Why Are Hydrogen Fuel Cells Not Widely Used?

In a groundbreaking move, Tasmania is set to become the first Australian state to install hydrogen fuel pumps, marking a step toward embracing hydrogen fuel cell technology. These pumps will enable drivers to refuel hydrogen-powered vehicles, a clean energy transport option lauded for its zero carbon dioxide emissions. While this government-funded trial in Tasmania signifies progress, this article will delve into the challenges that need to be overcome before hydrogen vehicles become mainstream.

Can Hydrogen Fuel Cells Power Electric Vehicles?

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles operate on hydrogen instead of traditional fuels like petrol or electricity. Unlike batteries, fuel cells are lighter and boast a quick refueling time of less than five minutes. This refueling process involves pumping hydrogen into the vehicle’s tank, mirroring the familiar procedure for traditional petrol vehicles.

Understanding Hydrogen Fuel Cells:

A hydrogen fuel cell converts hydrogen or other fuels into electricity through an electrochemical reaction with oxygen. This process produces only water and heat as by-products, making hydrogen vehicles emit only water vapor and heat from the tailpipe.

How Hydrogen Fuel Cells Work:

The fuel cell comprises an anode, cathode, and electrolyte membrane. Hydrogen passes through the anode, splitting into electrons and protons. The protons move through the electrolyte membrane, while electrons generate an electric current. This current powers the hydrogen vehicle, and the final step combines protons, electrons, and oxygen at the cathode, producing water molecules released as water vapor.

Hydrogen Fuel Cell Cars:

As of 2022, only two hydrogen fuel cell cars are available in Australia, offered primarily through large orders or on loan by manufacturers like Toyota and Hyundai. However, Australian companies are exploring hydrogen vehicle production, with startups focusing on utility and truck models.

Challenges in Hydrogen Adoption:

Despite the promise of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, challenges persist. Hydrogen cars are currently expensive, and the primary source of hydrogen production—often derived from fossil fuels—poses environmental concerns. The efficiency of hydrogen fuel cells, while surpassing combustion engines, falls short of electric vehicles using lithium-ion batteries. Additionally, the cost of hydrogen fuel cell technology must decrease further to compete with other energy sources.

Hydrogen Production Dilemma:

The source of hydrogen fuel poses a critical challenge. While hydrogen is abundant, extracting it from water through electrolysis using renewable energy results in ‘green hydrogen.’ Unfortunately, the majority of global hydrogen production comes from fossil fuels, releasing greenhouse gas emissions. The transition to green hydrogen production is crucial for achieving truly clean energy transport.

Efficiency Concerns:

Despite higher efficiency than combustion engines, hydrogen fuel cells trail behind lithium-ion battery-powered electric vehicles. The energy loss in converting electricity to hydrogen during electrolysis raises questions about the overall efficiency of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

Cost of Hydrogen Cars and Production:

Cost remains a significant barrier, with hydrogen fuel cells historically more expensive than batteries or petrol. Technological advancements have reduced costs, but the production of hydrogen itself remains a concern. Achieving cost competitiveness requires a substantial decline in hydrogen fuel cell prices, emphasizing the need for continued innovation.

Australia’s Progress in Hydrogen Production:

Australia aims to reduce green hydrogen production costs, with initiatives like the Future Fuels Programme funding hydrogen refueling stations. Advances in electrolyser technology, such as Hysata’s ultra-efficient electrolyser, contribute to enhanced efficiency and lowered production costs. This breakthrough, along with other ARENA-funded projects, signals potential progress towards Australia’s vision of clean energy transport.

While challenges persist, government support for green hydrogen production and technological advancements offer hope for a more cost-effective and widely adopted hydrogen fuel cell technology, paving the way for a cleaner transportation future.

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