How Does A Hydrogen Fuel Cell Work? (A Comprehensive Guide)

How Does A Hydrogen Fuel Cell Work?

How Does A Hydrogen Fuel Cell Work? – The globe is currently engaged in a race to the future of clean energy. Although the final victor is unknown, hydrogen has emerged as a clear front-runner, with a wide range of production, distribution, and application choices. A hydrogen fuel cell is an electrochemical power generator that produces electricity by combining hydrogen and oxygen with water and heat as by-products. The chemical energy stored in the gasses can be converted into electrical energy and used to power electric drive motors, temporary storage batteries, and a number of other end applications.

What Is a Hydrogen Fuel Cell?

A fuel cell is a device that creates electricity via an electrochemical process with no combustion. Hydrogen and oxygen are mixed in a fuel cell to produce electricity, heat, and water. Fuel cells are utilized in a variety of applications today, including providing power to homes and businesses, keeping important facilities such as hospitals, grocery stores, and data centers operational, and moving a variety of vehicles, including cars, trucks, buses, forklifts, trains, and more. Fuel cell systems are a power source that is clean, efficient, reliable, and silent. These devices, unlike batteries, do not need to be recharged regularly. Instead, they continue to create energy as long as a fuel supply is available.

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Fuel cells have a number of advantages over traditional combustion-based technologies, which are being employed in a number of power plants and automobiles. Fuel cells can function at higher efficiencies than combustion engines, converting the chemical energy in the fuel straight to electrical energy with conversion efficiencies of up to 60%. When compared to combustion engines, fuel cells emit fewer or no emissions. Because hydrogen fuel cells emit only water and no carbon dioxide, they can help to address crucial climate issues. At the point of operation, there are no air contaminants that cause pollution or health concerns. Because there are few moving elements in fuel cells, they operate quietly.

How Does A Hydrogen Fuel Cell Work?
Hydrogen Fuel Cells Are Transforming the Industry (Reference: automation.com)

The characteristics that distinguish hydrogen fuel cells are listed below.

  • Low-to-Zero Emissions,
  • High Efficiency,
  • Reliability,
  • Fuel Adaptability,
  • Energy Safety,
  • Durability,
  • Scalability, and
  • Operation in Silence.

How Does a Hydrogen Fuel Cell Work?

An anode, cathode, and electrolyte membrane make up a fuel cell, as shown in the figure below. In a normal fuel cell, hydrogen is passed through the anode and oxygen is passed via the cathode. A catalyst breaks hydrogen molecules into electrons and protons at the anode. Protons travel through the porous electrolyte membrane, while electrons are driven through a circuit, resulting in an electric current and excessive heat. Protons, electrons, and oxygen mix at the cathode to form water molecules. 

How Does A Hydrogen Fuel Cell Work?
Working Principles of A Hydrogen Fuel Cell (Reference: fchea.org)

The anode reaction, cathode reaction and overall cell reaction are given in the equation (1), (2), and (3), respectively.

 

                       2H_{2}+ 2O^{2-}= 2H_{2}O +4e^{-}     Equation (1)

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   O_{2}+ 4e^{-}= 2O^{2-}     Equation (2)

 

   2H_{2}+ O_{2}= 2H_{2}O     Equation (3)

 

Fuel cells are highly quiet and dependable since they have no moving parts. They are extremely clean due to their chemistry. The hydrogen fuel cells are fully carbon-free, with just power, heat, and water as byproducts. Hydrocarbon fuels such as natural gas, biogas, methanol, and others can be used in some fuel cell systems. Fuel cells can reach substantially better efficiency than traditional energy generation systems such as steam turbines and internal combustion engines because they create electricity through chemistry rather than combustion. A fuel cell can be integrated with a combined heat and power system that uses the cell’s waste heat for heating or cooling to increase efficiency even further.

Fuel cells can also be scaled up. Individual fuel cells can be linked together to construct stacks in this way. These stacks can then be merged to form larger systems. Fuel cell systems range in size and power from small-scale combustion engine replacements for electric vehicles to large-scale, multi-megawatt installations that supply electricity directly to the utility grid.

