The Present And Future Of Hydrogen Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles (Part 2)

hydrogen fel cell diagram
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Lack of Understanding About Fuel Cells

People tend to distrust that which they do not understand. And it’s fair to say that most drivers don’t understand how fuel cells work, if they’re aware of them at all.

When cars with internal combustion engines first started to rumble off the assembly line, many horse and buggy drivers greeted them with suspicion and disdain. They didn’t understand how they worked. Today, most people likely know at least something about expanding gases, spark plugs, pistons, and crankshafts.

As for battery-powered electric vehicles … Most people carry battery-powered devices around in their pockets. Even if they don’t understand how they work, they’re comfortable with them.

Solution: More education. It’s not necessary to turn each consumer into a physicist, but marketing that clearly explains the benefits of fuel cell technology will help to win over drivers reluctant to try something new.

An Immature Hydrogen Infrastructure

Gasoline-fueled cars can be filled up at just about any service station on any street corner. Battery electric cars can be charged over-night in your garage, at one of the growing number of rapid charge stations coming online across the map, or anywhere you can find an outlet and someone willing to let you use it. But where do you fill a hydrogen-powered car?

The California Fuel Cell Partnership predicts that there will be 100 strategically placed hydrogen fueling stations in the state by the beginning of 2016, enough to launch the commercial market. Stations are also beginning to appear in other regions, particularly parts of Europe and Japan. But that’s hardly encouraging for the rest of the U.S., or for other countries with consumers eager to make the switch.

Clean Hydrogen Production

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe. But it’s not an energy source We can’t drill for hydrogen as we do oil. We can’t mine hydrogen as we do coal. Instead, hydrogen is an energy carrier that must be extracted from other sources.

Most – about 95% – of the hydrogen in use in industry and transportation today comes from steam reforming of natural gas, producing carbon dioxide and hydrogen. Natural gas may have a green-sounding name, but it’s a fossil fuel just like oil and coal. Its primary component, methane, is a potent greenhouse gas, and burning natural gas releases carbon dioxide, another greenhouse gas.

Clearly, extracting hydrogen from natural gas is not a green alternative. However, hydrogen can also be produced from a variety of renewable sources, including biomass, landfill gas, and even sewage, as well as from the electrolysis of water. Of course, the energy to do this has to come from somewhere, but that somewhere can be other renewable sources, like wind and solar.

Morry Markowitz, President of the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association in the U.S., notes, “One of the biggest potentials that we have is converting renewable energy to a more stable electrical or electric stationary mix by creating hydrogen through electrolysis using excess wind or solar and having the hydrogen become the storage mechanism, which then can be used to either provide electricity and maintain a stable grid, or be used as a transportation fuel.”

Energy storage is one of the key factors in the successful implementation of renewable energy, which are often variable and unpredictable. On a bright, sunny day, if our solar photovoltaic array produces more power than we need, or if the winds are blowing and our wind farm is delivering excess power, we don’t have to let it go to waste. Instead, we can use the excess to produce hydrogen. Then, whenever it’s needed – when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing – that hydrogen can be turned back into electricity and fed to the grid through stationary fuel cells. Or it can be pumped into tanks and used to power fuel cell electric vehicles.

Once you find a station, will it be easy to fill up? “The actual process of filling the tank is very little different from what you do right now,” explains Markowitz. “You go to a dispenser unit at a filling station. Instead of having a fluid nozzle, you have a compressed gas nozzle you attach to your car. You hit a couple of buttons and the vehicle fills up in 3 to 5 minutes.”

Commenting on the safety aspect, Markowitz notes, “The vehicles and the stations themselves will meet or exceed safety standards that have been established over the past 50, 60 years. That ensures the safety of these vehicles and of the stations themselves.”

Solution: Time. As the number of hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles increases, demand for stations at which to fuel them will increase and infrastructure will grow. As the infrastructure grows, more drivers will be willing to switch to FCEVs.

Hydrogen: How Much? How Pure?

Markowitz highlights two issues related to infrastructure. “The major issues facing us today are being able to meter the fuel and to make sure that the hydrogen is pure enough so it performs as expected by the fuel cell vehicle manufacturer.”

Measuring the amount of gasoline you pump into your car is relatively easy and uses well-established technology and widely recognized standards. Measuring the amount of hydrogen you pump into your car is somewhat more difficult, given the high pressures involved, variable temperatures, and the range of tank requirements. But progress is being made.

Governments and manufacturers are working to establish reliable systems and standards that satisfy the high degree of accuracy and safety necessary for retail operations. Already, the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), the leading publisher of automotive industry standards, has issued J2601: Fueling Protocols for Light Duty Gaseous Hydrogen Surface Vehicles. This is a globally-accepted standard for hydrogen station interoperability and design.

Every gasoline-powered car has a fuel filter to prevent contaminants from damaging the engine and reducing performance. In hydrogen FCEVs, the purity of the hydrogen fuel is even more critical. Slight impurities – on the order of parts-per-million to parts-per-billion – from compounds such as carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, ammonia, and even water, can wreak havoc with a fuel cell, resulting in catalyst poisoning, destroying the fuel cell completely. To counter this, manufacturers are looking at ways of producing cleaner hydrogen and of making fuel cells more resilient.

Solution: Research and development. As technologies to measure and purify hydrogen improve, wider adoption will follow.

Part 1   |   Part 3

Jules Smith is the principal of LightningStrike Studios, a professional communications firm specializing in renewable energy and information technology.