The most abundant chemical in the universe could become a hot commodity, and hydrogen and fuel cells have some cost barriers, but the upside to transportation and powering homes is huge.
Hydrogen and the fuel cells that use it have some cost barriers, but the upside to transportation and powering our homes is huge.
What if I told you that we could power our cars with the most abundant elements in the universe? Is this something you might be interested in? One part of our energy future is hydrogen (not to be confused with hydropower), which is already a fuel source for 50,000 forklifts in warehouses across the United States.
Hydrogen fuel cells are also a growing feature for road vehicles, and proponents hope to see them make their way into bus and truck fleets over the coming years. After all, these fuel cells are like batteries that you don’t have to recharge. Just get in more hydrogen, like gasoline – except what comes out of the exhaust pipe is only heat and water vapor.
It’s clean energy when it’s made using power from other renewable sources, and it’s modular: You can stack as many fuel cells as you want to adjust your power output for the task at hand.
“Green hydrogen” has a cost problem, because it is produced via a process called electrolysis, which is essentially the opposite of the process that fuel cells use to generate electricity. (This loop would allow hydrogen to serve as a kind of battery for other forms of energy, as opposed to “pumped storage” hydroelectricity.)
Currently, using wind or solar energy, each kilogram of hydrogen costs $4 or $5. The Department of Energy just announced a 1:1:1 initiative to rally government and industry to drive costs down to $1 within a decade.
Essentially, we need to create a viable and stable market for this new technology and turn hydrogen into a hot commodity. If we can, and if we can build the hydrogen infrastructure with the right fueling stations and supply chains, these fuel cells have the potential to compete with the battery-powered electric cars that are already popping up all over America’s roads. It will definitely be very competitive when it comes to trucks.
In addition, hydrogen has potential as a source of electricity in our homes: South Korea last year opened a hydrogen fuel cell plant – the largest in the world – that will power 250,000 homes annually.
It will also reportedly act as an air purifier for the surrounding area, sieving fine dust from a nearby natural gas plant, and produce hot water to heat 44,000 homes. South Korean factories often use the hydrogen produced as a byproduct of chemical manufacturing, which is cheaper than producing hydrogen from water by separating it from oxygen using electrolysis.
This is still very rare in South Korea, which has shifted its focus solely to green hydrogen production. Meanwhile, Japan has 400,000 fuel cell housing units that help power individual homes.
To take a look at the opportunities and hurdles around hydrogen fuel cells, I spoke with Sunita Satypal, director of the Office of Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technologies at the Department of Energy. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What are the basics of hydrogen power generation using fuel cells?
Generally speaking, the way fuel cells work is that you have fuel, in this case hydrogen, and it flows down one side of the fuel cell. The fuel cell itself consists of a membrane and a catalyst, hydrogen flows on one side and then air flows on the other side, producing electricity just like a battery, but you never need to charge the fuel cell.
As long as you have air flowing in and hydrogen, it produces electricity. It is highly modular and scalable, so you can use it for many different applications, such as transportation or stationary power. And so it’s very flexible, and there are absolutely no emissions: the only product emitted is water vapor.
You mentioned that you never have to recharge it like you do with a battery. How does that look in the car?
Another benefit of fuel cells, just like batteries, is the electric motor. You have an electric motor, not an engine like a typical gasoline or diesel engine. The reason fuel cells are efficient is that you don’t waste a lot of energy. In today’s vehicles, you have an engine that burns fuel, so you have a very high temperature and waste a lot of energy. Basically you have a spark plug in your car in conventional gasoline engines.
And so on [with hydrogen fuel cells]It is similar to battery-powered electric cars, [in] You are producing electricity directly. The difference is that the engine has been replaced. I don’t know if you’ve seen the ad [hydrogen fuel cell vehicles] available, but the actual power required is very compact.
Depending on the type of car, it’s only about two feet long and maybe a foot wide and deep, so it replaces the engine. And then you have hydrogen also stored on board, usually just gaseous hydrogen in a tank, and refueling takes just a few minutes.
You just refuel it like you refuel, and the vehicle can go. Currently, commercial vehicles can exceed 300 or 400 miles, depending on the type of vehicle.
Our focus is particularly on long haul trucks. We’re looking at the full range: batteries, other liquid fuels and then of course hydrogen. And one of the benefits is that you can get a really long driving distance, you don’t need a really big battery, and it doesn’t take long to recharge, so you don’t have to plug it in.
For some transportation agencies that have a few hundred buses, you don’t need to deliver them, you can just refuel like current gasoline vehicles, but with hydrogen.
There seems to be a lot of advantages here. What are the obstacles?
The first is the cost, both in terms of the cost of hydrogen and then the cost of the fuel cell, storage, etc. The second challenge is the infrastructure, the number of stations, and the distribution of hydrogen to the stations. Those are some of the main barriers.
