What’s all the hype around hydrogen?
An overview of fuel cell technology, where it’s going, and how the government is adapting
A recent CNBC article read
“Hydrogen is going to take 25% of all oil demand by 2050.”
And I was shocked. Since when was the most common element on earth able to transform into fossil fuels like oil? Depends on who you’re talking to, but technically, never (sorry folks, no magic here). That being said, hydrogen makes a heck of a competitor to oil and gas once it’s paired with oxygen and the mighty fuel cell.
Before I get into the details, let’s revisit the original question. Why is it that hydrogen fuel cells aren’t a direct replacement for fossil fuels? Well, as stated by the U.S. Department of Energy, hydrogen “is an energy carrier, not an energy source”, meaning that energy from another source must be used to produce hydrogen, which then stores the energy from the original source until it can be used in the fuel cell.
What is a fuel cell and how do they work?
A hydrogen fuel cell is similar to a battery, but not quite the same. It essentially converts chemical energy into electrical energy.
In this simplified illustration, we can see four main components. The anode (or negative electrode), a catalyst, an electrolyte, and a cathode (or positive electrode). They work together to produce electricity like so:
- Hydrogen and air (or in some cases, pure oxygen) are fed to the anode and cathode, respectively.
- The H2, a neutral gas, wants to get to the O2 to react with it (a romantic relationship I’m rooting for), but the electrolyte in between (which you can think of like an over-protective parent) only allows positively-charged things to get past it.
- The catalyst, acting like the resourceful best friend, splits the hydrogen’s electrons from the protons.
- The hydrogen protons (H+) unite with the O2 in the cathode (yay!) and the hydrogen electrons (e-) sneak out to meet them through an external circuit.
- The mischievous electrons move through the wire, creating electricity.
- The two elements finally come together to form H2O, or water, as we know it. This is one of the major advantages — water and heat are the only byproducts of hydrogen fuel cells.
It’s a pretty simple process. Most fuel cells work on these same principles and they mainly differ based on the material used for the electrolyte.
And what’s the big deal?
For all the attention they’re getting, HFCs have got to have a lot to offer — and they certainly do.
Firstly, depending on the method used to produce the hydrogen, the result is nearly zero-emission power. Plus, individual fuel cells can be easily joined together to make fuel cell stacks (and in some cases larger systems) making them extremely scalable.
Fuel cells are also reliable and consistent. Not only are they able to promptly provide power for a variety of applications, but they’re also able to survive in conditions like -40 degree weather and natural disasters. Using these fuel cells will eliminate the need to change, charge, and manage batteries, subsequently reducing labor, time, space, and peak power demand, lowering the operational costs by 84% compared to combustion generators for stationary power. (PlugPower)
- They have the ability to operate around 97% of the time
- Fuel cells enable energy security
- We could potentially reduce our demand for foreign oil if we transitioned to fuel cell systems
- The waste heat can sometimes be harnessed
- FCEVs have a longer range and lower refueling time than electric vehicles
Earlier on in the article, I mentioned that hydrogen is one of the most abundant elements here on planet earth — but I left out a crucial detail. While it is technically abundant, we rarely find pure hydrogen here on Earth. It’s almost always bound to another element — and that’s why it has to undergo different processes before it can be used in a fuel cell!
This is one of the primary difficulties with keeping the costs down, staying true to the green promise, and also using hydrogen as an energy carrier and storage medium in general. 🍃
As put by the Department of Energy, other key challenges and the respective improvements that need to be made include:
→ Less energy needs to be lost and the electrical output should outweigh the input. However, that’s easier said than done.
→ Low-cost components, materials (particularly one that is highly-conductive for the electrode), manufacturing, and distribution.
- Lifetime of Hydrogen Storage Systems
→ More durable materials and components.
- Weight and volume of hydrogen storage systems
→ Lightweight but functional materials and components.
- No Standardized Codes and Operating Procedures
→ Wide-spread standards should be established to gain public acceptance + ensure safety.
- Lack of Life-Cycle and Efficiency Analyses
→ More data needs to be collected.
And technology aside, one of the most pressing problems of all is government support. As summarized by a highly experienced professional named Terry Kimmel:
The technology that is required for hydrogen vehicles to gain adoption is there; all that’s left is for governments (or in some cases, private organizations) to provide funding and for the infrastructure to be set in place.
Let’s take a look at what’s happening in our next-door neighbour.
Welcome to the Party, America
Currently, interest in hydrogen technology is mainly centered in the European Union and China — the reason being that the EU has made some major strides with policy (setting some ambitious goals like installing 40 gigawatts of renewable hydrogen electrolyzers by 2030)and China is, well, China. With plans on boasting the world’s largest economy, the country wants to lead with technology and energy.
However, with the increasing demand for energy storage, the declining cost of renewable energy, and the government push for industries to cut down on carbon emissions and invest in infrastructure to support economic recovery, the U.S. might just become the next big player in the hydrogen game.
In fact, experts like Massimo Schiavo (director, S&P Global Ratings) believe that the States will likely be introducing its own national-level hydrogen strategy as early as 2021 or in the closely following years.
Besides that, efforts across the state level are also starting to pick up, with states like California mandating the consideration of hydrogen in the state’s vision for a clean energy economy and several U.S. and Canadian states/provinces teaming up to form an initiative to discuss and support the momentum, infrastructure, and deployment of green hydrogen.
As per hydrogen production, which will definitely need to accelerate to meet this oncoming demand, the opinions of industry analysts vary on the timeline of its maturity. However, according to Utility Dive, “Even with strong government support, hydrogen must still overcome two key challenges that are linked: affordability and scale.”
