Is Hydrogen Fuel Cell Technology the Future of EVs?
Countries around the world are focused on mitigating the effects of climate change. And getting rid of greenhouse gases is fast becoming a top focus.
One of the quickest ways to lower pollution is to reduce fossil fuel burning. The nation’s transportation infrastructure is a great place to start, as it’s responsible for 29% of greenhouse gases.
But we can’t just stop burning oil and natural gas in a year or two…
We can, however, start burning less of them right now thanks to hydrogen gas.
When hydrogen is burned, it combines with oxygen. This reaction generates energy and heat. But that’s where the similarity to fossil fuels ends.
When burned, fossil fuels produce gases and other pollutants. When you burn hydrogen, water is the “exhaust.”
And that’s why car companies are harnessing this clean energy to fuel their electric vehicles.
Rapidly Developing Technology
Many countries are implementing policies to greatly reduce vehicle emissions. Some have even started to restrict sales of internal combustion engine vehicles.
As a result, nearly every vehicle manufacturer is designing and selling EVs.
The biggest issue has been battery life, though that continues to improve. By 2021, Tesla (Nasdaq: TSLA) will likely have a battery that can power its EVs for 500 miles or more.
But EV manufacturers are keeping one eye on hydrogen fuel cell technology. And for good reason.
Hydrogen fuel cells complement EV battery technology. A fuel cell uses clean energy sources, such as hydrogen or other fuels, to produce clean electricity. In the case of hydrogen, the only byproducts are electricity, water and heat.
The reaction produces no carbon dioxide or other toxic byproducts.
Fuel cells have a wide variety of potential applications. A small fuel cell can power a laptop computer. A big one can run a utility power station.
Other applications include emergency power backup, portable power, material handling and transportation. Fuel cells also operate at higher efficiencies (up to 60%) than combustion-based engines.
How Does It Work?
Back in the 1960s, General Electric (NYSE: GE) was doing research on fuel cell technology. Several GE scientists made a significant breakthrough.
The result was the invention of the very first polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) fuel cell…
Think of fuel cells as batteries. Except they have a big advantage: They don’t get run down and never need to recharge. As long as fuel is supplied to the cell, it will produce electricity and heat.
Like batteries, fuel cells have three main elements: a negative electrode (anode), a positive electrode (cathode) and an electrolyte. Fuel (such as hydrogen) is fed into the anode side of the cell. At the same time, air is introduced into the cathode side.
Hydrogen molecules break down into electrons and protons. Both move to the cathode.
Electrons travel by an external circuit, creating a flow of electrical energy. The protons travel to the cathode via the electrolyte.
Once there, the protons unite with oxygen molecules and electrons. Water and heat are produced as a result.
Today, there are a few applications emerging that are well-suited for the early adoption of hydrogen fuel cells. They are all in the medium and heavy-duty commercial vehicle space.
Transit buses, short- and long-haul trucks, and airport shuttles are ideal candidates for hydrogen power.
Compared with a 260-kilowatt-hour truck battery, 25 kilograms of hydrogen would provide twice the mileage. The truck’s fuel system would be 10 times lighter. And it would refuel up to 15 times faster.
I’m excited about this emerging use of hydrogen fuel cells. You can expect to hear more about hydrogen from me in the future.