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Hydrogen Fuel Cells Are the Future of Street Cleaning

By August 5, 2022 5   min read  (906 words)

August 5, 2022 |

Fuel Cells Works, Hydrogen Fuel Cells Are the Future of Street Cleaning

It seems the conversation about climate change has turned the corner as a mainstream issue. Excitement is building around several technologies designed to reduce humanity’s impact on the natural environment. Hydrogen fuel cells are one of the most promising, and they might change the world from the bottom up, beginning with our streets.

What Are the Advantages of Hydrogen Fuel Cells?

Can we power our world with hydrogen? Many engineers and scientists believe we can.

The primary advantage of using hydrogen as fuel is because it’s plentiful and can be generated using a variety of naturally occurring resources. Once assembled and deployed, hydrogen fuel cells emit no greenhouse gas emissions; the cell yields only warm air and water vapor as waste. Hydrogen fuel cells can be used to power automobiles or stationary installations like warehouses, transportation hubs, and other facilities.

Here are the three biggest reasons why hydrogen is under intense scrutiny as an alternative fuel source:

1. Energy Independence and National Security

As of 2020, the United States is a net exporter of petroleum. Even so, relying on finite resources is not sustainable. Any country stands an excellent chance at obtaining true energy independence using hydrogen and improving their natural security in the bargain.

2. Cleaner Air and Healthier Populations

Public health will benefit tremendously from the mass adoption of hydrogen fuel cells. More than half the world’s population lives in cities, which are known for rampant air pollution and related health problems, including lung cancer, heart disease, and respiratory illnesses. Using hydrogen for power, especially in cities, will result in a healthier populace.

3. Environmental Protections

Keeping the natural environment healthy is a primary reason for seeking alternative fuels. Emissions from manufacturing, transportation, and construction together represent the majority of greenhouse gases emitted on Earth, at 72%. These gases are known to impact the natural energy gradient between Earth and Sol and cause climate change. Replacing these energy sources with hydrogen would reduce and eventually eliminate these emissions.

What’s So Great About Hydrogen-Powered Street Cleaners?

There have been several recent and successful examples of cities replacing conventional street cleaners with variants powered by hydrogen. City streets aren’t the only potential application, either — airports also need sweepers capable of clearing runways at high speeds.

The city of Basel, Switzerland, was the first municipality to successfully deploy a hydrogen fuel cell street cleaner. City officials and residents noticed the difference immediately because the vehicle emits no exhaust fumes and is entirely silent while operating. The vehicle uses 15 pounds of hydrogen to power its electric motor. This cell is capable of recharging the sweeper’s motor 10 times while the vehicle is in operation — typically for seven hours at a time.

According to Christian Bach, of the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology — which jointly developed the sweeper with other research groups — these vehicles are the ideal candidate for hydrogen fuel cells. “This type of vehicle is usually driven at very low load, about 5-6 km an hour. And fuel cell systems have high efficiency at low speeds.”

Other Swiss cities are now looking to adopt hydrogen sweepers of their own.

Green Machines recently unveiled their own hydrogen-powered street sweepers. The company has a presence across the globe, which should give these new products the reach they need to become mainstream. Green Machines says even their battery-electric model, the GM 500ZE, can be modified to accept hydrogen fuel cells.

Like the model in Basel, these vehicles can operate for the length of a typical street-sweeping shift without needing recharging. If the cell does become depleted, recharging takes minutes — and there are two ways to do so, based on the configuration of the sweeper. The vehicles feature either a refillable hydrogen storage tank or small, modular hydrogen fuel cells that can be swapped out rapidly for fresh ones.

U.S. Hybrid is another company staking their claim in this growing sector. The company’s vehicle contains a 44-pound (20 kg) fuel cell that can operate for 10 hours. Because the company operates in Los Angeles, it’s able to take advantage of the region’s burgeoning hydrogen-refilling infrastructure. The city has around two dozen facilities, any of which can refill the U.S. Hybrid sweeper in 10 minutes.

Is There Anything Holding Back Hydrogen-Powered Street Cleaning?

Hydrogen fuel cells are not yet a credibly competitive alternative to incumbent sources of energy like petroleum. They present some of the same growing pains as electric vehicles — namely, that the relatively low power density of hydrogen compared to its volume means hydrogen-powered vehicles require more space to store fuel than internal combustion-powered vehicles.

Therefore, storing hydrogen — kept ready in facilities for depleted vehicles, or stored as modular cells in the vehicles to extend their practical range — is a challenge at this stage of the technology’s development.

Production costs are another bottleneck. Hydrogen is a pricey fuel to process, and experts anticipate it could take until 2025 to achieve cost parity between fuel-cell-powered vehicles and hybrid vehicles.

Researchers noted a more than 70% increase in internet searches for sustainable products among Gen Z and Millennial consumers. This cohort now finds themselves in positions to influence city spending as well as their own. Hydrogen fuel cells dovetail perfectly with the public’s mounting desire to power our world affordably and sustainably.

 

About the Author
Jane Marsh

Jane Marsh, Contributor

Jane Marsh is the Editor-in-Chief of Environment.co. Jane covers topics related to climate policy, sustainability, green technology, renewable energy and more.

 

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