Fuel Cells Could Supercede Fossil Energy

Solve issues of energy storage and emission-free power generation

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Moving away from fossil fuels like coal and oil is an important step in making our energy consumption more sustainable. Alternative sources include hydro, solar, and wind, but once electricity is generated, it needs to be used right away because we lack a reliable method to store large amounts of power. Walter Mérida, Director of the Clean Energy Research Centre and professor at the University of British Columbia, is looking for ways to bypass fossil fuels by using electricity to generate hydrogen as a zero-emission chemical fuel.

This move is driven by our increased power needs for modern services and technologies. However, to make a real change, we need a better system. “The main driver for energy system evolution is not scarcity. We didn’t abandon the stone age due to the scarcity of stones. We abandoned it because there were better things to build things with. And in the case of fossil fuel – these transitions you have seen from wood, to coal, to oil – are due to quality and convenience; the fuels are much more convenient,” explains Mérida.

Hydrogen is a front-runner as a chemical fuel because it can be generated from water. Through a process called hydrolysis, we can use electricity to break water down into hydrogen and oxygen. This conversion stores the electrical energy as chemical energy, allowing the hydrogen to be used as a fuel. When hydrogen is later burned to release the energy for use, it converts back into water, creating a truly zero-emission system. This is the idea behind fuel cells, which are devices that use hydrogen to produce electricity. Fuel cells were first developed in Vancouver, making Canada a world leader in this technology. Together with renewable energy sources, the further development of hydrogen as a fuel may lead to our best source of energy yet.

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Prof. Walter Mérida was born in Guatemala and he completed his education in Italy and Canada (Physics, Chemistry, and Mechanical Engineering). His graduate research focused on natural gas liquefaction and fuel cell technology. From 1996 to 1999 he managed research projects between Ballard Power Systems, British Gas Investments Canada, and the Institute for Integrated Energy Systems. He served on the Board for General Hydrogen Corporation prior to private financing (1999-2000).

Prof. Mérida joined UBC in 2002: he is a professor in Mechanical Engineering, and an associate member in Chemical and Biological Engineering. He was a visiting professor at the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems in Freiburg (2010), and he was co-appointed at the Canadian National Research Council from 2002 to 2011. He is currently the director at UBC’s Clean Energy Research Centre.