Future fuel? On the road to a hydrogen economy

"The global supply of fossil fuel is diminishing," Bruce Logan said at last Wednesday's Research Unplugged. "And in 10 to 20 years, our demand for energy will exceed its availability." In other words, we won't be able to make it as fast as we are using it.

Is hydrogen the answer to this impending global crisis? According to Logan, director of Penn State's Hydrogen Energy Center, it's the most likely candidate. "It's cheap, renewable, and environmentally clean," he told the "town and gown" crowd that filled the Downtown Theatre lobby.

audience sitting around table looks forward
Emily Wiley

Since hydrogen is the most abundant of all elements in the universe, the solution seems simple. But this future fuel doesn't just "bubble up from the ground," Logan said. "The big question is how are we going to make it?"

There are lots of ways to produce energy, Logan pointed out. "We can build more factories and power plants. We can go deep into the ocean and drill for methane hydrates. But these methods contribute to climate change and global warming," he said. "We need more energy, but without pollution."

Audience members shook their heads in disappointment as Logan explained that currently 48 percent of hydrogen is produced from natural gas, 30 percent from oil, and 18 percent from coal. While these production methods are inexpensive, they do not resolve environmental concerns.

"The hope is that there will be breakthrough methods for hydrogen production," Logan said. One such method is biological hydrogen production—the subject of Logan's research at Penn State.

Logan has built a fuel cell that runs on wastewater. Bacteria naturally present in the wastewater can consume organic material in the wastewater and create power. The microbial fuel cell not only produces electricity, but it also cleans the wastewater. With some modifications, and a little extra jolt of electricity, the system is easily modified to produce pure hydrogen gas instead of electricity. "This is the kind of technology that can really make a difference," Logan said.

But there are still challenges. For every solution on the road to future fuel, there is a roadblock that Logan and his colleagues are working to overcome. The audience, who did their homework this week, confronted Logan with their own proposed solutions for generating energy without compromising the environment. "Can't we make hydrogen from waste heat produced by nuclear energy?" one person asked. Another wondered, "Can't we get it from wind or solar energy?" There was even a suggestion to study electric eels and catfish to better understand—and perhaps replicate—their energy generating method.

"How long will it take us to break free from fossil fuels?" asked a woman in the audience. Logan paused reflectively. Shifting to a hydrogen economy would mean creating an entirely new transportation infrastructure, he explained, and that will take a long time. But the process has begun, he added, citing the experimental "hydrogen highway" being developed in California, as well as the increasing interest in hybrid vehicles. "The first steps are happening," said Logan, "and the reality of global warming is going to make this research a priority for the foreseeable future."

Bruce E. Logan, Ph.D., is Kappe professor of environmental engineering and director of the Hydrogen Energy Center. He can be reached at bel3@psu.edu. Katie Feeney is an undergraduate communications student and intern for Research Unplugged. She can be reached at kaf254@psu.edu.

Last Updated April 05, 2006