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What are the Pros and Cons of Hydrogen Fuel Cells?


Hydrogen fuel cells use hydrogen as a fuel in an electrochemical process that combines hydrogen and oxygen to produce electrical energy and water. The reverse process of electrolysis, which produces ‘green’ hydrogen and oxygen from water, can use a range of renewable energy resources (wind, wave, solar) to produce hydrogen as a fuel for renewable power generation. There is also growing interest in hydrogen power as a uniquely clean energy source that can produce heat and whose only by-products are water.

Green hydrogen produced from electrolysis (a high energy process) and renewable energy sources is a high cost option, which only accounts for around 5% of total H2 production. Currently, the vast majority of global hydrogen production derives from fossil fuel sources (methane gas reforming) and will continue to do so for several decades. However, as manufacturing capacity for more efficient and cost-effective electrolysers grows, it is expected that costs of production will fall markedly alongside roll-out of maturing renewable power generation technologies and capacity.

In order to produce a secure, resilient and decarbonised energy system, production and bulk storage of hydrogen will play an important role in balancing intermittent supply of energy from renewable energy sources with end-user demands (ie. for grid electricity, domestic and industrial heating and fuel for transportation).

Debates continue regarding hydrogen fuel cells advantages and disadvantages, but despite current limitations, hydrogen is still an environmentally-friendly alternative to fossil fuels and can be used to provide flexible and high-density power and propulsion for a wide range of industrial plant and modes of transportation using hydrogen fuel cell technology.

What are The Advantages of Hydrogen Fuel Cells?

Hydrogen fuel cell technology  presents several advantages over other power sources , including: 

1. Renewable and Readily Available

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the Universe and despite the challenges associated with its extraction from water, is a uniquely abundant and renewable source of energy,perfect for our future zero-carbon needs for combined heat and power supplies.

2. Hydrogen is a Clean and Flexible Energy Source to support Zero-Carbon Energy Strategies

Hydrogen fuel cells provide an inherently clean source of energy, with no adverse environmental impact during operation as the byproducts are simply heat and water. Unlike biofuel or hydropower, hydrogen doesn’t require large areas of land to produce. In fact, NASA have even been working on using hydrogen as a resource with the water produced as a byproduct being used as drinking water for astronauts. This shows that hydrogen fuel cells are a non-toxic fuel source and therefore superior in this way to coal, natural gas and nuclear power which are all either potentially dangerous or hard to obtain. Production, storage and use of hydrogen will play an important role in driving further development of renewable energy, by balancing their intermittent supply modalities with the challenging end-user demands, avoiding the need for significant early investment to upgrade grid infrastructure.

3. More Powerful and Energy Efficient than Fossil Fuels

Hydrogen fuel cell technology provides a high-density source of energy with good energy efficiency. Hydrogen has the highest energy content of any common fuel by weight. High pressure gaseous and liquid hydrogen have around three times the gravimetric energy density (around 120MJ/kg) of diesel and LNG and a similar volumetric energy density to natural gas.  These  

4. Highly Efficient when Compared to Other Energy Sources

Hydrogen fuel cells are more efficient than many other energy sources, including many green energy solutions. This fuel efficiency allows for the production of more energy per pound of fuel. For example, a conventional combustion based power plant generates electricity at 33-35% efficiency compared to up to 65% for hydrogen fuel cells. The same goes for vehicles, where hydrogen fuel cells use 40-60% of the fuel’s energy while also offering a 50% reduction in fuel consumption.

5. Almost Zero Emissions

Hydrogen fuel cells do not generate greenhouse gas emissions as for fossil fuel sources, thus reducing pollution and improving air quality as a result.

6. Reduces Carbon Footprints

With almost no emissions, hydrogen fuel cells do not release greenhouse gases, which means they do not have a carbon footprint while in use.

7. Fast Charging Times

The charge time for hydrogen fuel cell power units is extremely rapid, similar to that for conventional internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles and markedly quicker in comparison tobattery-powered electric vehicles. Where electric vehicles require between 30 minutes and several hours to charge, hydrogen fuel cells can be recharged in under five minutes. This fast charging time means that hydrogen powered vehicles provide the same flexibility as conventional cars.

8. No Noise Pollution

Hydrogen fuel cells do not produce noise pollution like other sources of renewable energy, such as wind power. This also means that, much like electric cars, hydrogen powered vehicles are much quieter than those that use conventional internal combustion engines.

9. No Visual Pollution

Some low-carbon energy sources, including wind energy and biofuel power plants can be an eyesore, however, hydrogen fuel cells do not have the same space requirements, meaning that there is less visual pollution too.

10. Long Usage Times

Hydrogen fuel cells offer greater efficiencies with regard to usage times. A hydrogen vehicle has the same range as those that use fossil fuels (around 300 miles). This is superior to that currently offered by electric vehicles (EVs), which are increasingly being developed with fuel cell power units as ‘range-extenders’. Hydrogen fuel cells are also not significantly impacted by the outside temperature and do not deteriorate in cold weather, unlike EVs. This advantage is increased further when coupled with the short charging times.

