Invented in the 1800s, fuel cells have only recently gained popularity due to increasing concerns about greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution and the finite supply of fossil fuels. Hydrogen fuel cells have made a name for themselves in the energy market, so why is the technology still so rare?
The Advantages of Fuel Cells
Fuel cells are a promising technology because they offer a clean and efficient way to power the world. They only emit heat and water as byproducts by converting chemical energy from fuel into electricity without combustion. Other types of fuel cells emit some carbon dioxide in the process, but less than internal combustion engines produce.
Fuel cells have numerous applications, including in transportation, portable power and stationary energy generation. As of 2022, there were around 9.2 thousand fuel-cell passenger EVs in the United States, representing roughly 0.009% of registered vehicles in the country. Hydrogen fuel cells can power electric vehicles to extend their range and shorten refueling times. They are more than 80% efficient, which is staggering compared to an internal combustion engine’s 25% efficiency rating.
Stationary fuel cells can power homes, businesses and even entire communities in the event of a grid outage. Standby backup generators can provide up to 2500 kVA of power, which is useful for keeping critical infrastructure like hospitals and police stations operable during emergencies.
One advantage of fuel cells over other energy sources is their flexibility. They can run on a variety of fuels, including natural gas, hydrogen and biofuel. Additionally, refueling a fuel cell is very fast compared to recharging a battery.
Hydrogen fuel cells will likely play a significant role in a low-carbon energy market since hydrogen has a wide range of applications. Specifically, fuel cells are a viable alternative to electric batteries for large vehicles like planes, which would not be able to fly with the current heavy battery technology. When engineers create green hydrogen fuel via solar- or wind-powered electrolysis, it serves as a source of clean, renewable energy.
Why Batteries Are Still More Popular
As efficient as fuel cells are, they have a few downsides. Hydrogen fuel cells are the only fuel cell type that releases no emissions. But producing green hydrogen fuel is currently very expensive and this cost is passed on to consumers, who are often unwilling to pay a premium to fill their cars. If the price of green hydrogen falls over time, fuel cells might become more viable.
Other kinds of fuel cells — which run on oxygen and biofuel or fossil fuels — emit carbon dioxide or methane as they operate. In contrast, lithium-ion batteries only need electricity to run and produce no emissions. As consumers become increasingly eco-conscious, electric batteries can be a more attractive option.
Finally, the infrastructure for creating a hydrogen vehicle market does not exist yet. As of 2022, there were only 810 hydrogen fueling stations in the entire world, with a mere 6.7% in the United States. There simply are not enough hydrogen stations to make fuel cell vehicles viable. Conversely, electric charging stations have become common in many parts of the world, making it easier than ever to drive an EV.
The Future of Fuel Cells
Overall, fuel cells will likely play an essential role in the future energy market — especially when powering large vehicles — due to their efficiency, fast fueling and low emissions. However, there are still some technical and economic challenges to overcome before society can adopt this technology on a broader scale. Therefore, the role of fuel cells in the energy market is still very small.
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Jane Marsh, Contributor
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