New uses for hydrogen: alternative energy for sustainable architecture

Wrriten by: Alejandro Ayala | November 29, 2017

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Imagine electricity generation that doesn’t affect our environment and that promotes economic growth, making use of the nation’s own science research, technology, and workforce. An established technology such as fuel cells can today generate electricity without producing harmful emissions, and its only byproducts are water and heat.

“The end of the age of petroleum is approaching, hydrogen is the future,” say the trend analysts, automobile makers and politicians around the world. Hydrogen is the cleanest fuel there is. It is versatile and highly efficient. A revolutionary fuel that, not only in a technical sense, will transform social relations across the planet.

However, many questions arise: will hydrogen be the “gasoline” of the twenty-first century? So claims Dr. Mohammed El Ashry, of the Global Environment Fund (GEF): “Hydrogen is the fuel of the future”; and David German, from the US Department of Energy, affirms that hydrogen: “Can be obtained from a wide range of primary fuels and through several different processes,” making it an element that is easy to source.

But is it safe? “Some of the challenges are technical, and the cost and behavior of fuel cell batteries is still being studied,” points out Jeffrey Serfass from the National Hydrogen Association in the United States.

But is it true that the simplest atom in the universe could really be the fuel of the future?

Governments and leading carmakers (General Motors, Ford, Ballard) believe so, and are investing billions of dollars to develop this new energy system. Some say that the development of hydrogen energy will be a revolution as significant as the light bulb or the microchip. Are we on the threshold of the hydrogen age?

Predicting the future: almost 150 years ago, in 1874, Jules Verne predicted in his novel “The Mysterious Island” that water would be the coal of the future.

“Yes, water […] decomposed doubtless, by electricity, which will then have become a powerful and manageable force, for all great discoveries, by some inexplicable laws, appear to agree and become complete at the same time. Yes, my friends, I believe that water will one day be employed as fuel, that hydrogen and oxygen which constitute it, used singly or together, will furnish an inexhaustible source of heat and light, of an intensity of which coal is not capable. Some day the coalrooms of steamers and the tenders of locomotives will, instead of coal, be stored with these two condensed gases, which will burn in the furnaces with enormous calorific power. […] I believe, then, that when the deposits of coal are exhausted we shall heat and warm ourselves with water. Water will be the coal of the future.”

For this reason, and aware at SMA of the technological, social and environmental evolution currently underway, the proposal is to examine the production and use of hydrogen as an alternative energy vector in architecture and sustainable construction.

Today, humanity possesses advanced technologies for generating clean energy. The system for the production, storage and use of hydrogen as an alternative energy vector comprises the following elements:

  • Photovoltaic solar panels, solar concentrators and/or wind turbines, for the use of renewable energy sources
  • Equipment where hydrogen is produced by fission of water molecules (H2O)
  • Hydrogen storage tanks (at relatively high pressure)
  • Proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells

The configuration, scale and operation of the system is determined by a specific engineering arrangement, in accordance with the characteristics of the project or requirement to be met.

How do PEM fuel cells work?

In summary, it is a normal fuel cell that uses a membrane for the passage of protons placed between two electrodes, where hydrogen gas is injected on one side and oxygen on the other. The hydrogen atoms are attracted to the oxygen atoms, but the membrane only allows the passage of the protons, which carry a positive charge. This forces the electrons to take a longer route, with the result that this flow of electrons generates an electric current.


This process (the inverse of the electrolyser) is highly efficient, since the conversion of chemical energy into electrical energy occurs electrochemically, making it more efficient than internal combustion technologies.

However, we still need energy to start the process, a “spark” to split the water molecule (H2O) into its two component elements (hydrogen + oxygen). For this we use the (increasingly efficient) technologies developed to exploit renewable energy sources (mainly solar and wind).

The result is “green hydrogen.” In this way, the system is self-contained and creates the possibility of energy autonomy, even allowing us to imagine that, if we reintegrate the “residual” water into the system, we can generate a closed cycle to create a form of “perpetual motion.” And thereby produce infinite energy.

The architectural and construction key: an exercise in integration

The challenge is to create sustainable architectural and urban projects that are energy autonomous, in every possible way. The need to establish and apply methods that lead us to sustainable architectural and urban practices with energy autonomy; enhancement and respect for the environment; and—the focus of the current research work—the integration of bioclimatic design techniques in a single exercise.

To create comfort for all the senses (warmth, noise, light, smell), it is necessary to integrate certified “green label” techniques and materials that contribute to a more sustainable construction with the use of renewable resources; the new energy alternatives; the saving and efficient use of energy generated in projects of all kinds; as well as incorporating innocuous technologies (developed or in evolution) dedicated to the production, use and control of “green hydrogen.”

This new alternative energy vector, dedicated to the generation and supply of electrical power in situ, will provide energy autonomy for our projects and the wellbeing of the end user.

The stage and the actors are set, it is time to embark on a new era within our work in the architectural, urban and construction field. Given the virtues of technological advances, but above all taking as a priority the development of best practices to meet the needs of the end user and improve the immediate and global environment, the vision of the use of hydrogen—as an energy vector—is a bold alternative that we have to exploit, on the threshold of a new economic and environmental paradigm.

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