Sunday, July 14, 2019

The Future of Fuel Cells

Article Written By: Anjiya


Key barriers preventing widespread adoption of the virtually emission-free fuel cells include high upfront costs, storage as well as distribution of hydrogen. Government-mandated programs and hybrid technologies could just be the catalysts needed to overcome these hurdles. 

Much like batteries, fuel cells convert chemical energy to electrical energy. The difference being, a fuel cell can produce energy as long as fuel and oxidants are supplied whereas typical batteries eventually go dead.

It is composed of a positively charged plate called a cathode and a negatively charged one called an anode separated by an electrolyte membrane. Its function is quite simple: 
  1. Hydrogen passes through the anode and splits into electrons and protons. Simultaneously, oxygen from the air passes through the cathode.
  2. The protons from hydrogen pass through the membrane whereas the electrons cannot. 
  3. Atoms need an equalizing charge, thus forcing the electrons to change their path, generating an electrical current (and excess heat).
  4. The hydrogen and oxygen then bond at the cathode to produce water molecules as by-products.

Fuel cells are a clean method of producing energy, with their only by-products being electricity, excess heat, and water.  Moreover, they do not contain any moving parts and therefore operate near-silently and are far more energy efficient than traditional combustion technologies. 

One of the largest vantage points of this source of energy is its scalability; individual fuel cells can form stacks which in turn can be combined into larger (usually stationary) systems used to power electric vehicles, hospitals, schools as well as  multi-megawatt installations connected directly to utility grids. But, their equally useful portable applications cannot be forgotten; they can power anything from phone/laptop batteries to hearing aids. 

So that brings us to the question that if they’re so great, why aren’t they being used everywhere? 

Some key barriers to their widespread adoption include their high upfront cost which cannot, as of yet, compete economically with traditional sources. 

Storage and distribution of hydrogen is another large hurdle we have yet to cross; this means that there is a lack of plug-in stations. One possible solution to this is to use methanol (a liquid fuel) in automobile fuel cells as it is easily transportable. The drawback being that it also produces polluting carbon dioxide. For these reasons fuel cells faced backlash from politicians (e.g. from the U.S. secretary of energy in 2009) further influencing funding cuts on research solutions from universities.

Provinces like British Columbia are mandating a new zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) initiative to be introduced later this year which would force automakers to allocate more fuel cell powered and electric vehicles to the province because real money is projected on the table. To further incentivize consumers, rebates of up to $6,000 are being offered for fuel cell cars. If enough measures are taken to increase demand then cost reductions can also be made through volume manufacturing.

Moreover, large fuel cell power companies like FuelCell Energy are entering into long-term power purchase agreements which delineate all financial technicalities with local distributors and as such, possibly eliminate the upfront investment hurdle. Hybrid technologies that combine fuel cells with gas turbines and engines to capture unreacted fuel is another emerging solution which improve efficiencies and affordability. 

According to a recent report by KPMG, hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles have replaced battery electric vehicles as the no. 1 key trend in the automotive industry until 2025. Fleet vehicle operators like FedEx are exhibiting this by investing in hybrid hydrogen and battery power electric vehicles because the range is 166% farther than with batteries alone – increasing vehicle uptime while decreasing fuel and maintenance costs.

Fuel cells are not currently at the forefront of usage nor are they the newest developments in the energy markets. But they could be.

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