So for all you innovators out there, get working on fixing these two barriers and you’ll make millions. 💸 Easy enough, right?
Where Will We See this Technology Shine? 🌟
The Most Popular On the Block: Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles
When most people think of fuel cells, their mind goes straight to cars — and that’s pretty fair. Historically, fuel cell vehicles have been the most sought-after application of fuel cells. Since hydrogen could replace the petroleum onboard most vehicles, cars + fuel cells make a pretty magical team.
Because of its low volumetric energy density and the fuel cell’s high efficiency, fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) are a great alternative to typical internal combustion engine vehicles (or ICEVs). In fact, a fuel cell coupled with an electric motor is two to three times more efficient than an ICEV running on gasoline.
Plus, hydrogen-powered vehicles produce nearly zero tailpipe emissions, other than condensed water vapour and excess heat.
How it works
Essentially, the compressed gas is stored onboard the vehicle in a high-pressure tank. The H2 is fed into the fuel cell stack, which powers an electric motor. In between, a boost converter boosts the voltage of the fuel cell stack, and a power control unit optimally controls the output of the FCS and the battery. Yes, a battery is still required onboard to recapture energy from braking, provide extra power during short acceleration events, and smooth out the power delivered from the fuel cell with the option to idle or turn off the fuel cell during low power needs.
The (literal) Race to the Top with Electric Vehicles
Technology goes hand in hand with business and when it comes to FCEVs, there’s some major competition. While hydrogen does offer a better solution compared to our regular gas-guzzling vehicles, that’s not to say that they’re the best in class. As we can see with the ever-popular Tesla, electric vehicles dominate the green vehicle market — and it’s not just the aesthetic appeal. Logically, electric vehicles just make more sense compared to those with fuel cells.
As explained by The Drive, the two processes can be seen as follows:
Battery Electric Vehicles:
Generated electricity → Wire → Battery → Battery is discharged to power vehicle
Electricity → Produce hydrogen → Compress hydrogen (often offsite) → Transport to fueling station → Compress hydrogen into vehicle’s tank → Feed into fuel cell → Produce electricity to power vehicle
Clearly, the process of powering a hydrogen vehicle is much more complicated than that of a BEV. This takes a huge toll on the Co2-per-mile footprint of a FCEV because every step of the way, efficiency is lost, resulting in the CO2-per-mile footprint of an FCEV being nearly DOUBLE as much as a BEV.
It’s no wonder that by the end of 2019, only 7,500 hydrogen cars had been sold around the world while, by the end of 2018, there were over 5 million plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs) sold globally, and as we know, sales have rocketed since then.
Now let’s look at the inverse, and more positive, side of things. I was made aware of the above points while reading through an article, which clearly disapproved of FCEVs — While these points are far from invalid, they’re pessimistic.
After speaking to an industry professional with nearly 15 years of experience with hydrogen fuel cell technology, I gained a new perspective.
He brought this point to light:
There is lots of room for technology in the space, and it’s going to take everything we got to move away from oil and fossil fuels.
And it truly is as simple as that. Why neglect a viable solution to a problem as large as vehicular pollution when we could instead take steps to get closer to solving it? Seeing as though the time is ticking, it only makes sense to invest in hydrogen vehicles, because they’re on their way, as we can already see with China, Australia, and Germany (sorry Elon). Besides, there are many other applications for HFCs.
FCEVs may be the center of attention, but there are far more possibilities.
Aside from automotive vehicles, hydrogen fuel cells’ fast fueling time and light weight make them an attractive option for many other use cases such as:
- Basically any vehicle: trucks, trains, buses, aircraft, watercraft, etc.
- Material handling: forklifts, pallet jacks, and other warehouse equipment
- Home heating
- Emergency backup power
- Space: powering space shuttles, providing onboard electric power, and… creating a reliable source of energy for lunar habitations? (Click the link to watch the pitch from an idea sprint I worked on related to this!)
Exciting news and progress
As interest is steadily increasing, there have been some pretty awesome developments recently.
- Toyota Motors and Lyft launched a partnership just last week to provide some drivers in Vancouver with access to hydrogen-powered sedans in efforts to switch every vehicle on its platform to zero emissions by 2030. Cya Uber! 👀
- In agreement with Australia’s Global Energy Ventures, Metro Vancouver-based Ballard Power Systems has signed an agreement to develop a new fuel cell-powered ship. The kicker? The ship’s cargo will be compressed green hydrogen itself!
- Microsoft left one of their backup datacenter servers running on hydrogen for 2 days
- A Danish company by the name of Orsted is trying their hand at producing green hydrogen using offshore wind
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- A hydrogen-oxygen fuel cell works by splitting hydrogen protons and electrons to create electricity and bond H2 with O, forming only water as the byproduct
- Both hydrogen and electric vehicles have their ups and downs, but more and more FCEVs can be expected to hit the market in the coming years
- Cost and efficiency are the main setbacks
- The infrastructure for distributing hydrogen is crucial to support the widespread use of hydrogen, but this requires help from the government
- Potential applications range from vehicles to emergency backup power to home heating, and even space
- Progress in this field is rapidly accelerating, as seen with the many projects underway
Like with anything, certain issues need to be addressed before we can proceed with going haywire with hydrogen. However, interest in this field is steadily increasing, and with more R&D being conducted and governments hopping on the bandwagon, we may very well see the transition from our present-day oil and gas-based energy system to a hydrogen economy. I surely look forward to seeing what’s in store for hydrogen fuel cells and I hope you do too!