The Future of Fuel Cells

The Future of Fuel Cells

Hydrogen fuel cells, once hailed as the future technology destined to save us from our gas-guzzling petroleum vehicles, have fallen out of favour in the last year or so. Partly because Elon Musk referred to them as “dumb” but mainly because the consumer uptake has been slow, to say the least. So why is Japan’s largest automobile maker, Toyota, making a renewed push to bring hydrogen fuel cells to the masses?

Apart from the fact they have invested millions in the technology, Toyota points out that fuel cells address the largest problem facing battery powered electric vehicles: the wait time.  Even with advanced fast charging, a charge is likely to be well over half an hour for a battery powered EV. Whereas a hydrogen tank can be refilled in a matter of minutes, just like a conventional petrol tank. It is for this reason that Toyota believe both hydrogen fuel cells and advanced batteries are needed to usurp fossil fuel powered vehicles.

Away from the public domain, hydrogen fuel cells have found their place in other uses. A great example is in warehouse forklift trucks. With almost zero emissions, they are far cleaner to run that diesel or gas-powered alternatives, and the fast refuel times make them superior in efficiency to battery powered models. In April of this year, Amazon invested $70 million in hydrogen powered forklifts for its warehouses. Another potential market for fuel cells is in military applications. Again, the fast refuelling times make them desirable in an industry known for not liking to wait around. The added bonus of these vehicles is that fuel cells are practically silent while working, lending themselves to covert operations.

Which leads you to think, if hydrogen fuel cells are so great why didn’t they take off in the first place? Well, mainly because of the costs. Hydrogen fuel cells produce power, and a little bit of water, when liquid hydrogen is pushed through a membrane that strips off electrons using an electrochemical process. The required fuel, liquid hydrogen, is very difficult to make and even harder to store. Pure hydrogen is produced either from steam reforming hydrocarbon, i.e. using fossil fuels, or by electrolysis, an extremely power-intensive process.  Neither of these methods are exactly ‘green’. The second issue is that once the hydrogen has been produced, it must be stored in very specific conditions. Due to its nature, hydrogen must be cooled to -253oC and put under extreme pressure to convert it into liquid state ready for transport. These storage and transport issues are a principal reason for why refuelling stations are few and far between, and ultimately a major cause of the slow take-up in the consumer market.

Personally, I think Elon Musk was right. It doesn’t make sense to consume fossil fuels or use vast amounts of electricity to produce hydrogen, not when these fuels can be used directly for transport.  I do however also think that the technology does have its uses and should not be shunned entirely. There is a good argument for using ‘excess’ power from the grid during down times to produce hydrogen, which can then be used in specific areas such as military or industry. But as I say, with the recent advances in battery technology, I can’t see fuel cells having a large place in the broad automotive industry.

Author: Christopher Braithwaite

The founder of TMTalks, Christopher, is based in the United Kingdom and writes for the site in his free time. Particular areas of interest include Space, energy, cyber security and block-chain technology.

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