When it comes to finding alternatives for fossil fuels, it could be argued that the auto industry has been a little late to the party. While some companies are working on electric cars and hybrids, the fact remains that only about 3% of the cars on the road in the US are hybrids. What about other alternative energy? Hydrogen fuel cell cars are being talked about, but many fear the technology. Hydrogen can conjure up images of explosions and bombs, and that just doesn't sell. Toyota Motors of North America however is serious about its commitment to finding more eco-friendly ways to power cars and recently debuted a semi-tractor trailer powered entirely by hydrogen fuel cells. Dubbed "Project Portal" the truck harnesses the power of hydrogen and advanced physics to power a large truck that is slated for use at the Port of Los Angeles.
Hydrogen fuel cells use electricity to power an engine, however unlike electric or hybrid cars that use batteries with stored electricity, the power in a hydrogen fueled vehicle comes from reacting hydrogen and oxygen in the presence of an electrolyte - a non-metallic conductor in which electrical flow is carried by the movement of ions. These are called "proton-exchange membrane" cells. They work by delivering Hydrogen gas to a negatively charged anode on one side of the cell while oxygen is channeled to a positively charged cathode on the other side. At the anode, a catalyst, such as the precious metal platinum, knocks the hydrogen atoms' electrons off, leaving positively charged hydrogen ions and free electrons. A membrane placed between the anode and cathode only allows the ions to pass through. The electrons must travel along an external circuit generating an electric current and there you have it a hydrogen fuel cell powered truck. The technology is expensive at the moment and more refinements are needed, but the commitment by a major auto maker to use physics to lessen the environmental impact of large trucks is a step in the right direction.