Made popular by its role in supplying electricity for NASA’s Apollo missions in the 1960s, fuel cells are super-important pieces of the world’s energy puzzle going forward. Not least because of their ability to guide combustible fuels through conversion from chemical to electrical forms with superb efficiencies, usually exceeding 60%, since they do not have to pass through the limitations of Carnot cycles. Also, fuel cells can work with any fuel type to produce electricity, from pure hydrogen, with water as a by-product, to hydrocarbons, with carbon dioxide as the by-product.
Unfortunately, their efficiency means they are incredibly expensive, with recent reductions in their costs still standing above the cost of flexible fuels. Not to mention how dangerous the disposal of fuel cells is to the environment. On the bright side, there is much talk about using nanotechnology to fabricate cheaper fuel cells, as it was accomplished with nanobatteries back in 2015.
This would obviously mean a shift towards hydrogen as the premium power source, and why not? Hydrogen is the Earth’s richest element, and one can even say it is the parent of all other fossil fuel sources, since hydrocarbons make up all of them. Of course, there is the limitation of extracting hydrogen since it cannot be encountered in its pure state, and the process of producing hydrogen is financially taxing to say the least, which is why cases like Iceland where the conditions are perfect for hydrogen production have been exploited already, are very remarkable cases.
Although, even in that rare case, hydrogen is used more for transportation since it is a safety hazard when stored and requires complicated planning for transportation and distribution. It is more appropriately used after conversion through fuel cells, which is a long and expensive process.
In fact, there seems to be more promise in moon mining operations for helium conducted by RKK Energiya, as announced by her honorary president, Nikolai Sevastyanov, after a moon base was started in 2019, and the mined helium would protect the energy interests of the planet for hundred years.
However, space-powered satellites like the Japanese Furoshiki satellites have diverted attention as one of the other fruits of the space race, as they are handy for building structures in spaces or forming useful forms like antennas themselves with their spider-like construction, which has helped with aero telecommunications and spatial navigation.
Indeed, a more effective use, as much as it is a dream at present, would be to harness some of the 174 Terawatts of power sent down from the sun if it acts as a mini solar station. A dream that will classify earth as a ‘Type I civilization’, per Nikolai Kardashev’s scale of civilizations based on the storage of energy. A list that ends with a ‘Type VII civilization’ that can create other planets.
While we are not quite there yet, as Kardashev rightly classified us as a Type 0 civilization, we understand that the earth, sun and the universe is teeming with resources that we can harness to create an energy mix that will see us through to a greater level of existence. Rather than depending on one energy source, when all energy sources are finite, we owe to ourselves to apply engineering and scientific knowledge with creativity to create that new alternative mix. For earth’s enormous potential for development, that old way is just not enough.