12 Hydrogen Fuel Cells Pros and Cons

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Hydrogen fuel cells are considered an alternative fuel, though its presence is common throughout our world. It can be produced through water electrolysis, biomass, solar, or even electricity from the current grid. The energy is then stored into fuel cells that never run down or need recharging if there is a source of oxygen and fuel.

It is a growing trend in the vehicular market, with about 30 commercial hydrogen stations available in California. Plans to install 70 more stations are in the works and a handful of stations in the U.S. Northeast are also planned.

Here are some of the pros and cons of using hydrogen fuel cells for transportation needs.

List of the Pros of Hydrogen Fuel Cells

1. There are no harmful emissions that come from the vehicle.
Vehicles which utilize hydrogen fuel cells do not produce harmful emissions into the environment. The only emissions this type of fuel technology produces is water vapor. That means drivers can make an immediately positive impact on the environment by transitioning to this technology. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the typical vehicle in the U.S. produces 4.7 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year.

2. It has a much better fuel economy compared to gasoline.
Hydrogen fuel cells provide a performance that is similar to gasoline, so there is no change to how the typical passenger vehicle handles when it is using this fuel option. At the same time, the fuel economy of hydrogen fuel cells is about twice that of standard gasoline. Given an average mileage range of 300 miles, a hydrogen-powered vehicle would use half the fuel without the emissions cost added on top of it.

3. They perform in a similar fashion in virtually any size.
Hydrogen fuel cells perform in an equal manner, no matter what size the fuel cells happen to be. That makes it easier to use this technology for a variety of uses, from home generators to vehicular fuel. The power output remains the same, even for small fuel cells. With access to fuel, even the smallest cells will not require recharging, providing continuous power where it is required.

4. It has fewer exposure risks than other fuel types.
Exposure to gasoline places an individual into contact with about 150 different chemicals. That list includes toluene, benzene, and xylene. Just breathing gasoline vapors can cause adverse health effects, including headaches, dizziness, and vomiting. Large amounts of gasoline exposure can even have life-threatening consequences. For hydrogen fuel cells, there is a potential risk of flammability and liquid hydrogen can cause freeze burns, but the other risks are not as severe.

5. Hydrogen fuel cells can be produced without emissions.
Hydrogen fuel cells can be produced from renewable resources, such as solar energy or water. These production processes are still expensive when compared to hydrogen pulled from fossil fuels, but because this is a technology, prices are expected to decline over time. When pulled from solar or water, there are no emissions associated with the fuel cell production.

List of the Cons of Hydrogen Fuel Cells

1. It is very expensive.
In 2017, Toyota announced that it wanted to make hydrogen cars become the same consumer cost as hybrid cars by the year 2025. Here’s the current challenge. The Toyota Mirai has a current suggested retail price of $57,500. The Toyota Prius has a retail price of just over $23,000. Production of the Mirai is even limited to just 3,000 cars per year, which further increases the cost.

2. Current hydrogen fuel cells are not a renewable resource.
Our current supply of hydrogen fuel cells that is used for vehicular transport is made from natural gas. Although hydrogen is very abundant and could be harvested from virtually anything, including renewable resources, right now, there is still a fossil fuel cost that must be calculated. The manufacturing process creates carbon dioxide emissions for the fuel that virtually offsets all the gains that this technology offers from the user-end of the spectrum.

3. It has high transportation and storage costs.
In 1993, TransCanada Pipeline installed a hydrogen transportation system at the price of $910 million. That meant the cost of the infrastructure addition was $2 million per mile. These costs have been going down, yet are still extremely high. NYSEG installed 25 miles of hydrogen pipeline at the cost of $212,000 per mile. The expected cost of transporting hydrogen for consumer use is expected to be at least 4 times higher than current fuels that are being used.

4. Hydrogen fuels can experience high transport losses.
When liquid hydrogen is being transported for fuel purposes, the expected boil-off losses during the transport can be as high as 50%. Losses of up to 20% are treated as normal. A loss of about 1% per day of transport is expected. That means hydrogen fuel cells must be produced locally for the benefits of this technology to be maximized and we do not have the current infrastructure in place, anywhere in the world, to implement a nationwide switch to this technology.

5. The fuel cells are incompatible with certain technologies.
The process of converting to hydrogen fuel cells would take several years to complete. Our current infrastructure is based on developing products that work off fossil fuels and related products. Just having a hydrogen fuel cell in one’s possession isn’t good enough. Current technologies may not be able to use the benefits that hydrogen could potentially provide.

6. They do not perform well under hot temperatures.
Current hydrogen fuel cell technologies indicate that this type of fuel cannot operate when temperature is in excess of the boiling temperature of water. That is because the polymer exchange membranes used in the fuel cells cannot tolerate the hotter temperatures. Considering that most vehicles operate with a normal engine temperature that is between 190-220F degrees, that can make it challenging to incorporate hydrogen fuel cells into existing vehicle technologies.

7. Escaped hydrogen could harm the environment.
During the production and storage process of hydrogen for fuel cells, some of it is known to escape. When this occurs, there is some concern that the escaped hydrogen could have a damaging effect on the ozone located in our upper atmosphere. That could increase the issues thought to be associated with global warming instead of potentially solving them.

These hydrogen fuel cells pros and cons show us that this technology offers a promising future to the world of transportation. With continued innovation and development, it could become an emissions-free method of travel. Until then, it will remain an expensive fuel option, reserved only for a wealthy few, that creates nearly as many emissions as current vehicles produce using other fuels.