Fuel cell technology has been in works since the start of the 1900s. However, we have only now reached a stage where we can employ this tech on a large scale. What will hydrogen fuel cells give to us?
Well to put it in simple words, we’ll have consumer vehicles with refillable fuel cells powering electric motors that give zero emissions and work without the need to be refilled every 100-200 miles. The golden key here is their ability to provide environmentally friendly transport from green energy. However, there is still much to work on before we see this truly being implemented.
But first, let’s take a closer look at things. What exactly is hydrogen fuel cell technology?
A fuel cell, like a battery, essentially provides us with an electric current. However, unlike a battery that stores energy, a fuel cell creates its own. Hydrogen acts as a source and reacts with oxygen via an electrochemical process to form an electric charge. This electricity is then used to power the vehicle. A fuel cell will also only give us water and heat as waste products as opposed to combustion alternatives using petroleum as a source fuel.
While battery power may seem to have won, for now, experts predict that fuel cells will ultimately outperform them. Partly because they do not cause as much harm to the environment as battery power does.
Mining of metals such as Co, Li, Cu, and Ni can always be a cause of concern for the safety of workers and the environment. Recycling also produced CO2 which is harmful to the environment. On the other hand, electric cars also harm the environment. While they don’t emit exhaust fumes they do use batteries that emit toxic fumes.
Tesla’s co-founder and CEO, Elon Musk has however regarded hydrogen fuel cells as “mind-bogglingly stupid” and a “load of rubbish”. But the auto industry begs to differ. A 2017 survey of 1,000 senior auto executives conducted by KPMG found that hydrogen fuel cells have a better long-term future than electric cars. According to the report published, “Battery electric vehicles will fail due to infrastructure challenges while fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) are seen as the real breakthrough for electric mobility.”
What are the benefits of Hydrogen Fuel Cells?
- Hydrogen fuel cells give us no harmful emissions and are sustainable fuel as compared to fossil fuel alternatives.
- Vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells refuel faster as compared to charging electric cars –around 3-5 minutes.
- Cars using hydrogen as a fuel source can travel at much greater distances as compared to electric cars. The range falls around 300 miles.
- Hydrogen fuel cells have higher efficiency and can produce a lot more power for devices.
However, there are some significant barriers in the way of hydrogen fuel cell tech adoption.
Hydrogen Fuel Cell Barriers:
- Refueling locations are sparse and not readily available. The infrastructure required to support these vehicles on a large scale is not in place.
- One of the biggest hurdles to hydrogen fuel cells today is cost. The tech itself isn’t exactly cheap.
- Although hydrogen is readily available it is difficult to store and move around. Also, hydrogen is a highly flammable gas and is costly to safely transport and store.
Bath Sponge technology: A potential breakthrough?
A new technology developed by Northwestern University in Evanston could be a potential breakthrough in the safe storage of hydrogen. The bath sponge technology, also known as the product NU-1501, is capable of holding and releasing large quantities of gas at lower pressure and cost.
Why should users go for hydrogen fuel cell technology?
David Wenger, general manager of Germany’s Wenger Engineering Gmbh, who is at the front line of promoting the adoption of fuel cells in Europe, says that “Battery power is not the solution for everything. Those that live in big cities, for instance, will find it very difficult to recharge electric cars. The move to hydrogen will be slow but sure, and by 2030 I would assume maybe 5% of cars and trucks in Germany would be fuel-cell powered.”
According to Professor Kalghatgi, the main problem with this tech is distribution and storage i.e. getting it where the vehicles are. However, bath sponge technology might be of considerable use.
He also says that as renewable sources of energy i.e. wind and solar will become more common sources of electricity, a time will come when we have excess electricity. We can use this excess electricity to generate hydrogen rather than storing in batteries, which can then be delivered to where it is required. In short, hydrogen for transport could also make use of renewable power which currently goes to waste.