By Austin Wade-Vicente
Fossil fuels have changed the course of human history. The 1500s and 1600s used trees to supply warmth to thousands, but reliance on wood deforested entire countries for fuel consumption. In the 1900s, horse-drawn carts and buses expedited transportation, yet the beasts’ dung brought flies that spread a miasma of disease. Today, our transportation, heat, and other energy needs are predominantly satisfied through the use of fossil fuels, but they greatly impact our atmosphere and environment. However, engineers at the University of Delaware have discovered a new technological breakthrough that may build the bridge to a post-fossil fuel age.
The University of Delaware’s research team accidentally created an effective carbon-capturing solution when it was experimenting with “hydroxide exchange membrane (HEM) fuel cells, a more affordable and environmentally friendly alternative to traditional acid-based fuel cells. These fuel cells would function to change chemical energy into electric energy in hybrid or zero-emission vehicles, but they were kept off the road because they are incredibly sensitive to carbon dioxide input. Carbon dioxide caused these fuel cells to lose 20% efficiency, making them no better than a regular gasoline engine. It took the team nearly decades of research, but soon, that hindrance became a leverageable strength. Using hydrogen to control the short-circuiting fuel cells created a mechanism that can capture 98% of all carbon dioxide running through them at a rate of 10 liters per minute. Effectively, electric vehicles equipped with this technology could continuously remove carbon emissions from the air while driving.
There are two notable drawbacks to this system, however. First, this fuel cell system is only stable with added hydrogen. Hydrogen consumption in the U.S. alone is predominantly used by industry for refining petroleum, treating metals, producing fertilizer, and processing foods. There are a few hydrogen-based electric vehicles for sale, but the market is in its infancy. Regardless, two head engineers from the University of Delaware HEM project have created the spinoff company Versogen to further research towards sustainable green hydrogen and bringing these environmentally friendly fuel cells to market. Second, environmentalists see carbon capture as a dangerous distraction from ceasing reliance on fossil fuels. Carbon dioxide transportation is normally done through pipelines that can leak or rupture and can result in the asphyxiation of humans and animals. It can even taint freshwater sources. Regardless, carbon capture is not propagated as a silver bullet solution, and neither is immediately dropping fossil fuel usage either. The pandemic dropped global carbon emissions in 2020 by 4%–7% but damaged the world’s economy at the same time. Even worse is that current electric vehicle batteries are not feasible for any kind of substantial shipping, further underscoring the need for technological innovation before renouncing fossil fuels.
Despite risks espoused by environmentalists, lawmakers have begun to see carbon capture as a viable solution to mitigating our carbon emissions. Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia introduced bipartisan legislation to give tax credits to and encourage those undergoing carbon capture projects. Manchin’s Carbon Capture, Utilization, and Sequestration (CCSU) Amendments Act also would allow for direct payment of carbon credits and increase commercialization/support for direct air capture of CO2. Legislation such as this could be the legal mechanism that fuels carbon capture technology like Delaware’s HEM fuel cell project. If fully operational, this venture could begin to greatly impact transportation emissions, which make up the majority of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. Legislative support for further research into carbon capture and hydrogen vehicles may be the bridge needed to finally begin the transition from fossil fuels and create the green age of travel by land, sea, air, and even to the stars.
 Samantha Gross, Why are Fossil Fuels so Hard to Quit?, Brookings Inst. (June, 2020), https://www.brookings.edu/essay/why-are-fossil-fuels-so-hard-to-quit/.
 See Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emission, EPA (last visited Feb. 27, 2022), https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas-emissions#transportation.
 See generally Chris Young, New ‘Game-Changing’ Technology Removes 99% of Carbon Dioxide from the Air, Interesting Engineering (Feb. 4, 2022), https://interestingengineering.com/new-game-changing-technology-removes-99-of-carbon-dioxide-from-the-air.
 99% of CO2 Could Be Removed from Air by Game-Changing Technology, Technology Networks (Feb. 4, 2022), https://www.technologynetworks.com/applied-sciences/news/99-of-co2-could-be-removed-from-air-by-game-changing-technology-358214.
 Hydrogen Explained, Energy Info. Admin. (Jan. 20, 2022), https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/hydrogen/use-of-hydrogen.php#:~:text=Nearly%20all%20of%20the%20hydrogen,the%20sulfur%20content%20of%20fuels.
 See Id.
 Karen B. Roberts, Researchers Report Game-Changing Technology to Remove 99% of Carbon Dioxide from Air, Tech Xplore (Feb. 3, 2022), https://techxplore.com/news/2022-02-game-changing-technology-carbon-dioxide-air.html.
 Carbon Capture ‘A Dangerous Distraction’, 500 Organizations Warn Canada, U.S., The Energy Mix (July 22, 2021), https://www.theenergymix.com/2021/07/22/carbon-capture-a-dangerous-distraction-500-organizations-warn-canada-u-s/.
 Gross, supra note 1.
 See Manchin Introduces Carbon Capture Legislation, Senate Comm. on Energy & Nat. Res. (Mar. 25, 2021), https://www.energy.senate.gov/2021/3/manchin-introduces-carbon-capture-legislation#:~:text=Washington%2C%20DC%20%E2%80%93%20Today%2C%20U.S.,available%20and%20easier%20to%20use.
 Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions, EPA (last visited Feb. 27, 2022), https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas-emissions#transportation.
 See generally Young, supra note 4.
Image Source: https://www.leopardsystems.com.au/cleaner-greener-how-to-drive-down-fleet-emissions-reduce-your-carbon-footprint/