We launched an initiative called Hydrogen Shot. You may have heard of terrestrial energy images, similar to what happened over half a century ago, when we got the lunar image to deliver a human to the moon. These earth images are meant to be truly bold and ambitious targets for the entire community.
This easily illustrated target for the power of hydrogen is 1:1:1 – which represents $1 per kilogram of hydrogen in one decade. Today the cost – if you’re making hydrogen from renewables like solar and wind – can be around $4 or $5 per kilogram. So we’re going to go from $5 to $1, and that will help drive widespread adoption. We also focus on the cost and durability of the fuel cell, as well as efficiency and performance.
Finally, we just announced last week our National Hydrogen Strategy and Roadmap for the United States, and we also announced a funding opportunity for hydrogen hubs. The idea is to produce hydrogen on a large scale and then have multiple end uses, not just transportation.
You can use hydrogen in industrial applications, such as making steel, fertilizer, and power generation. It will help move the market, market adoption, and it will also help the transportation sector, if we can expand it. There are very few factories, in terms of the supply chain for some components. It is still a very early industry.
These fuel cells are like batteries that you don’t have to recharge.
More than a decade ago, you may remember the payback law that funded the specialized application of forklifts. Zero emissions were needed in warehouses, and batteries were hard to have because there wasn’t enough time to recharge, especially if you had multiple shifts.
And we funded some initial offerings, and now there are more than 50,000 hydrogen fuel cell forklifts in warehouses, major companies like Amazon, Walmart and Home Depot. So it began to spread widely in certain markets.
I’ve read that the platinum included with this can be hard to come by as well.
A system for producing hydrogen from renewable energy sources is called an electrolyzer. Depending on the type of technology, you may need platinum or platinum type metals. Our funded research has already lowered the cost, and significantly reduced the amount of platinum.
The goal is to get less platinum than today’s cars. [In] Your catalytic converter, you also have platinum metal. The goal is to reduce the amount of platinum and then also design it for recovery and recycling, so that we can replenish the platinum. But this is one of the main cost challenges.
Do these systems have any problems with elements such as hot and cold weather?
Over a decade ago, we had a national demonstration project to learn hydrogen fuel cells: over 250 vehicles and 30 stations, testing fuel cells and vehicles under different weather conditions, altitudes, and so on. There was really good performance even at low or high temperatures. We still need to do more long term tests about durability etc, but so far, very good performance.
I also wanted to ask you about power plants. South Korea just built the world’s largest hydrogen plant, and they actually use hydrogen recycled from chemical manufacturing?
I think it was more than 75 MW. This is a good example of another fuel cell application – not just for transportation but for stationary power. For small apartment buildings, Japan has nearly 400,000 fuel cells [at individual properties]. South Korea, as I mentioned, has large stationary fuel cells. It can be low temperature, or it can be high heat and provide heat as well. You can use it for heat and power together.
And one advantage is flexibility as well, so if the grid goes down, you have power. In fact, the new World Trade Center has fuel cells. They can provide backup power and only run when the power goes out – we have hundreds of them in remote cell phone towers in case the power goes out.
Or they can just keep going and provide continuous, reliable power. You can also run it on natural gas, no need to use hydrogen. Especially in remote communities, there are no emissions and very quiet operation.
Where do you hope to see this technology at the end of the decade? What would your ideal scenario look like?
For our national goals, you know, we’re on net zero by 2050, and a totally clean net by 2035. We have huge goals. Hydrogen is called the Swiss Energy Knife by many people, because you can produce it from many different resources. So you can use renewable energy sources like solar and wind energy, and then you can produce hydrogen.
You can store this hydrogen so that you can use it when you don’t have sunlight or wind. You can use the clean nuclear electrons to produce hydrogen. Our goal within a decade is to have a dollar of hydrogen, and that’s going to be huge. We will be able to produce completely clean hydrogen at a really low cost.
And then we’ll have our own hydrogen hubs. We have a billion [in funding] Now, specifically in the bipartisan infrastructure law. We now have tax breaks in the Inflation Reduction Act. The goal within a decade is to have 10 million tons of hydrogen in the United States. This is clean hydrogen, about 10% of the global capacity.
October 8 is National Hydrogen Day. Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe – it’s actually the first element – and atomic weight is 1.008, so 10/08 is set for National Hydrogen Fuel Cell Day, because many people don’t know about hydrogen or fuel cells, they know about solar, wind and batteries . Part of the challenge is just public awareness and knowledge about hydrogen and fuel cells.
read The latest news shaping up the hydrogen market in the hydrogen center
The most abundant chemical in the universe could become a hot commodity, September 30, 2022