Intro to Fuel Cell Technology

fuel cell electric vehicles will be less expensive to run than battery electric and internal gas combustion engines within 10 years.


WAY, WAY BACK IN 1806, Francois Isaac de Rivaz designed the first internal combustion engine (ICE). It ran on a hydrogen/oxygen mixture. The original Mazda Wankel engines burned hydrogen. And BMW tested a high-end car called the Hydrogen 7 in the early 2000s, again, powered by a hydrogen ICE. In 2014, the world’s first commercialized fuel cell vehicle was introduced by Toyota. My point? Hydrogen has a long history of being used as fuel for mobility.

At the January 2020 Consumer Technology Association convention in Las Vegas, I remember checking out the Ballard Power Systems/Deloitte China announcement entitled “Fueling the Future of Mobility: Hydrogen and fuel cell solutions for transportation”. I was really captivated to learn that fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV) will be less expensive to run than battery electric (BEV) and internal gas combustion engines within 10 years. The coolest parts of the equation? FCEVs use a fraction of heavy metals and other volatile components (lithium, cobalt, etc.) than BEVs, and their only emission is water vapor.

It goes without saying that mobility issues are high on the minds of city planners. How we move populations around cities – a combination of mass transit and private vehicles – will go a long way in determining the livability quotient of any given urban area. Reducing harmful, toxic emissions also impacts the livability quotient. So I’d like to introduce, in simple and non-complex terms, what a hydrogen fuel cell is, and in future articles keep everyone up to date on how the hydrogen supply chain will be developed with success stories from around the globe. Because I can guarantee you that in the not too distant future, you might find yourself weighing the purchase of a FCEV versus a Tesla BEV.

defining fuel cells

The simplest way to describe a fuel cell is that it is an electrochemical reactor. The reactor converts the chemical energy of its fuel, along with an oxidant (oxygen) directly into electricity. In the modern fuel cell, hydrogen carries the energy, and by reacting with oxygen they form electricity.

In the fuel cell, hydrogen and oxygen are introduced separately. Hydrogen molecules enter the hydrogen electrode (called an anode), releases its electrons to form a positively charged hydrogen ion, then reaches the oxygen. They flow into an electrical circuit and you now have electricity.

Residual hydrogen ions and electrons bond with oxygen from the air to form water vapor, the only byproduct of the process! The reaction between the hydrogen and oxygen is remarkably simple, represented by an equally simple equation: 2H2+O2=2H20.

applications for hydrogen fuel cell usage

There are certainly complex technological and supply chain issues involved in the adoption of wide-spread use of hydrogen fuel cells. I will attempt to cover these from time to time as progress is made. But imagine some of the applications being targeted: passenger vehicles and trucks, aviation, marine and distributed power generation just to name a few.

So keep an open mind when you hear about fuel cell electric vehicles. It’s not only a reality, but it’s gaining in popularity. In 2018 Germany test-operated the world’s first hydrogen-powered trains!

June 2020 News