Scientists are feverishly working trying to predict how, when and where hydrogen embrittlement will take place. The auto industry, among others, is concerned about it. As you probably know, hydrogen-powered vehicles get their energy from a device called a fuel cell. Fuel cells allow hydrogen to combine with oxygen to produce heat and electricity. The only byproducts are heat and water [source: National Renewable Energy Laboratory].
Hydrogen atoms can bore into metal during the manufacturing process, such as when workers chromium-plate car parts, weld parts together, or when metal is milled or pressed. Hydrogen infiltration can also occur when the car is being driven on the road. The atoms saturate metal, seeping into fuel tanks and other components. As a result, car parts such as fuel tanks, fuel cells and ball bearings can fail without warning. The result? Costly repair bills -- and worse [source: Science Daily].
Don't junk the hydrogen car idea just yet. Researchers in Germany have been studying how hydrogen atoms move through metal. By tracing the route of the atoms, they hope to develop embrittlement-resistant materials that can be used in hydrogen cars. Scientists are also researching ways to stop the embrittlement process by constantly heating the hydrogen atoms that are always on the move [source: Science Daily].
By better understanding how hydrogen atoms go about their destructive business, scientists and engineers are confident they will be able to make onboard fuel tanks and other parts that don't degrade over time [source: Azom.com]. Before you know it, we'll all be driving hydrogen cars.
Author's Note: Does hydrogen destroy metal?
Until I started researching this article, I had no idea that hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe, was so destructive. Oh sure, I knew the basics of why my beloved 1993 Ford Ranger began to rust — oxygen combined with iron to form iron oxide, and before I knew it, I was scraping and priming and painting. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised to know that hydrogen eats away at metal just as easily. Hydrogen embrittlement is a serious matter, especially when hydrogen is a key component in solving our fuel needs and helping the planet. Hopefully, scientists will be able to figure out a cost-effective solution to the problem.
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