Hydrogen Fuel Cells : A fuel cell combines hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity, heat, and water. Fuel cells are often compared to batteries. Both convert the energy produced by a chemical reaction into usable electric power. However, the fuel cell will produce electricity as long as fuel (hydrogen) is supplied, never losing its charge.

Fuel cells are a promising technology for use as a source of heat and electricity for buildings, and as an electrical power source for electric motors propelling vehicles. Fuel cells operate best on pure hydrogen. But fuels like natural gas, methanol, or even gasoline can be reformed to produce the hydrogen required for fuel cells. Some fuel cells even can be fueled directly with methanol, without using a reformer.

In the future, hydrogen could also join electricity as an important energy carrier. An energy carrier moves and delivers energy in a usable form to consumers. Renewable energy sources, like the sun and wind, can’t produce energy all the time. But they could, for example, produce electric energy and hydrogen, which can be stored until it’s needed. Hydrogen can also be transported (like electricity) to locations where it is needed.
Inside a fuel cell

A fuel cell works much like an electric battery, converting chemical energy into electrical energy using the movement of charged hydrogen ions across an electrolyte membrane to generate current. There they recombine with oxygen to produce water – a fuel cell’s only emission, alongside hot air.

Although less efficient than electric batteries, today’s fuel cells compare favourably with internal combustion engine technology, which converts fuel into kinetic energy at roughly 25 per cent efficiency. A fuel cell, by contrast, can mix hydrogen with air to produce electricity at up to 60 per cent efficiency.

FCEVs also present relatively low barriers to entry in terms of societal changes, as they operate and perform similarly to conventional vehicles, refuelling at stations in minutes and driving for 500 to 600 kilometres on a single tank, all with no harmful emissions.

Globally, the cost of hydrogen is already coming down, partly in line with the fall in the cost of renewable energy, but also due to improvements in water electrolysis and hydrogen fuel cell technology.

The Paris-based International Energy Agency expects the cost of producing hydrogen to fall by a further 30 per cent by 2030, but the rapid reduction in the cost of recent photovoltaic solar energy projects in the Middle East could mean the local cost of commercially producing hydrogen will fall even faster.

As investment in hydrogen infrastructure grows and net costs continue to fall, the hydrogen economy could prove to be an indispensable tool in the transition away from hydrocarbons.

Advantages and Disadvantages

The key benefits of hydrogen fuel cells include the following:

Unlike gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles, hydrogen fuel cells do not produce air pollutants. It only produces nitrogen oxides when burned in engines.

It reduces dependence on petroleum imports as hydrogen can be domestically produced from various sources.

Fuel cell vehicles powered by hydrogen do not produce green house gas emissions.

The following are some of the disadvantages of hydrogen fuel cells:

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are currently very expensive than conventional vehicles or any hybrids.

Fuel cell vehicles are not as durable as internal combustion engines in terms of temperature and humidity ranges.

Availability of hydrogen is limited to certain locations and hydrogen is quite expensive to produce as well.

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles produce very less energy when compared other gasoline or diesel vehicles and hence it is difficult to achieve high driving range.

The systems used for delivering gasoline from refineries to gasoline stations cannot be used for hydrogen.

The following are some of the applications of hydrogen fuel cells:

NASA is the primary user of hydrogen resources for its space program. NASA fuels the booster rockets of the space shuttle using liquid hydrogen and employs hydrogen batteries for electrical sources.

Hydrogen fuel cells can power any portable device that uses batteries. Unlike a typical battery, the hydrogen fuel cell continues to produce energy with the continuous supply of fuel. This ability of the fuel cells enables them to power devices like hearing aids, video recorders, cellular phones and laptop computers.

Stationary hydrogen fuel cells are the largest and most powerful fuel cells. They are a clean, reliable source of power to cities, towns and buildings. These fuel cells are also used for back-up and remote power applications including remote weather stations and rural locations.

The hydrogen economy in the automotive sector is forecast to grow rapidly until 2025, passing an inflection point in 2025. Based on the merits of hydrogen, such as its eco-friendliness, efficiency, flexibility, and ease of storage/transportation, hydrogen fuel cell-based transportation should become economically feasible through a gradual decline in costs through learning and economies of scale. 

Although the market focuses on the eco-friendliness of hydrogen, it should not be overlooked that it is an energy source that exists everywhere, which magnifies the potential of hydrogen. For this reason, not only countries with low energy self-sufficiency, such as Korea and Japan, but also countries with abundant hydrocarbon resources such as the Middle East and Australia, are attempting to nurture the growth of hydrogen businesses. The current hydrocarbon economy relies on resources concentrated in some regions, causing energy security problems and geopolitical conflicts. Hydrogen's omnipresence can completely resolve these problems.