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What’s So Good About Hydrogen?

Hydrogen fuel cells have become increasingly well known. If you haven’t heard of them, you might be a bit behind. But does it even matter if you do get left behind?

Many automotive manufacturers have chosen fuel cell technology as the long-term solution to replace combustion engines when the oil stops flowing -- but that’s not expected to happen for at least another 15 years (even if we keep using it at our current rate). So why are we bothering to get so excited about hydrogen fuel cells now?

Even if you know nothing about fuel cells -- you’ve never even heard of them, and you’re totally uninterested, so what?

You’ll still be able to go to the gas station tomorrow and fill up your car. In fact, you will be able to do this for at least another 15 years -- and let’s face it, that’s more than enough time for anyone to fill up their car.

Fuel Cells Are Important Now

So just what is so great about fuel cells, and why do we need them now?

Well, in developed countries, the average life expectancy is a few years lower in urban areas than in rural areas, and this is in part due to the toxic fumes that we breathe in when we walk around cities. These fumes come from vehicles.

Hydrogen fuel cells provide the possibility of living in a world where the only thing leaving vehicles is water vapor. Imagine taking a drink out your exhaust pipe. It sounds crazy, but it’s becoming a reality, as the only thing coming out the exhaust of a hydrogen car is water vapor, not the endless list of toxic fumes that get blasted the exhaust of every engine.

Cities will clean up, acid rain will be reduced, and it will help to reduce global warming. In fact, approximately 35% of all greenhouse gas emissions would be completely taken away if the world were to use hydrogen fuel cells. So, by using hydrogen, you will be helping the environment; however, how does hydrogen help you?

The Benefits for You

We’d all like to help save the planet, but at the end of the day, if it’s not benefitting us directly, most of us want to put our money where our mouth is, so how does hydrogen help the average consumer?

To start with, hydrogen gets you many more miles per volumetric energy input. A standard internal combustion engine is incredibly inefficient, and most of the fuel you spend your hard-earned cash on is wasted.

And if you don’t believe me -- just think about it -- you want all your fuel to be converted into kinetic energy (driving the car forward) -- so what creates all that noise and heat? That’s wasted energy. Then you also consider the amount of unburnt fuel which goes out the exhaust pipe, and the force needed to push gases through the catalytic converter (up to 10% of engine power) – then you realize just how little of your gas is actually driving your car.

Efficiency and Reliability

A hydrogen fuel cell on the other hand doesn’t have these problems. They do produce noise and heat, but a smaller quantity since there are far fewer moving parts. They also do not have an exhaust system to force gases through. By comparison, an average engine running on petroleum with give you about 0.25 km per MJ (mega joule) of energy, while a fuel cell will give you 0.4 km per MJ.

But there is also another benefit to having fewer moving parts. Fuel cell cars break down less, since there are fewer parts to break. This means lower maintenance bills, and less time spent sitting at the side of the road (which has got to be the biggest dread of any driver). In fact, they are not just more reliable than normal vehicles; they have close to 100% reliability proven in many tests.

The Cost Factor

So, before you rush out to your nearest showroom in a flurry of excitement and slap your credit card down to get a hydrogen powered car -- you ought to know the downsides. The cars themselves are vastly expensive, you’re looking at upwards of $100,000 for a standard family car, and a kilo of hydrogen will cost you about $20; by comparison this is like paying $25 for a gallon of gas, and governments haven’t even began taxing it yet. Oh, and you might be driving for quite a while to get to the nearest hydrogen filling station.

However, when the first motor cars were built and sold, the world did not have many filling stations, and only the richest people could afford them. But it wasn’t long before the price started dropping -- and cars became a fully integrated part of society. Hydrogen cars will also become that way soon -- and they may end up being comparably cheaper than the cars we drive now, as well as having all the other added benefits.

Once the technology is available to the masses, prices will fall, and further research will allow the materials to be produced more efficiently, or even substituted for other components. The most expensive part of a fuel cell is the platinum plate that allows the chemical processes to take place within the cell -- if an alternative to platinum could be found, the fuel cell stack cost would be greatly reduced.

Explosive Capabilities

The other complaint that many people have with hydrogen is that it is flammable. They point to events such as the Hindenburg disaster as evidence. But so is oil -- you wouldn’t stick a lit match in your fuel tank, and the flames with petrol last for much longer. While hydrogen is slightly more volatile, the force is quickly dissipated, and therefore, if it is properly stored -- the flammability argument is almost pointless.

Overall, hydrogen is a far better option than the internal combustion engines we use now, we just need to wait for it to become mainstream, like the original motor cars did over 100 years ago. When that time comes, I am positive that we will never want to look back!

Dr. Colleen Spiegel Posted by Dr. Colleen Spiegel

Dr. Colleen Spiegel is a mathematical modeling and technical writing consultant (President of SEMSCIO) and Professor holding a Ph.D. and an MSc degree in Engineering. She has seventeen years of experience in engineering, statistics, data science, research & technical writing work for many companies as a consultant, employee, and independent business owner. She is the author of ‘Designing and Building Fuel Cells’ (McGraw-Hill, 2007) and ‘PEM Fuel Cell Modeling and Simulation Using MATLAB’ (Elsevier Science, 2008). She previously owned Clean Fuel Cell Energy, LLC, which was a fuel cell organization that served scientists, engineers, and professors world-wide.

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2 Comments To "What’s So Good About Hydrogen?"

Nathan On 09.17.2020
Let's take a hypothetical. Say a Florida women who owns a shadowless field has bought a new 2020 NEXO Hyundai vehicle. To her horror she discovers that there are no publicly-accessible hydrogen fueling stations in Florida. What would the costs be for the woman if she decided to purchase an off-grid electrolyzer and other car refueling components that would have enough capacity to fuel her vehicle? This scenario is a bit ridiculous, but I think it would be an interesting blog post to read. Reply to this comment
Matthew Mehmet Crawford On 09.18.2020
Hello Nathan, Fuel Cell Store team appreciates your comments for this article. Since we are mostly focused on much smaller educational and research products in the area of fuel cells and electrolyzer technologies, we will not be able to provide a rough dollar figure for the hypothetical system you were referring to it. Such a large system that is meeting the local regulations and codes would require an input from a manufacturer that has built and qualified these type of hardware that are for commercial or residential use. We do recommend that you try to reach to other companies that have experience in manufacturing and assembling such large electrolyzer and solar power modules. Thanks.

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