Sustainability: Fuel Cell Research

Source: Physics.org

Removing Fossil Fuels from the Transportation Equation. 

Evolution of Transportation
How the transportation sector will evolve given recent advances in technology and recent setbacks in policy remains to be seen, but the U.S. transportation sector’s current impact on climate change is clear. According to the New York Times article by Hiroko Tabuchi (2016): "Transportation now regularly emits more earth-warming gases into the atmosphere than any other sectoraccording to the federal Energy Information AdministrationLast year, it overtook the electric power sector for the first time since the late 1970s." 

Despite transportations move into this most dubious category, the federal government plans to remove the stringent emission guidelines put in place by the Obama Administration, and states are increasingly removing tax credits for electric vehicle buyers. Because Scott Pruitt's ties to the fossil fuel industry are clear, as the newly appointed head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Mr. Pruitt will certainly be scrutinizing EPA "regulation" that incentivizes renewables and the electric transportation sector and eliminating emissions "regulation" that directly impacts the profits of fossil fuel industries—a double-whammy for the fast-warming planet.

Still in its growth infancy, the U.S. alternative energy and electric vehicle sectors depend on government incentives to compete with the long-incentivized fossil fuel titans. However, these economic incentives provide direct competition to fossil fuel industry profits and have triggered many NGOS, such as Americans for Prosperityto lobby hard in Washington to reverse the incentives-driven momentum that has propelled renewables and electric vehicle markets during the last few years. Ironically, The Americans for Prosperity website calls on eliminating government handouts to the renewable energy sector and promises to "eliminate special carve-outs, loopholes and giveaways that funnel benefits to a handful of politically-connected industries and companies at the expense of hardworking taxpayers" even as it supports the mission of the fossil fuel industry, which remains and has historically been, the beneficiary of billions of federal tax dollars. Founded by the Koch BrothersThe Americans For Prosperity members don't seem to mind this double-standard. Indeed, the double-standard is the policy: support fossil fuels, but don't support renewables and electrifying transportation. But why? Tabuchi’s article makes this connection explicitly clear, "Electric vehicles alone could reduce oil demand by two million barrels a day by 2025, the study forecasts. That would be about the same dip that caused the oil price collapse in 2014 and 2015." Fossil fuel-based power has already taken a hit due to solar and wind power—hence transportations rise to the top of the emissions chart. A fossil fuel dip fueled by the electrification of the transportation sector could equate to billions of dollars of losses in annual profit.

In regards to the reaction from U. S. automakers about the removal of incentives for electric vehicles, at least one CEO was not silent. Tabuchi writes, "A Tesla spokesman declined to comment. But its chief executive, Elon Musk, has said that he supports getting rid of incentives, but only if other subsidies are repealed, including support for fossil fuel industries." That seems like a fair proposal. 

Click here for information on fuel and energy incentives by the U.S. Governmentaccording to the U.S. Congressional Budget Office. Although President Obama's administration distinctly changed the historic record by decreasing incentives for the fossil fuel industry and increasing incentives for renewable sources, the record clearly shows billions of dollars have been channeled over decades to support the fossil fuel industry.

The spike in growth for renewable energy sources and the electric vehicle transportation industry is very recent, and a direct result of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. These incentives, coupled with improved engineering, boosted the competition between traditional—fossil-fuel based— and renewable— non-fossil fuel-based—power sources and vehicles for the first time in history. Surprising most, these sectors experienced exponential growth. After years of slothlike growth, this bump in productivity came as encouraging news to anyone educated on the realities of fossil-fuel linked climate change, but contributed to declines in the petroleum sector, which was terrible news to anyone with a fossil fuel dense stock portfolio.

Tabuchi's article also notes that other studies have much less optimism for the impact that electric vehicles will have, if there is no "global action to curb fossil fuel use." How the de-coupling of emissions regulations and economic incentives will impact consumer patterns is unknown—although the equation ‘how much money will this vehicle cost me’ ultimately shapes this pattern. The answer to this same question plagued the solar energy industry for three decades, and the equation changed only recently when governmental policy ensured an economic incentive to go solar.

