Fracking Gives Hydrogen Fuel Cells New Life

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Mazda unveiled their Mazda5 Hydrogen RE Hybrid Sky concept in 2010. Image: Flickr user Dave Pinter

Mazda unveiled their Mazda5 Hydrogen RE Hybrid Sky concept in 2010. Photo by Dave Pinter on Flickr.

Although hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles (FCVs) were the alternative-energy favorite of the George W. Bush administration, current U.S. Secretary of the Department of Energy Steven Chu has been no cheerleader. After dismissing a hydrogen fuel cell strategy in 2009 as “impractical,” Chu redirected federal energy research funds toward plug-in electric vehicles. The DOE secretary believed EVs were a more realistic alternative to fossil fuels.

Mercedes-Benz is among the automakers experimenting with hydrogen fuel-cells.

Three years later, new realities in the energy industry are pushing Chu into giving the world’s simplest element a second look.

“Several things changed my mind,” Chu told host John McElroy during an interview on the web video series Autoline Daily. Chief among them, however, was that “We have natural gas in abundance.” Hydrogen can be extracted from natural gas.

While Chu maintains that our country’s primary research focus will continue to be EVs, the controversy surrounding natural gas would make the revival of fuel cells in our energy policy a significant change of heart. And he’s not alone: In July, several U.S. senators, on both sides of the aisle, re-launched the hydrogen-promoting Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Caucus.

So what do FCVs have to offer that electric vehicles don’t? Convenience is one immediate advantage. The range of a fuel cell-powered vehicle averages around 300 miles. The Tesla Model S, currently the passenger electric vehicle with the longest battery life, tops out at 265 miles between stops. The refueling process for FCVs takes five minutes – not far off the mark from a conventional vehicle. But unlike gas or diesel engines, a car running on pure hydrogen fuel emits eco-friendly water and heat as exhaust.


But since there are no natural reservoirs of hydrogen on Earth, the gas must be extracted from water or petroleum products such as natural gas. This raises an interesting environmental dilemma, because our country’s abundant natural gas is the result of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” in underground shale beds. The effects of fracking on municipal water supplies have sparked wide spread concern from some communities where fracking is taking place as well as environmentalists.

Oil-Shale Development: Mahogany Flats Research Station, Rangeley, Colorado. Photo by SkyTruth and Randy Udall on Flickr.

On the other hand, Chu said he is intrigued by the water gas shift reaction process, which converts natural gas into pure hydrogen and carbon dioxide. The resultant hydrogen can be used for automobiles, and the carbon dioxide stream can be used to power more hydraulic fracturing, with a low net carbon footprint.

Do the environmental advantages of hydrogen fuel cells and natural gas outweigh fracking’s potential dangers? Like many environmental decisions, there’s no easy answer - at least perhaps until we’re able to figure out how to build the infrastructure for hydrogen filling stations.