Hydrogen Fuel Cell Technology, Benefits & Advantages
What is a hydrogen fuel cell?
A hydrogen fuel cell is an electrochemical power generator that combines hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity, with water and heat as by-products. Simply put, hydrogen fuel cells form energy that can be used to power anything from commercial vehicles to drones.
Hydrogen fuel cell (HFC) technology offers a clean and reliable alternative energy source to customers in a growing number of applications – electric vehicles including forklifts, delivery vans and cars, primary and backup power for a variety of commercial, industrial and residential buildings, and more futuristic-sounding applications like drones and mobile phone recharging.
The U.S. Department of Energy and the Fuel Cell & Hydrogen Education Association (FCHEA) are two organizations working with the fuel cell industry to promote the technology across a growing number of commercial applications.
HFC technology explained
How does a fuel cell work? A fuel cell is composed of three main components: an anode, a cathode, and an electrolyte membrane. The “magic” of the PEM fuel cell is its proton exchange membrane, which looks like a piece of construction paper. It works by passing hydrogen through the anode side and oxygen through the cathode side. At the anode site, the hydrogen molecules are split into electrons and protons. The protons pass through the electrolyte membrane, while the electrons are forced through a circuit, generating an electric current and excess heat. At the cathode, the protons, electrons, and oxygen combine to produce water molecules.
Fuel cells are very clean, with their only by-products being electricity, a little heat, and water. Additionally, as HFCs do not have any moving parts, they operate very quietly.
Advantages & Benefits – 5 things you should know about fuel cells
- Zero Emission Power. HFCs produce no harmful emissions, eliminating the costs associated with handling and storing toxic materials like battery acid or diesel fuel. In fact, when fueled with pure hydrogen, the only by-products are heat and water, making this a zero-emission sustainable power source. HFCs are a part of many well-planned corporate sustainability programs. Hydrogen fuel cell products utilize environmentally-benign hydrogen as a fuel source, which eliminates the environmental impact of fuel spillage, leaks or air pollution and results in simplified zoning requirements. Because of this, they are exempted from the very stringent California Air Resources Board (CARB) and a number of other states’ emission permitting requirements.
- Robust Reliability. HFCs have proven themselves against tough conditions including cold environments as low as -40 degrees F/C, weather environments like hurricanes, deserts and winter storms, and even the hard-working business environments of material handling warehouses.
- Improved Efficiency. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, HFCs are generally between 40–60% energy efficient. This is higher than some other systems for energy generation. For example, the typical internal combustion engine of a car is about 25% energy efficient. In combined heat and power (CHP) systems, the heat produced by the HFC is captured and put to use, increasing the efficiency of the system to up to 85–90%. HFC efficiency is put to work to improve warehouse productivity by up to 15% using fuel cell forklifts; to extend the mileage range for electric vehicles like package delivery vans; and to provide electricity and hot water for hotels and businesses.
- Scalability. The advantages of using a modular product are profound: greater reliability, easier serviceability. But the most important benefit may be scalability – and the savings that feature provides when purchasing and using a fuel cell. These products may be engineered precisely to meet a variety of customer power needs – whether for material handling, stationary power or on-road electric vehicles. Paying for only what you need just makes good business sense.
- Lower Operational Costs. Compared to batteries and internal combustion generators, fuel cells save money. They eliminate the need to change, charge and manage batteries – saving both labor/time and space normally allocated to a battery room. The units run longer than lead-acid batteries and can be fueled in as little as two minutes, substantially reducing vehicle and personnel downtime. Fueling the HFC is as simple as fueling a car. Eliminating a battery charging infrastructure also significantly reduces the peak power demand of a commercial operation. Additionally, simple maintenance and fewer site visits mean up to 84% lower operational costs when compared to combustion generators for stationary power. Robust reliability eliminates the need for quarterly site maintenance visits, keeping site personnel focused on their critical tasks.
Fuel cells are changing the way the world moves!