrogen refueling infrastructure in metropolitan cities (like San Francisco Bay Area, Santa Clara County, Sacramento County, Los Angeles County, and in other states like Chicago, Seattle, DC, New York City, Boston, etc.)?

Each location has unique challenges, but we anticipate that it takes roughly 2 years to build after construction has begun. (Keller 2012)   

24. What needs to be done to build a hydrogen refueling infrastructure?

Building a hydrogen infrastructure will vary based on the location. Some places will be able to utilize renewable energy and some will be able to utilize existing infrastructures for gasoline. The regulation of refueling stations requires time, money, and procurement. Denmark and Norway have begun to build impressive infrastructures to support a hydrogen economy. In California, the California Fuel Cell Partnership has organized America’s first hydrogen infrastructure that provides refueling stations in northern and southern California. (Keller 2012)   

25. Why won't nuclear energy be able to supply the world economy with enough power in 2050?

Like oil and coal, raw materials for nuclear power plants are diminishing and are becoming expensive. It is likely nuclear will be utilized, but it is unlikely that it will be able to meet a large portion of global energy demand in 2050. (Keller 2012)   

26. When will we run out of coal?

This question is a topic of great debate. Some sources believe that we will run out of coal quite soon, while others believe we may have enough to last for a couple hundred years. We intend to post more concrete data about this issue in the future. For now, we at Kids 4 Hydrogen would like to state that regardless of the amount of coal available, it is still an unsustainable and unclean resource. As with other diminishing resources, we feel we should not put off what must be done tomorrow today, and that we should begin to move away from coal as a primary source of energy. (Keller 2012)   

27. Will hydrogen be the only energy carrier that will be available to power the world by 2050?

Hydrogen is very sustainable and viable, as well as clean, but it is unlikely it will be the only energy carrier of the future. We will have electricity, batteries, and potentially other carriers, powered by renewables and other energy sources. Hydrogen will be part of the mix of energy technologies for transportation and storage. (Keller 2012)    

* Jay Keller, PhD. (Seminar for and Private Communication with Kids 4 Hydrogen Team) 2012.

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