The pros and cons of hydrogen fuel cells

The pros and cons of hydrogen fuel cells

Despite a 5.8% drop in global carbon emissions in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, emissions are still at critical levels. Global CO2 emissions were 31.5Gt – an increase of 54% since 1990.

With that in mind, the quest to find a viable alternative to carbon-based fuel and energy production processes is continually accelerating. From passenger vehicles to domestic energy, those at the forefront of alternative fuel and energy storage technology are exploring options.

One of these options is hydrogen fuel cells – an efficient energy source with low emissions. In this article, we’re looking at the pros and cons of the widespread use of hydrogen fuel cells.


Pro: Low emissions and higher efficiency

Hydrogen fuel cells work by combining hydrogen and oxygen to produce electrical energy. The only emissions that result from this process are water (H20) and hot air – meaning that no harmful gases are released into the atmosphere, in contrast to the 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide a typical passenger vehicle emits each year. In addition, hydrogen fuel is more efficient – internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles convert fuel into kinetic energy at 25% efficiency. Hydrogen fuel cells do so at 60% efficiency.


Pro: Relatively low barrier to entry

Fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) have low barriers to entry in terms of societal change.

They operate and perform very similarly to the conventional ICE vehicles we are used to, allowing you to refuel at a station within minutes, as opposed to having to wait for an electric vehicle (EV) to charge. An electric vehicle typically has a range of around 230 miles, whereas FCEVs can reach 310-370 miles range without having to be refuelled. In addition, an EV can take up to 8 hours to charge from empty to full – it takes roughly 5 minutes to refuel a hydrogen tank.


Potential challenge: Storage

High-density hydrogen storage is a challenge for both portable and stationary applications. The storage solutions we have available currently typically require the storage of large volumes of hydrogen in gaseous form. To reach the performance and efficiency goals for light-duty FCEVs, large-volume, high-pressure compressed gas tanks would need to be used, which can have a significant footprint.


Pro: Effective in stationary and heavy-duty applications

While this is a challenge for “light-duty” FCEVs, it is less so for larger, heavy-duty vehicles and stationary applications, where the footprint of the gas tank is less of an issue. Bulkier vehicles that need to travel long distances, carry heavy loads and refuel with minimal downtime are good candidates. For that reason, hydrogen fuel has been tested in vehicles such as trucks, boats, trains and planes.

In addition, hydrogen could also be used to replace the compressed natural gas used in some domestic applications. A study by Swansea University found that up to 30% of domestic gas could be safely replaced with hydrogen without requiring changes to boilers or ovens.


Con: Less efficient than batteries

When comparing hydrogen fuel cells to other potential alternatives to hydrocarbon power, the picture becomes slightly less positive. The viability of FCEVs is being threatened by the continued development of more cost-effective battery technology and lowering costs of electricity-based transport systems. EV and hybrid vehicles overall offer better efficiency than FCEVs. Electric batteries lose only 17% of their initial input of energy through inefficiencies when charging and discharging. The cycle used to create electrical energy within a hydrogen fuel cell wastes more than 50% of its energy efficiency.


Hydrogen fuel cells and insulation

Just like batteries, hydrogen fuel cells produce electrical energy, and present their own unique safety and efficiency challenges – so there needs to be careful consideration in how the cells are insulated.

We’re committing ourselves to help our customers contribute towards the net-zero initiative. We’re currently working on a number of projects and solutions which will help to increase the safety, efficiency and cost-effectiveness of alternative fuel. If you’d like to find out more about our solutions, get in touch.