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Hydrogen Fuel Cells & Its Future - A Simple Explanation

With more and more people switching to electric vehicles, one can assume that people have chosen it as the next best alternative to the classic fossil fuel vehicles. Though most of the vehicles today are powered with Lithium-ion batteries, how soon, that we realize that it is not available in abundance, just like any other existing fuel option?

Wouldn't it be wise to consider other options as well?

The following article focuses on giving you a sneak peek at what could be the second-best option after Lithium-ion batteries. Hydrogen Fuel Cells are successively used in many hybrid vehicles and have proven to have better results. For more than 75 years, Hydrogen has been produced from natural gas, involving an efficient chemical process to produce zero air pollutants.

In the current world, HFC's find applications in:

  • Transportation

  • Gasoline refining

  • Emergency backup powers

  • Pharmaceuticals

  • Food processing

  • Manufacturing

  • Fertiliser production

Hydrogen fuel cells have succeeded to build a potential market in many leading countries such as Japan, Germany, China, South Korea, The U.S, France and many more. Now, even India plans big to welcome hydrogen fuel; cell technology in the coming days. According to an article published in "Financial Express", Hydrogen is the next Clean-green economy. However, most hydrogen-fueled vehicles are automobiles and transit buses. For now, they may not be a better pick than usual battery-operated vehicles, but the technology they bring in use can not be neglected in the coming future.

What is a hydrogen fuel cell?

The hydrogen Cells function on the principle of "reverse electrolysis". In basic terms, hydrogen atoms react with oxygen atoms inside the fuel cell to produce electric energy. A fuel cell comprises an anode, cathode, and electrolyte membrane. This reaction of Hydrogen with Oxygen across an electrochemical cell produces electricity as a result, and as residue, there is just some heat and water vapours.

Hence zero Carbon footprint or pollutants, and they significantly reduce greenhouse emissions. It is much cleaner than electric vehicles using standard Li-ion batteries, let alone the classical fossil fuel-powered vehicles.

Now for a hydrogen fuel cell to work inside an automobile is very simple. Hydrogen fuel is stored in fuel tanks which generate electricity and supply it directly to the electric engine. The fuel cell simultaneously charges the battery inside. Unlike and Li-ion battery-operated electric vehicle that just stores charge, the HFC generates its energy. Therefore separate charging of the battery component system is not needed.

Why HFC's and what advantages does it offer?

  • The energy extracted from Hydrogen Fuel Cells is a clean, green, reliable source of energy. Also, it has a neutral carbon footprint.

  • HFC's have quick charging time (<5mins), are efficient and are built to last a lifetime.

  • Hydrogen as a fuel is not affected due to adverse weather conditions.

  • The HFC vehicle is an electric vehicle, so there are significantly few moveable parts, hence low maintenance costs.

  • All the benefits of owning an EV are an add-on as no changing the oil, belts, or spark plug; also, there is no need to get a smog test done.

  • As explained earlier, HFC keeps charging the vehicle's battery, so it nullifies the need of charging the battery over and over again.

  • Hydrogen can also be obtained by renewables, such as:

    • Biogas (such as wastewater)

    • Biomass (agricultural waste)

    • Solar or wind-powered electrolysis of water.

    • Hydrogen waste from the industries can be used after cleaning.

  • Zero waste. That means when the HFC is functioning, it has practically no waste. Also, once it reaches the end of its lifespan, the fuel cell can be disassembled, and the entire machine can be recycled.

Few drawbacks can be bettered in the coming future.

  • Reading all these advantages, one might wonder if HFC's are so great, why not switch to them immediately? But, just like any other technology that is in its early phase needs time to grow and evolve. Hydrogen Fuel Cells Engines are no different. The current scenario has more negative than positive to add to the situation.

  • Present manufacturing cost is almost double the price of lithium per KWh. The cost analysis seems to be the biggest challenge.

  • Hydrogen does not occur as a natural element, so it needs to be extracted and the process to do so is not cheap. After being extracted, it is compressed and filled in fuel tanks. Further, it needs to react with Oxygen in a fuel cell to generate the electricity that powers the EV.

  • It is highly flammable and difficult to store.

  • Limited availability of hydrogen fuel vehicles and that of the refuelling stations. Both are interlinked with each other. People avoid purchasing HFC vehicles due to the lesser availability of refuelling stations, and production companies do not build refuelling stations because they do not have many customers.

Though the disadvantages may look significantly less in number than HFC's advantages, they weigh heavier on all the advantages for now. But the fact that it has a promising future can not be neglected. Even for India, Hyundai, one of the leading automotive giants, plans to launch their first hydrogen-powered vehicle, Nexo. The governments of various countries across the globe have joined hands in making it the next best alternative and with the vision of making Earth clean and green. Even the Indian Government is taking steps to bring this technology to life. As published in a very recent article by Hindustan Times, Indian Railways are set run trains on hydrogen fuel-based technology with low air pollution to reduce Green House Gas (GHG) emission. The first phase of the project is proposed to upgrade the DEMU trains running between Jind and Sonipat in Haryana. Fuel change is possible by removing the diesel generator and arranging the hydrogen fuel cells on the trains. But, as the expenses involved in adopting this technology can not be overlooked, there has been a recent budgetary pronouncement to kick off the Hydrogen mobility in India. Other links to consider:

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