Chemical reaction

Brahama D. Sharma

Photo By Josh Indar

If you read the letters sections of local newspapers, you’ll probably recognize the name Brahama D. Sharma. In fact, he writes so many letters—lately about fuel cells—we began to wonder if he was some kind of kook. Turns out he’s not, or at least he doesn’t seem like one in person. He’s a 74-year-old retired chemistry professor who’s taught at Caltech, USC and Oregon State (among other schools) and who says he’s sick and tired of reading “misinformation” on the subject of so-called clean energy.

You’ve been very vocal in saying fuel cells are not the answer to our energy problems…

At this time. Fuel cells that we know today require a technology which is very complicated in terms of large energy systems. There are all kinds of fuel cells. We can produce hydrogen in small amounts for very limited, local purposes. But … one has to produce hydrogen some way and the only way we know how to do that is to use electrical power. That means somewhere some fossil fuels are being used. You think you are not doing it at home, but you are producing greenhouse gas in someone else’s back yard.

What about gas-powered fuel cells?

There is what is called a means of converting fuel … into lower [forms] of natural gas, but you don’t produce any elemental hydrogen, what you produce is hydrogen atoms. Hydrogen atoms, that’s a mechanism by which oxidation takes place in the fuel cell. There is a chemistry involved—the bond has to break in a certain way that is different in the flame form of combustion as opposed to flameless.

Why does that matter?

Because you’re still making carbon dioxide. You’re still creating greenhouse gas. If they were using hydrogen fuel cell only, yes you have no oxygen, forgetting about how the hydrogen is being created. The fuel cells using natural gas and propane [are] combusting hydrogen atoms. You’re getting energy from the combustion of the hyrdrocarbon as a whole. So to call that hydrogen power is a misrepresentation.

Do you have a solution?

Yeah. The solution is to create mass transportation using fossil fuels—not coal—that is cleaner and not using sulfur and to somehow educate the public to become attuned to not individual car driving. Young children should be made to walk, unless you’re disabled. Why should [Chico State] students even take buses to school? They can walk. People need to use less fossil fuel.