11. Ideal for Use in Remote Areas

Where local conditions allow, the  availability of hydrogen through local generation and storage could prove to be an alternative to diesel-based power and heating in remote areas. Not only will this reduce the need to transport fuels but will also improve the lives of those living in distant regions by offering a non-polluting fuel obtain from a readily-available natural resource.

12. Versatility of Use

As the technology advances, hydrogen fuel cells will be able to provide energy for a range stationary and mobile applications. Hydrogen powered vehicles are just one example, but it could also be used in smaller applications such as domestic products as well as larger scale heating systems. Similar to ICE powerplants, the functions of energy storage capacity (ie. the fuel tank) and engine size are decoupled, in contrast to battery-based power (ie. for which power scales linearly with mass), thus providing great flexibility in design.

13. Democratisation of Power Supply

Hydrogen fuel cells have the potential to reduce the dependency of a nation on fossil fuels, which will help democratise energy and power supplies around the world. This increased independence will prove a benefit for many countries who are currently reliant on fossil fuel supply. Of course, this will also avoid the problem of rising fossil fuel prices as stocks reduce.

Hydrogen Power Case Studies

TWI has a great deal of experience and expertise in the power generation sector and you can find out more about this here.

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TWI has adapted its existing high-pressure hydrogen testing facility to enable these tests to be performed routinely, by developing automated control software to carry out the incremental load increase and hold durations while monitoring the DCPD signal throughout the test.

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What are the Disadvantages of Hydrogen Fuel Cells?

For all the many advantages of hydrogen fuel cells, there are still a few disadvantages and challenges to address:

1. Hydrogen Extraction

Despite being the most abundant element in the Universe, hydrogen does not exist on its own so needs to be extracted from water via electrolysis or separated from carbon fossil fuels. Both of these processes require a significant amount of energy to achieve. This energy can be more than that gained from the hydrogen itself as well as being expensive. In addition, this extraction typically requires the use of fossil fuels, which in the absence of CCS undermines the green credentials of hydrogen.

2. Investment is Required

Hydrogen fuel cells need investment to be developed to the point where they become a genuinely viable energy source. This will also require the political will to invest the time and money into development in order to improve and mature the technology. Put simply, the global challenge for development of widespread and sustainable hydrogen energy is how best to incrementally build the ‘supply and demand’ chain in the most cost-effective manner.

3. Cost of Raw Materials

Precious metals such as platinum and iridium are typically required as catalysts in fuel cells and some  types of water electrolyser, which means that the initial cost of fuel cells (and electrolysers) can be high. This high cost has deterred some from investing in hydrogen fuel cell technology. Such costs need to be reduced in order to make hydrogen fuel cells a feasible fuel source for all.

4. Regulatory Issues

There are also barriers around regulatory issues concerning the framework that defines commercial deployment models. Without clear regulatory frameworks to allow commercial projects to understand their cost and revenue basis, commercial projects can struggle to reach a financial investment decision (FID).

5. Overall Cost

The cost for a unit of power from hydrogen fuel cells is currently greater than other energy sources, including solar panels. This may change as technology advances, but currently this cost is a barrier to widespread use of hydrogen even though it is more efficient once produced. This expense also impacts costs further down the line, such as with the price of hydrogen operated vehicles, making widespread adoption unlikely at the moment.

6. Hydrogen Storage

Storage and transportation of hydrogen is more complex than that required for  fossil fuels. This implies additional costs to consider for hydrogen fuel cells as a source of energy.

7. Infrastructure

Because fossil fuels have been used for decades, the infrastructure for this power supply already exists. Large scale adoption of hydrogen fuel cell technology for automotive applications will require new refueling infrastructure to support it, although for long-range applications such as those for HGVs and delivery truck is it likely the start-to-end refueling will be used.

8. Highly Flammable

Hydrogen is a highly flammable fuel source, which brings understandable safety concerns. Hydrogen gas burns in air at concentrations ranging from 4 to 75%.

Conclusion / Summary

The advantages of hydrogen fuel cells as one of the best renewable energy sources are evident, however there are still a number of challenges to overcome to realise the full  potential of hydrogen as a key enabler for a future decarbonised energy system.

On the positive side, hydrogen fuel cells could offer a fully renewable and clean power source for stationary and mobile applications in the near future.  To achieve this there is the need to scale up decarbonised hydrogen production and fuel cell manufacture, and develop the required regulatory framework to clearly define commercial deployment models.  Further technological advances to lower the associated costs of extraction, storage and transportation are envisaged, along with further investment in the infrastructure to support it.

Hydrogen could become the best solution for the future of our energy requirements but this will require political will and investment to achieve. However, as fossil fuels run out hydrogen could be a key solution for our global energy needs.

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