Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Hydrogen Economy

At present the main source of energy that is driving our economy is fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas. As more people on the planet aspire to improve their standard of living, their energy requirement will increase. In fact, the per capita consumption of energy used is a measure of development. Of course, it is assumed that energy is used for productive purpose and not merely wasted. We are already aware that carbon dioxide produced by the combustion of fossil fuels is resulting in the ‘Greenhouse Effect’. This is leading to a rise in the temperature of the Earth’s surface, causing polar ice to melt and ocean levels to rise. This will flood low-lying areas along the coast and some island nations such as Maldives face total submergence. In order to avoid such a catastrope, we need to limit our use of carbonaceous fuels. Hydrogen provides an ideal alternative as its combustion results in water only. Hydrogen production must come from splitting water using solar energy. Therefore, hydrogen can be used as a renewable and non polluting source of energy. This is the vision of the Hydrogen Economy. Both the production of hydrogen by electrolysis of water and hydrogen combustion in a fuel cell will be important in the future. And both these technologies are based on electrochemical principles.

An electrochemical cell consists of two metallic electrodes dipping in electrolytic solution(s). Thus an important component of the electrochemical cell is the ionic conductor or electrolyte. Electrochemical cells are of two types. In galvanic cell, the chemical energy of a spontaneous redox reaction is converted into electrical work, whereas in an electrolytic cell, electrical energy is used to carry out a non-spontaneous redox reaction. The standard electrode potential for any electrode dipping in an appropriate solution is defined with respect to standard electrode potential of hydrogen electrode taken as zero. The standard potential of the cell can be obtained by taking the difference of the standard potentials of cathode and anode. The standard potential of the cells are related to standard Gibbs energy and equilibrium constant of the reaction taking place in the cell. Concentration dependence of the potentials of the electrodes and the cells are given by Nernst equation.

The conductivity, κ, of an electrolytic solution depends on the concentration of the electrolyte, nature of solvent and temperature. Molar conductivity, Ëm, is defined by = κ /c where c is the concentration. Conductivity decreases but molar conductivity increases with decrease in concentration. It increases slowly with decrease in concentration for strong electrolytes while the increase is very steep for weak electrolytes in very dilute solutions. Kohlrausch found that molar conductivity at infinite dilution, for an electrolyte is sum of the contribution of the molar conductivity of the ions in which it dissociates. It is known as law of independent migration of ions and has many applications. Ions conduct electricity through the solution but oxidation and reduction of the ions take place at the electrodes in an electrochemical cell. Batteries and fuel cells are very useful forms of galvanic cell. Corrosion of metals is essentially an electrochemical phenomenon. Electrochemical principles are relevant to the Hydrogen Economy.

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