Capabilities of Hydrogen Fuel Cells

Here’s a brief overview of what fuel cells can do:

  • Stationary fuel cells can be used for backup power, remote power generation, distributed power generation, and co-generation.
  • Fuel cells have the ability to power any battery-powered portable equipment, including hand-held electronics and portable generators.
  • Fuel cells can power vehicles such as cars, trucks, buses, and ships, as well as supply supplemental power to existing transportation systems.

As a result, hydrogen will play a major role in the future as a substitute for imported petroleum, which is currently utilized in automobiles and trucks. In reality, some automakers have developed automobiles that run on hydrogen instead of gasoline or diesel. Hydrogen is the most basic element on the earth. A single proton and a single electron make up an atom. It’s also plentiful, yet it can’t exist as a distinct form of matter. Rather, it’s mixed in with other elements.

Advantages And Disadvantages of Hydrogen Fuel Cell

Hydrogen is a clean alternative to fossil fuels that may be used to power almost any machine that requires energy. The key to making this happen is the fuel cell, which is an energy conversion device that can successfully capture and harness the power of hydrogen.

Advantages of Hydrogen Fuel Cells

The list of advantages of hydrogen fuel cells are as follows:

  1. It’s easily accessible.

As previously stated, hydrogen is a fairly plentiful basic earth element. Separating hydrogen gas from its companion compounds, on the other hand, takes a long time. While this is true, the end result is a powerful clean energy source.

  1. It doesn’t emit any dangerous substances.

When hydrogen is burned, no hazardous compounds are released. It essentially combines with oxygen without burning, and the energy released can be utilized to generate electricity, which can subsequently be used to power an electric motor. In addition, unlike other power sources, it does not produce carbon dioxide when burned.

  1. It is safe for the environment.

Hydrogen is a non-toxic gas, which is rare for a fuel. Nuclear energy, coal, and gasoline, for example, are either toxic or found in dangerous conditions. Because hydrogen is environmentally friendly, it can be used in ways that other fuels couldn’t even come close to.

  1. It can be utilized as rocket fuel.

Hydrogen is both effective and powerful. It’s more than enough to power big devices like spaceships. It is also a lot safer alternative than other fuel sources because it is environmentally friendly. Hydrogen has three times the energy density of gasoline and other fossil fuels. This means it can get more achieved with less.

  1. It is fuel-efficient.

Hydrogen is substantially more fuel-efficient than diesel or gas because it can create more energy per pound of fuel. This means that an automobile powered by hydrogen can travel further than a vehicle powered by a more traditional form of energy while carrying the same quantity of fuel.

Traditional combustion technologies are only two to three times as efficient as hydrogen-powered fuel cells. A typical combustion-based power plant, for example, generates electricity at a rate of 33 to 35% efficiency. Hydrogen fuel cells can generate energy at a rate of up to 65% efficiency.

Furthermore, a gasoline-powered engine in a traditional car is not as efficient as turning chemical energy into gasoline into power that drives vehicles under regular driving conditions. Vehicles with hydrogen fuel cells and electric motors are more efficient since they can use 40 to 60% of the energy in the fuel. As a result, fuel consumption has been reduced by more than half. Moreover, fuel cells are silent, have fewer moving parts, and are suitable for a wide range of applications.

  1. It is a renewable source.

Unlike other non-renewable energy sources, hydrogen can be created repeatedly. This suggests that hydrogen can be used as an endless fuel source. In essence, hydrogen energy may be generated on demand. It is also commonly available; all required is the breaking of water molecules to separate it from oxygen. It is, without a doubt, a time-consuming process, but the end result is fantastic.

Disadvantages of Hydrogen Fuel Cells

The list of disadvantages of hydrogen fuel cells are as follow:

  1. It is costly.

Hydrogen is expensive although it is widely available. One explanation for this is that separating the element from other elements takes a long time. If the method were truly straightforward, everyone would have done it with relative ease, but it isn’t. Despite the fact that hydrogen cells are currently being utilized to power hybrid cars, it is still not a viable fuel source for everyone. Hydrogen energy will remain a costly choice until the technology is developed that can make the entire process much simpler.

  1. It is difficult to store.

Hydrogen is extremely difficult to transport. When it comes to oil, it can be transported via pipelines. When it comes to coal, it is simply transported by trucks. When it comes to hydrogen, even small amounts can be highly costly to transport. Transport and storage of such a material are deemed unfeasible for that reason alone.

