Do hydrogen fuel cells have a future?

Hydrogen is an energy carrier with qualities that can help reduce the net sum of greenhouse gas emissions. However, while battery-powered electric vehicles and machines and biofuels can now decarbonize transportation today, large-scale hydrogen-powered transport and infrastructure are still part of the future. The industry has been promoting hydrogen as a reliable next-generation fuel for powering cars, heating homes, and generating electricity. In fact, it may be worse for the climate than previously thought.

Like a battery-powered electric vehicle, a fuel cell car (FCEV) works in a similar way. Instead of a large battery, it has a small one similar to what you would find in a traditional hybrid, such as a Prius. An FCEV powertrain also houses an electric motor, which drives the vehicle 100% of the time. But the most important thing is that there is a fuel cell.

Unlike batteries, fuel cell technology can be scaled for passenger vehicles, buses, ships and trains. In the future, hydrogen will even boost urban air mobility. Honda and Toyota have partnered with a subsidiary of Shell Oil to build new hydrogen service stations in California. Hydrogen and hydrogen-based fuels can transport energy from renewable sources over long distances, from regions with abundant solar and wind resources, such as Australia or Latin America, to energy-intensive cities thousands of kilometers away.

There are currently 39 public hydrogen stations in California (with another 25 under development), along with a couple in Hawaii. In addition to expanding its line of battery-powered, hybrid and plug-in electric vehicles, Hyundai is a pioneer in hydrogen fuel cell technology. In the near future, most hydrogen fuel is likely to be manufactured from natural gas using a polluting, energy-intensive method called the steam reform process, which uses steam, high temperatures and pressure to break down methane into hydrogen and carbon monoxide. While many experts agree that hydrogen could eventually play a role in storing energy or powering certain types of transportation, such as planes or long-distance trucks, in cases where the switch to battery-powered electric power may be a challenge, there is a growing consensus that a broader hydrogen economy that depends on natural gas could be harmful to the climate.

Fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) combine hydrogen stored in a tank with oxygen in the air to produce electricity, with water vapor as a by-product. In the United States, Europe and elsewhere, the industry has also mentioned hydrogen as a justification for continuing to build gas infrastructure, such as gas pipelines, and has stated that pipelines carrying natural gas could in the future carry a cleaner mix of natural gas and hydrogen. Nowadays, very little hydrogen is green, because the process of electrolyzing water to separate hydrogen atoms from oxygen consumes a lot of energy. While renewable sources of hydrogen, such as agricultural and waste sites, are increasing, most of the hydrogen obtained as fuel comes from traditional natural gas extraction.

Although today less than 0.1% of the world's production dedicated to hydrogen comes from the electrolysis of water, with the decrease in the costs of renewable electricity, in particular solar photovoltaic and wind energy, there is a growing interest in electrolytic hydrogen. At the cathode, oxygen, filtered from the environment, attracts positively charged hydrogen to form water. While hydrogen travels to the cathode, the electron is sent through a circuit that generates electricity. Unlike the most common battery-powered electric vehicles, fuel cell vehicles don't need to be plugged in, and all current models exceed 300 miles of range with a full tank.

Perschke has been CEO of Audi India, CEO founder of Automobili Pininfarina and now CEO of Quantron AG, a German company that produces electric and fuel cell trucks and buses. .

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