Hydrogen fuel cells are considered a renewable fuel resource. They are also considered an alternative fuel, since it is still an uncommon technology in today’s world. Hydrogen is one of the most abundant resources we have, which is why having fuel cells operate on it makes a lot of sense.
The disadvantages and advantages of hydrogen fuel cells show us that it can be a versatile fuel option for many industries. It is also a fuel option that comes with its own unique set of risks.
List of the Advantages of Hydrogen Fuel Cells
1. These fuel cells offer a better overall fuel economy.
When hydrogen fuel cells are tested with automobiles, they receive more mileage per fill-up when compared to standard gasoline. Even with the better fuel economy, the performance of the vehicle remains the same. For the average vehicle, the fuel economy that can be achieved is twice what the current gasoline fuel economies happen to be.
2. It does not release emissions when being used.
When hydrogen fuel cells are being used to generate power, the only emissions they produce are water vapor. That means our transportation networks could lose billions of tons of carbon from vehicle exhaust if we were to transition over to this technology. In the United States, the average driver produces almost 5 metric tons of carbon dioxide every year. The reality of the hydrogen fuel cell is that it can make an immediate impact on the emissions we all generate every day.
3. Hydrogen fuel cells are much safer than other types of fuel.
Nuclear energy has a risk of radiation with it. Coal-fired energy carries a radioactive risk with it as well within its ash. Gasoline and petroleum consumption results in multiple gases being released into the atmosphere, including carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. Many forms of fuel release particulates that lead to acidic rain, breathing problems, and other health concerns. With a hydrogen fuel cell, these safety concerns go away.
4. It is able to perform consistently at any size.
Hydrogen fuel cells are unique in the fact that they offer the same performance ratios during consumption, no matter what size the cells happen to be. That means virtually any technology which requires fuel to run could use these fuel cells as their primary energy resource. Not only could hydrogen fuel cells be used for vehicles, it could be used for homes, for heating and cooling purposes, and even for electricity generation.
5. They are able to provide continuous power.
This technology does not require the fuel cells to be recharged at any time for them to remain functional. The only requirement of hydrogen fuel cells is that they must have access to fuel to continue operations. Since fuel cells combine oxygen and hydrogen to produce energy, which are available in abundance, having access to the fuel required to keep the cells active would not be problematic for most consumers.
6. It requires fewer chemicals for operation compared to other fuel types.
If you fill-up your vehicle with gasoline, you’re exposing yourself to certain chemicals that have unique health risks associated with them. Xylene, for example, can cause vomiting, dizziness, and headaches. Benzene can cause similar symptoms, even if the vapors which contain the chemical are inhaled. In total, some gasoline fuels may contain upwards of 150 different chemicals, detergents, and other ingredients. Some of these items are known to be carcinogens. Hydrogen fuel cells do not carry this exposure risk with their fuel source.
7. Hydrogen fuel cells can be paired with current infrastructure assets.
One way that hydrogen fuel cells could be incorporated into a community’s utility grid is through the use of biogas. Many wastewater treatment plants produce high levels of biogas that could be converted into hydrogen. With a hydrogen fuel cell available at the plant, the biogas could then be turned into fuel that could be used to operate the entire facility. If the fuel cells were large enough, the facility could supplement the local power grid. The water quality control facility in Riverside, CA is already experimenting with such a system and generating over 30% of their needed power from it.
8. The cost of hydrogen fuel cells is continuing to decline.
At the turn of the 21st century, the estimated cost of a hydrogen fuel cell, per kilowatt hour, was over $1,000. Today, the cost per installed kilowatt is about 50% of what it was just a decade ago. That means, in another 10 years, the installed costs of hydrogen fuel cells could be competitive enough that it may become a fundamental resource for numerous communities.
9. It can target power to where it is needed.
The reliability of hydrogen fuel cells is what could give it an edge when compared to other fuel resources. When these fuel cells are tied to the power grid, they have the ability to target their power to where it may be needed. That allows utilities to begin de-centralizing their grids, which would improve their reliability, make them less vulnerable to a hacking attack, and reduce the risks of other security issues that are faced as well.
10. Hydrogen fuel cells can make “microgrids” for communities.
Many communities receive their electricity from a centralized power station. The station then distributes the electricity throughout an installed grid, which eventually makes its way to individual homes and businesses. What happens if one part of that grid should fail? The power goes out. With hydrogen fuel cell technologies, communities could create their own microgrids to maintain power levels of the central station fails to deliver for some reason.
11. It is faster to maintain hydrogen fuel cells than other electric motor options.
If you take a vehicle powered by a hydrogen fuel cell to a service station with compatible fuel, you’ll be in and out of the station in 10 minutes or less. Many owners can fill-up their vehicle in 3-5 minutes. Compared to other electric vehicle options, there isn’t a quicker option. Even the Tesla Supercharger, at 120 kilowatts, requires 30 minutes to fully recharge a vehicle and that’s the fastest charger available as of March 2018.
12. Hydrogen fuel cells are lasting longer than ever before.
Toyota has produced a vehicle called “Mirai” that has been tested more than any other hydrogen fuel cell technology in history. They have exposed it to conditions in extreme parts of Alaska and driven it in the heat of Death Valley in California. Their testing has demonstrated that their current fuel cell technologies can last for up to 3,900 hours in a labor environment. That means the Mirai should be the first vehicle to achieve more than 100,000 miles before needing a replacement.