  1. Replacing old infrastructure is difficult.

To this day, gasoline is still frequently used. And there is now no infrastructure in place to support hydrogen as a fuel. This is why even thinking about replacing fuel becomes too expensive. Cars must also be retrofitted to accommodate hydrogen as a fuel.

  1. It’s pretty flammable.

Hydrogen can be extremely flammable since it is such a potent source of energy. In fact, it is frequently featured in the news due to its numerous dangers. Hydrogen gas burns in the air in a wide range of concentrations, ranging from 4 to 75%.

  1. It is frequently produced using fossil fuels.

Although hydrogen is renewable energy and has a low environmental impact, it is frequently separated from oxygen using non-renewable sources such as coal, oil, and natural gas. While the goal of converting to hydrogen is to eliminate the usage of fossil fuels, fossil fuels are still frequently used to make hydrogen fuel. Solar and wind energy may be used to make hydrogen energy, making it a cleaner option.

Hydrogen Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles (HFCEVs)

Although hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (HFCEVs) haven’t received the same level of public attention as battery electric vehicles (BEVs), the technology isn’t solely for personal use. Indeed, because of present storage and logistical problems, hydrogen is best suited for larger-scale commercial uses like heavy-duty trucking.

How Does A Hydrogen Fuel Cell Work?
Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles (Reference: firehouse.com)

As a petroleum by-product or through electrolysis utilizing energy supplied from renewable sources, hydrogen fuel is easily available and efficiently produced. It’s reasonably straightforward to transport and recharge as a liquid or pressurized gas, avoiding the long charge times required by today’s batteries. Electrolyzers and fuel cells are a viable choice for powerful, efficient, 100 % clean energy storage and delivery all over the world, especially as hydrogen production shifts to renewable sources.

Industry Applications of Hydrogen Fuel Cells 

Let’s look at 10 uses for hydrogen fuel cells, some of which you might not be aware of.

  1. Warehouse Logistics

Several large warehousing and distribution organizations are using hydrogen fuel cells to clean power trucks, forklifts, pallet jacks, and other equipment.

  1. International Distribution

Long-haul trucking and local distribution require fuel cells because of their range and power. Nikola, Hyundai, Toyota, Kenworth, and UPS are among the companies now producing hydrogen-powered semi-trucks and vans.

  1. Personal Automobiles

Nine of the world’s largest manufacturers are working on personal hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (HFCEVs). The Toyota Mirai, Honda Clarity, Hyundai Nexo, and BMW I Hydrogen Next are all prominent models.

  1. Trains

Hydrogen fuel cell trains have now arrived in Germany, and more types are projected to arrive in the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Japan, South Korea, and the United States in the next five years.

  1. Buses

Other public transportation applications, such as hydrogen fuel cell buses, are being studied using hydrogen power. Buses powered by hydrogen have been tested in a number of major cities, including Chicago, Vancouver, London, and Beijing.

  1. Planes

Several experimental projects, including the Pathfinder and Helios prototypes, have looked into the use of hydrogen fuel cells in the aerospace industry. These long-range unmanned vehicles used a hybrid system that included hydrogen fuel cells that were recharged by solar panels, allowing for theoretically unlimited day and night flying.

How Does A Hydrogen Fuel Cell Work?
Hydrogen Fuel cell Technology For Unmanned Surface Vehicles (USV) (Reference: hydro-international.com)

 

  1. Generation of Mobile Power

Hydrogen provides a variety of mobile power generation alternatives. NASA, in fact, produced some of the first hydrogen fuel cells to power space rockets and shuttles.

  1. Backup Power Generation

Stationary fuel cells are employed in uninterruptible power supply (UPS) systems at the local level, where uptime is crucial. In order to meet their uninterruptible power supply requirements, hospitals and data centers are increasingly turning to hydrogen. Microsoft recently made news for a successful test of its new hydrogen backup generators, which involved powering one data center’s server entirely on hydrogen for two days.

  1. Boats and submarines

Fuel cells powered by hydrogen have made their way into a variety of naval applications. Some boats, such as the Energy Observer, even create their own hydrogen for a fuel cell system using onboard solar panels and wind turbines.

  1. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV)

Many novel applications of UAVs (i.e., drones), ranging from package delivery to search and rescue missions, are severely hampered by the power and range offered by standard batteries. Hydrogen fuel cells, which have up to three times the range of battery-based systems, are being developed by both the military and private industry to address these issues. Fuel cells provide a greater energy-to-mass ratio and can be refueled in as little as a few minutes.

