Quantum of Solace - can fuel cells blow up a hotel?

Note: these articles have been published in InfoChem, the supliment to Education in Chemistry produced by The Royal Society of Chemistry.

In this Bond film, a very dodgy South American dictator, General Medrano, is negotiating an even more dodgy deal with the evil Dominic Greene who wants to take control of one of the biggest sources of fresh water in the world [1]. The secret deal is signed in a hotel in the middle of the Bolivian desert. Among other things this state-of-the-art eco hotel is powered by fuel cells. There is actually a scene where the general is discussing the merits of the beautiful hotel and jokingly asks if the fuel cells are safe. Meanwhile Bond finds out about the secret meeting and in an action packed series of events puts an end to the whole plot but also puts a spectacular end to the hotel when the fuel cells blow! So how do fuel cells work, are they dangerous and could they blow up a hotel?

A fuel cell is an electrochemical device that produces electricity from the reaction of a fuel (on the anode side) and an oxidant (on the cathode side) [2]. There is great interest in using hydrogen as a 'green' fuel as its reaction with oxygen (air) only produces water as waste. Hydrogen can be made from hydrocarbon fuels but unfortunately CO or CO2 are often produced in the process and CO2 of course is a greenhouse gas [3]. However solar cells can be used to provide electricity to electrolyses water to produce hydrogen.

Fuel cells are ideal for remote locations and where a non polluting energy source is required. For example they have been used to great effect in the space flight programs were the H2 and O2 rocket fuel can be converted directly into electricity and also water. Unlike a battery, which has to be recharged regularly, a fuel cell can supply electricity as long as you can supply fuel. Going back to the film it appears that there are a number of fuel cell units powering the rooms of the hotel. It's not clear if each of these units has its own hydrogen fuel tank or if they are feed via one large tank. In this remote location, in the sunny desert, solar cells could be used to electrolyse water to make hydrogen which could be stored in tanks for the fuel cells. If these were ruptured the Hydrogen would vent into the air producing a highly explosive mixture [4].

The ignition energy for H / O mixtures is very low, about a tenth that of other fuels such as methane or petrol. Even small electrostatic sparks from certain types of clothing can cause an explosion. Also the range of H concentrations that can explode and even detonate is extremely wide, much wider than almost any other fuel [4].

At one point in the film a car smashes into a fuel cell unit which starts explosions propagating around the whole complex eventually leading to complete fire-ball destruction of the hotel. So all in all from what we know about fuel cells what we see unfolding in a Quantum of Solace looks plausible, but perhaps only if the hotel design was so poor a sort of chain reaction of tank rupturing could take place. One thing is for sure any survivors of this dramatic explosive scenario would have had major hearing problems afterward!

[1] Quantum of Solace, James Bond, 2008.
[2] for info. about Fuel Cells see: "wiki page"
[3] e.g. see CO2 is a greenhouse gas, InfoChem, issue 114, Jan. 2009
[4] Fuel cells: understanding the hazards. HSE books, 2004. ISBN 0 7176 2766 7


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Dr Jonathan Hare, The University of Sussex
Brighton, East Sussex. BN1 9QJ.

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