List of the Disadvantages of Hydrogen Fuel Cells
1. Hydrogen fuel cells can still pose health risks.
Although hydrogen fuel cells do not release the same harmful emissions that other fuel types offer when consumed, there are still some safety risks that must be considered with this technology. Like any fuel, there will always be a risk of flammability with hydrogen. Liquid hydrogen, which is often used to create the fuel cells in the first place, is kept at extremely cold temperatures that can cause freeze burns that are potentially dangerous to consumers as well.
2. It is not an affordable technology for the average person.
The average cost of a vehicle that utilizes hydrogen fuel cells is around $50,000. If you wanted to go refill your vehicle to keep driving it, then the California Fuel Cell Partnership reports that they average price is about $14 per kilogram. That is the equivalent of paying about $5.60 per gallon of gasoline. Because these vehicles get double the range, that drops the price equivalency to $2.80 per gallon when compared to another vehicle. That means a vehicle may cost twice as much and then cost as much to operate.
3. Hydrogen fuel cells are available in limited quantities.
Although hydrogen fuel cells have been used as an energy resource for large-scale projects since the 1970s, this technology has had limited availability. Even with a surge in its popularity, the average person struggles to get their hands on a hydrogen fuel cell. Vehicle manufacturers are only producing a few thousand vehicles for their hydrogen-powered models each year. Although the goal is to make this technology comparable in cost to electrical systems by 2025, little progress has been made in doing so.
4. It requires a huge capital investment to incorporate into our infrastructure.
The average cost of installing just one mile of a hydrogen fuel cell energy transportation system is over $200,000. In challenging geographic locations, the cost may be as high as $2 million per mile. Without the ability to transport fuel for hydrogen fuel cell owners, the technology is essentially useless. To take advantage of the low-emission nature of these fuel cells, an infrastructure investment of over $1 trillion in the United States would be necessary to make its availability widespread enough to be used by the average person.
5. The costs of transporting hydrogen are extremely high.
At this time, the cost of transporting hydrogen is about 4 times higher than any other comparable energy resource we use. The reason for these high costs is that hydrogen experiences high levels of energy loss when it is being transported in any form. Even with modern technologies preventing energy loss, the industry expects up to a 20% boil-off loss whenever hydrogen is being transported. During long-distance transports, up to 50% of the product can be lost. Without innovation in this category, it may be impossible for some rural households to take advantage of this technology.
6. Hydrogen fuel cells do not currently work with every piece of technology we have.
Most of our technologies are designed to operate off of fossil fuels or certain renewable energy resources. To take advantage of the emission-free consumption of fuel that this technology offers, we would require innovations in numerous sectors for it to become compatible with many existing technologies. Apple has filed a patent that would use hydrogen fuel cells in computers and smartphones, except that was in 2011 and has never come to fruition. The same challenges Apple faced would be in every industry.
7. Hydrogen is not as safe to use as many may think.
Although the advantage of a hydrogen fuel cell is that it produces water when consumed, hydrogen as a gas is not something we would want in our atmosphere in high quantities. We already know that hydrogen escapes during the manufacturing and installation process of fuel cells. If enough hydrogen were to be released into the air, it could interfere with the current ozone balance that protects us from ultraviolet radiation.
8. It requires a specific temperature zone for consistent operation.
Hydrogen fuel cells work best when they are kept under 212F. That makes these fuel cells difficult to incorporate into certain technologies, including current automotive technologies. The engine on the average vehicle operates in a temperature range that can be higher than 220F. Certain appliances, such as an oven, would also be incompatible with this technology. Unless new methods of funneling heat away from the fuel cells are developed, there may be some options that never get to experience the benefits of what hydrogen could provide.
9. Fossil fuels are still required to manufacture the fuel cells.
Although our emissions footprint would be reduced with a conversion to hydrogen fuel cells, it would not go away completely. Petroleum products are required in the construction of a hydrogen fuel cell, which means there is an emissions cost to each item that is produced. We would be able to create a net savings in our overall emissions over time. To transition, however, we would pay a higher emissions cost initially until everyone started to use this technology. We would reduce, but not eliminate, fossil fuel consumption.
10. Most hydrogen fuel is still created from fossil fuels.
With gasoline, the base fossil fuel that is used to create it is crude oil. That oil is refined until it produces what we use for our vehicles. Although hydrogen can be extracted from environmentally-friendly resources, the primary source for this energy type comes from natural gas. Even in California, where hydrogen fuel stations are more prevalent than arguably anywhere else in the world, just one-third of the fuel sold is required to come from a renewable resource. That means we are still a long way from our dream of having true zero-emission fuel.
11. It is an unproven technology.
Although hydrogen fuel cells provide an immediate energy resource for numerous industries, their long-term viability as an energy resource remains unproven. There has never been a 10-year production for hydrogen fuel cells. We already know that the fuel cell stacks within these cells decrease in efficiency over time as they are used. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the current hydrogen fuel cells are good for about 2,500 hours – possibly more. That equates to about 80,000 miles driven before needing the fuel cells to be replaced. The Department of Energy wants vehicles to operate for 5,000 hours as a target and there isn’t a single vehicle on the market right now that can meet that level of long-term efficiency.
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The disadvantages and advantages of hydrogen fuel cells show us that the emission-free nature of this technology is worth a closer look. It would require high levels of research investment and continued innovation in existing sectors for it to become an affordable option for everyone. Until then, those who can afford this technology and are willing to embrace its certain risks will be the ones who can discover these and other advantages that may be possible.