How Does A Hydrogen Fuel Cell Work?
Hydrogen Fueling For Power Generation (Reference: airproducts.com)

 

Hydrogen Fuel Cell System Safety Challenges 

Before hydrogen can become a widely used alternative fuel, it must overcome a number of significant challenges.

Extreme conditions: Because hydrogen has a poor energy density, it needs to be stored in huge quantities before it can be used as a fuel. To compensate, current transportation applications use higher pressures and cryogenic temperatures to push technology to its boundaries.

Public perception: Notable events such as the Hindenburg (although hydrogen was not the primary cause of the disaster) has left an unforgettable mark on the business. Even though today’s hydrogen uses are vastly different, the industry will have to work hard to change public opinion and update many municipal regulations that restrict hydrogen use.

Infrastructure: Cities, highways, and airports, among others, will require considerable infrastructure upgrades to handle hydrogen storage, transportation, and refueling. Handling hydrogen on such a huge scale poses logistical issues as well as the risk of fire and explosion.

Research and Development Goals

The US Department of Energy (DOE) collaborates with national laboratories, universities, and industry partners to overcome significant technological hurdles in the development of fuel cells. In the fuel cell industry, cost, performance, and durability are still major issues.

  • Cost: To minimize total system cost, research, development, and demonstration (RD&D) focus on the development of low-cost fuel cell stack and balance of plant (BOP) components, as well as sophisticated high-volume manufacturing technologies. Because platinum is one of the most expensive components of a direct hydrogen-fueled polymer electrolyte membrane fuel cell, researchers are focusing on ways to boost activity and utilization while lowering the amount of platinum group metal (PGM) and PGM-alloy catalysts, as well as PGM-free catalyst, approaches for long-term usage.
  • Performance: In order to increase fuel cell efficiency and performance, RD&D works on novel materials and integration technologies. Efforts include developing ion-exchange membrane electrolytes with improved efficiency and durability at a lower cost; enhancing membrane electrode assemblies (MEAs) with high power density via integration of state-of-the-art MEA components; modeling to explain system design and operating circumstances; and developing stacks with high efficiency at rated power and high-performing BOP components, such as low parasitic losses air management components.
  • Durability: Adequate performance must be maintained for lengthy periods of time in fuel cell applications. Under actual operating conditions, the DOE has set ultimate targets for a fuel cell system lifetime of 8,000 hours for light-duty vehicles, 30,000 hours for heavy-duty trucks, and 80,000 hours for distributed power systems. Under dynamic and harsh operating conditions, system reliability and robustness are required in the most demanding applications. Starting and stopping, freezing and thawing, contaminants in the fuel and air, humidity, and dynamic load cycles are all realistic operating circumstances that put stress on the chemical and mechanical stability of the fuel cell system materials and components. The focus of research and development is on identifying and understanding fuel cell degradation mechanisms, as well as designing materials and ways to limit their impacts.

FAQs about Hydrogen Fuel Cell

1. Is Hydrogen Fuel More Cost-Effective Than Gasoline?

On paper, hydrogen is a cheaper fuel than gasoline, but in fact, it is significantly more expensive as of 2010. The few commercially accessible hydrogen-fueled vehicles typically cost more than $100,000. Researchers are continually fine-tuning the technology for producing and transporting hydrogen fuel.

2. What Is the Price of a Gallon of Hydrogen Fuel?

Hydrogen fuel is significantly more efficient than gasoline, but it is also four times more expensive, costing around $16 per gallon.

3. Is The Hydrogen Fuel Cell The Way of The Future?

Fuel cells could power our cars in the future, with hydrogen replacing the petroleum fuel used in most vehicles today. When pure hydrogen is used as a fuel, the only by-products are heat and water. Traditional combustion systems use significantly more energy than hydrogen-powered fuel cells.

4. Are Hydrogen Cars Safe In The Event of a Crash?

A limited amount of hydrogen is stored in the fuel cell itself. The fuel cell might easily be crushed in a crash, allowing hydrogen to pass through the membrane. Because the fuel cell is unlikely to be able to withstand the resultant pressure, any products must be carefully vented.

For more information on how a hydrogen fuel cell works, watch this nice video.

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