Could Fuel Cells Be the Future’s Wishing Well?

In 2013, the team of GreenGT H2 prototype racer, which might have been the first vehicle without a petrol engine to compete in the Le Mans 24-hour race, announced withdrawal from the renowned competition. Even though it took a long time to develop the fuel-cell race car, said the head developer, it is not ready to participate in the tough race. This incident reflects the immaturity that the current fuel cell technology represents. Hailed as a state-of-the-art solution to a greener energy future, the technology with great potentials has yet to be fully exploited.

Fuel cells have a number of advantages—such as very low emission levels and relatively good efficiencies, especially compared to renewables. In addition, they are vibration-free, quiet and reliable[1]. Compared to battery-powered vehicles, the fuel-cell cars can be refueled rapidly just like gasoline-powered cars. Moreover, the rate of self discharge is not an issue compared to average electric cars.

Nonetheless, there are challenges to address, including costs and practical efficiency. Since ‘fuel’ cells are not batteries and thus need constant injection of fuel, fuel supply can involve complicated issues with infrastructure and chemical processes. Safety concerns exist as well, if hydrogen is used as a fuel.

An idea of harnessing fuel cells is to use them in renewable energy system. For example, hydrogen can be used to store intermittent electricity generation by renewable sources such as solar and wind. According to Fuel Cell Today, “excess electricity is fed into an electrolyser to split water into its constituent parts, oxygen and hydrogen. The hydrogen is then used in fuel cells to produce electricity when needed, releasing the stored energy back to the grid.” Considering the benefits of electricity storage, fuel cells can contribute to grid stabilization, protecting consumers from energy price spikes[2] or intermittency of renewables. Furthermore, the stored hydrogen can be used only for grid electricity but sold to fuel-cell car owners as a fuel[3].

Fortunately, more efforts are being made for newer and more innovative technology. Researchers are discussing fuel cell/ battery hybrids, use of non-hydrogen fuel such as methanol, and harnessing shale gas by-products. At any rate, even if fuel cells are not the cure-all, at least they can contribute to a cleaner energy future.

[1] Andrews and Jelley, 2013

[2] Sioshani et al. 2008, Estimating the value of electricity storage in PJM: Arbitrage and some welfare effects

[3] http://www.fuelcelltoday.com/media/1637147/using_fc_renewable_energy_systems.pdf

[4] Image source: http://today.lbl.gov/2015/10/07/oct-8-twitter-chat-on-the-fuel-cell-revolution/

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