hydrogen fuel cells advantages and disadvantages

10 Hydrogen Fuel Cells Advantages and Disadvantages

Jane Marsh - May 22, 2020

We are most familiar with hydrogen as an energy source in several organic compounds. These compounds are referred to as hydrocarbons and help form natural gas, propane and gasoline. Hydrogen fuel cell technology, on the other hand, is a process that transforms chemical energy into electrical. Because of its potential as a clean source of power, it has become an alternative to combustion-based systems.

Most hydrogen forms by separating it from natural gas, though scientists are working on other innovative ways of accomplishing this. One method of hydrogen gas extraction is through electrolysis. This process requires running an electric current through water, resulting in the separation of hydrogen and oxygen atoms. Unfortunately, this method is not cheap and involves carbon-intensive energy sources like oil and natural gas. Hydrogen fuel cell technology may change the way we power vehicles in the future. However, it also presents a few key challenges. Let’s examine hydrogen fuel cells’ advantages and disadvantages and what they mean for the future development of this energy source.

10 Advantages of Hydrogen Fuel Cells

Plenty of benefits come with hydrogen fuel cells. 

1. Efficient

The most widely-discussed positive attribute associated with hydrogen fuel is its efficiency. Especially when it comes to alternative fuel for vehicles, hydrogen can be up to three times more efficient than combustion gas-powered vehicles. While a combustion engine operates at an efficiency level of 25%, hydrogen fuel cells are more than 80% effective. 

2. Storable 

One advantage of hydrogen fuel cells is their storage capability. This feature makes them an essential resource for critical energy supplies and emergency situations that need reliable long-term power. 

3. Clean 

Hydrogen fuel has no dangerous by-products, and the use of hydrogen fuel cells is more environmentally friendly than gasoline or natural gas.

4. Emission-Free

Not including the carbon involved in their production, the lifecycle of hydrogen fuel is zero-emissions. It’s a very attractive option for transport vehicles since it does not contribute to air pollution. The majority of greenhouse gases from hydrogen fuel cells give off during their production, not usage. The process of creating the fuel cell may require fossil fuels, but the use of hydrogen fuel cells as an alternative to gasoline could remove five metric tons of carbon dioxide over their lifetime. 

5. Reliable

Because the technology requires no mechanical system, hydrogen fuel cells are more reliable than traditional engines and batteries. As a result, there is less of an opportunity for something to go wrong. 

6. Adaptable

Hydrogen fuel cell technology is scalable to any size project, making it easily accessible for a variety of industries.

7. Abundant

Hydrogen is the most abundant element on the planet. If society can generate power from it, it can offer significant benefits.

8. Quiet

Unlike traditional fuel sources, hydrogen fuel technology is extremely quiet, making it more popular for situations when noise is especially worrisome.

9. Durable 

Just as it is adaptable and easy to store, hydrogen fuel cell energy is long-lasting. Once made, it does not require any maintenance or additional labor. 

10. Consistent

Hydrogen fuel does not rely on an electric grid, making it a consistent and reliable source of energy that is not subject to disruptions. 

10 Disadvantages of Hydrogen Fuel Cells

Unfortunately, this energy source also comes with some drawbacks.

1. Expensive

The cost of hydrogen fuel compared to gasoline is significant. The high price is mostly due to a lack of infrastructure for distribution and storage, making it difficult for hydrogen fuel to be cost-competitive with cheaper forms of fossil fuel energy.

2. Limited

Partially because of its cost, hydrogen fuel is not widely available. While it may be a competitive alternative to gasoline-powered vehicles in the future, it currently lacks the production capabilities that would make it a viable fuel option. 

3. Dangerous

Hydrogen fuel may be non-toxic, but it still presents environmental dangers. The two main concerns regarding this fuel type are that it is highly flammable and requires a higher voltage than traditional gas engines. 

4. Difficult to Store

Storage is one of hydrogen fuel cells’ most notable attributes but also carries the greatest potential for failure. It is most often stored in liquid form or as compressed gas but has a myriad of condition requirements, such as temperature, that can make it difficult to stock.

5. Transport Issues

Transporting hydrogen fuel presents similar issues as storing it. Transportation methods include pipelines, trucks, compressors and dispensers. The cost of delivery is the greatest challenge to transportation, along with maintaining purity levels and preventing accidental leakage. 

6. Infrastructure

Toyota, Hyundai and Honda are the top three auto companies investing in hydrogen fuel cell technology and infrastructure. However, compared to other forms of alternative fuel, hydrogen has limited infrastructure. The lack of support and high delivery costs for low volumes makes it difficult to install on a large-scale.

7. New

Hydrogen fuel cell technology is new to the market and not as advanced as other energy forms. While this allows for plenty of opportunities in innovation, there are still potential challenges due to lack of research. Especially when it comes to employing hydrogen fuel in vehicles, there is still significant work to be done. 

8. Non-Renewable

Hydrogen fuel cells may be zero-emission technology, but that does not necessarily make it a renewable source of energy. The abundance of hydrogen in the atmosphere is only one factor in its sustainability as an energy source. Current technology requires the use of fossil fuels to produce hydrogen in a usable form. While it is a cleaner form of energy than gasoline, it is still carbon-intensive energy in its creation. 

9. Dependent 

Although some operations produce hydrogen fuel using renewable energy, most of the supply is dependent on fossil fuels for its production. Additionally, hydrogen fuel requires significant development in infrastructure, as well as carbon-intensive systems to make it usable. The various elements involved in manufacturing a hydrogen-powered vehicle are dependent on energy-intensive resources like natural gas. 

10. Flammable 

Perhaps the most infamous concern regarding hydrogen fuel cell technology is its flammability. If mishandled or stored improperly, hydrogen gas has the potential to explode. However, new research shows that hydrogen-powered vehicles present a low risk of explosion compared to past technologies. 

Hydrogen and the Auto Industry

The next big market for hydrogen fuel cell technology is the auto industry. With a shift towards alternative fuel sources, primarily focusing on electric vehicles, hydrogen fuel has emerged as a potential option. With options like the Toyota Prius and Tesla Model 3 already on the market, it’s no surprise that manufacturers want ways to expand their eco-friendly car offerings.

One multinational automobile corporation, Daimler Chrysler, has invested more than $1 billion in this technology as a future energy resource. As a result, hydrogen fuel cells may one day be cost-competitive with standard electric vehicles. Despite its challenges, hydrogen fuel cell technology has great potential to transform how we power cars and support a cleaner energy system.

About the author

Jane Marsh

Jane Marsh is the Editor-in-Chief of Environment.co. She covers topics related to climate policy, sustainability, renewable energy and more.