The idea of using fuel cells to power our vehicles has
been the holy grail of inventors for decades. The dream of
using a device that is powered by by something as common as
hydrogen and oxygen, with water vapor as its only byproduct,
has led to millions of dollars in research. However, except
in a few instances, hydrogen/oxygen fuel cells have not
proven to be practical.
Another approach is the carbon based fuel cell. The
University of Hawai’i has developed
a fuel cell that uses charcoal and air to create energy. The chief advantage of this system
is that charcoal, or carbon, is a renewable resource.
Further, you can store and transport charcoal much more
easily than hydrogen.
Other cells typically use hydrogen as a fuel. However,
useful quantities of hydrogen are impractical or difficult to
create, store and distribute. Typically, you get hydrogen by
burning fossil fuels to create electricity to split the
hydrogen atoms from methane (itself from fossil fuels) or
water. Burning fossil fuels to create hydrogen is extremely
energy inefficient. That is, you may as well just use the
electricity directly then use it to create hydrogen. The
solution to this problem is nuclear power. However going
nuclear has its own set of problems – practical and
In addition, whether compressed or in liquid form, it is
difficult, if not impossible, to contain hydrogen without
some leakage. This leakage can lead to rapid reactions (i.e.,
explosions) or other less spectacular, but no less serious,
On the other hand, charcoal/carbon fuels have their own
problems. Chief among these, as noted in the article, is how
to feed the solid powdered charcoal into the fuel cell. Also,
even though the article kind of down plays it, creating
charcoal releases various gases collectively called green
house gases. In addition, the byproduct of the carbon fuel
cell is carbon dioxide – another so called green house gas.
Whether such gases are the cause of what is referred to a
global warming is still open to debate.
In any case, research into fuel cells continue. Perhaps
someday a practical fuel cell will power your car, but it
probably won’t happen very soon.