"In general," Tabuchi explains, "the projections underscore the threat that electric vehicles pose to the oil and gas industries — and those with big investments in those areas — and those who back a rapid shift away." But those who care about climate change, and that group should include everyone living on the planet, may start paying more attention to this shift back to fossil fuels because there is a point where the ‘rubber meets the road’ so to speak. A rapidly heating planet, with increasingly violent storm cycles, dramatic rises in sea levels —and the consequential societal and economic losses associated with these natural disasters —may garner more public attention than current federal policy makers can effectively control.

And federal regulators have those pesky California state policy makers to contend with as the Golden State moves forward with stringent emissions regulations forcing innovation in the automotive sector—a position that not to long ago was supported by U.S. automotive manufacturers, in open letters such as this one. As the state with the largest population, more than 38 million, California's emissions regulation standards will impact the transportation sector, if they want a slice of California's market. With nearly 13 million cars and trucks on the road in California—almost double the number of cars and trucks registered in the second most populous state (Texas), automakers aren't likely to back out of California any time soon. 


Today get ready to hear about some cutting edge science in the field of renewable energy. Hydrogen fuel cells from natural gas can power cars, we already heard about that, but did you know that researchers are now working on harvesting hydrogen from water

Context: In March, you wrote about the advancements that California has made regarding hydrogen fuel cell stations and current developments of fuel cell vehicles in the transportation sector. You also read Chapter 13 in your Environmental Science textbook on Energy and learned about fuel cell technology in section 13.8. One key fact was that even though current hydrogen vehicle technology relies on natural gas—which is a fossil fuel—these fuel cells provide energy with a substantial reduction in carbon dioxide emissions over coal and oil.  According to Cunningham (2017), "Fossil Fuels...now supply about 88 percent of all commercial energy in the world." If we are going to reverse the current trend of global warming, then we are going to need to convert more energy supply to renewables and reduce our dependence on oil and coal. So think of natural gas as the methadone for a heroin addict. If it helps us get off the 'junk' of oil and coal, and in doing so greatly reduces carbon emissions—then we need to continue to support its use as an alternative energy and fuel source. But a more sustainable future means finding new ways of creating energy without fossil fuels.  

The good news is that hydrogen fuel cell technology, using natural gas as the source for hydrogen, has progressed to the point that several major auto manufacturers are road-testing new models. Another positive is that the majority of natural gas comes from the good 'ol USA and other North American sources. Unfortunately, while natural gas burns "cleaner," with less carbon dioxide emissions than coal and oil  (Cunningham, 2014, p. 310), the environmental controversy over fracking, which is the process used to extract natural gas, is the subject of much debate.

Therefore, hydrogen fuel cell powered vehicles and energy production research are currently plagued by the environmental woes associated with fracking, including methane leaks that contribute to global warming.  Policy, including important public safety regulations, can slow innovation to the point of death.

So what's next? Fuel cell generated power without fossil fuels. Enter: Sunlight and Water and some very craftily engineered nanoparticles that could take photovoltaic to the next level. 

First watch this .25 second video that shows an actual prototype currently under development to create fuel cell energy  without fossil fuels. I like this video because it merges the science that you will hear about in the GreenTalk with mechanical engineering required to create the energy. There is also a link to the scientific journal that can be perused for more background information in the references section of the video, if needed.

Next, watch the GreenTalk to hear about cutting edge research on developing viable fuel cell-based energy with only sun and water—no fossil fuels needed.
Perovskite Solar Cells and Energy Generation and Storage - Dr. Abraham Wolcott, San Jose State University, presents and the College of Engineering GreenTalk, April 2016.

Background: Your company is looking for future design-build opportunities in the energy and/or transportation sector.
Write a memorandum to your boss, Joe Engineer, providing an overview of what you have learned about fuel cells and the transportation sector and/or the successes and/or challenges facing current fuel cell energy research. Include a background paragraph (TEA1) in your discussion that makes clear why research in alternative, renewable energy sources for both electricity and transportation is a must for a sustainable future. Use bullet points to outline key attributes of Dr. Wolcott's solar fuel cell research. When you are formatting your bullet points, use the indent tool so that they are inset from your TEA 1 and TEA 3 in the memo. Include information about funding sources for R & D in this field (mentioned in GreenTalk) in the final paragraph (TEA3)  of your discussion.
Consider using information from Cunningham Chapter 13 to support your ideas, but incorporate the facts from the GreenTalk in your bullet points, and summary overview section.


Cunningham, W. P. & Cunningham, M. A. (2017). Principles of environmental science: Inquiry &  application (8th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education.

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