Unlocking the Power of Hydrogen Fuel
by Jane Marsh
Could hydrogen fuel be the future of electrification and clean energy? Hydrogen fuel cells are emerging as an alternative to batteries for applications like electric generators and electric vehicles. Learn more about the benefits of hydrogen fuel and how businesses and engineers can unlock the full potential of this incredible power source.
How Does Hydrogen Fuel Work?
Hydrogen fuel can power vehicles, devices, equipment, and structures using fuel cells, which convert liquid hydrogen into electricity. A fuel cell is similar to a battery, but with some key technological differences.
Unlike batteries, fuel cells don’t “die.” They can continue to produce power as long as they have fuel. If the fuel cell runs out of fuel, it can be refilled like a gas tank in a typical combustion engine car.
Fuel cells use a simple chemical reaction to convert fuel into power. Liquid hydrogen is stored in the anode, or negative end, of the fuel cell. Air is stored at the positive end, the cathode. The anode also contains a catalyst, which splits hydrogen molecules into their protons and electrons. The electrons are the source of the electricity the fuel cell produces.
Benefits of Hydrogen Fuel
Why is hydrogen the future of fuel? It has some important benefits that make it stand out from other fossil fuel alternatives.
It’s hard to beat hydrogen fuel when it comes to sustainability. It’s a clean fuel and only produces water vapor and heat as byproducts. This means a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle can drive all day and produce zero emissions.
Hydrogen fuel is also more sustainable than lithium-ion (li-ion) batteries, the most common type of battery for powering electric vehicles. Li-ion batteries may reduce the emissions a vehicle produces, but their supply chain has serious environmental and human rights issues.
The process of mining, refining, and smelting cobalt for li-ion batteries creates large amounts of carbon emissions and can involve unsafe working conditions. Hydrogen fuel cells offer an alternative to this unsustainable, unethical supply chain. With hydrogen, we can electrify all types of vehicles without relying on batteries.
Hydrogen fuel has a big edge when it comes to convenience, especially compared to batteries. For one thing, hydrogen is readily available in large quantities. It’s the universe’s most abundant element and is found in everything from water to cow manure. There’s a greater natural supply of hydrogen in the world than fossil fuels.
Additionally, hydrogen fuel is convenient for users. One of the biggest drawbacks of battery-powered electric vehicles (BEVs) is the long wait to recharge the vehicle. Many BEVs have charging times of 8 to 12 hours. Even getting a partial charge from a quick charger can take an hour or two.
Hydrogen fuel can resolve this issue. Fuel cells can electrify vehicles of any size while maintaining the convenience of a conventional gas station stop. The only difference is that drivers will refill their fuel cells with hydrogen rather than refilling their combustion engine vehicles with fossil fuels.
Efficiency and Reliability
Electric vehicles are steadily gaining popularity year after year, but one category of vehicles continues to face challenges — trucks and heavy equipment.
Large vehicles are difficult to electrify with batteries because they require large, expensive battery packs and excessively long charging times. Industries like logistics, trucking, and public transportation need electric vehicles so drivers can refuel quickly so they can stay on schedule. Hydrogen fuel is the perfect solution.
Hydrogen fuel cells are also significantly more energy efficient than conventional combustion engines. A typical gas-powered car engine has an average of 20% fuel efficiency, meaning 80% of the potential energy in the fuel conversion process is lost. In contrast, hydrogen fuel cells have an average 60% fuel efficiency, three times greater than a combustion engine.
In addition to energy efficiency, one of the top everyday benefits of hydrogen fuel is its reliability. Hydrogen fuel cell systems are fairly mechanically simple, meaning they are more reliable than engines or batteries. Since there are fewer components in the fuel cell powertrain, there are fewer opportunities for things to break, fail, or malfunction.
The Road to a Hydrogen Fuel Future
Considering all of the benefits of hydrogen fuel, many people may be wondering why it isn’t more common already. Hydrogen will certainly be one of the top fuels of the future, but there are a few key challenges the industry needs to overcome first.
Arguably the biggest challenge facing the growth of hydrogen fuel is infrastructure. Battery-electric vehicles are facing this challenge, as well. Hydrogen fuel stations remain scarce in the United States, although they are more common in some areas than others. For instance, California has over 50 H70 fuel stations as of 2023. Some cities, like San Jose and San Francisco, have multiple hydrogen stations.
Of course, the growth of hydrogen fuel stations requires growth in the hydrogen fuel cell market itself. There is a growing demand for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and generators with particularly high interest in the public transit and large vehicle markets.
Beyond infrastructure or availability, the most pressing challenge for hydrogen fuel is cost. Unfortunately, hydrogen remains expensive to manufacture and deliver to customers. The cost difference is leading many businesses to avoid hydrogen fuel cells in favor of batteries, despite the environmental and humanitarian concerns connected to the battery supply chain.
Luckily, innovative engineering projects are developing methods for making hydrogen fuel more affordable to help boost adoption even more. If the cost to produce hydrogen becomes on par with batteries or fossil fuels, it will be a more appealing option for businesses, product designers, and transportation leaders. This is a crucial step for unlocking the full potential of hydrogen fuel.
Hydrogen Fuel: Huge Potential for Clean Energy
There are many benefits of using hydrogen fuel, from sustainability to convenience. It has huge potential to transform the electric vehicle industry and potentially replace fossil fuels in other niches, such as home generators.
Hydrogen fuel faces some challenges, though, including a lack of infrastructure and expensive manufacturing processes. Development and innovation in these issues is the key to harnessing the potential of hydrogen as a leading source of clean energy.
Article by Jane Marsh
Jane works as an environmental and energy writer. She is also the founder and editor-in-chief of