According to the Canadian Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association, hydrogen is the most common element and makes up 75 per cent of the mass of the entire universe. And, with an atomic number of one, it’s the lightest element in the periodic table.
Despite its near weightlessness, hydrogen is an extremely important gas. When combined with oxygen, it forms water. In fact, ‘hydrogen’ literally comes from the Greek for ‘water-former’. Its importance in our universe hasn’t gone unnoticed, and now we can even channel it as a way to produce zero-emission energy to fuel our cars and heat our homes. This can be done using hydrogen fuel cell technology.
When hydrogen and oxygen are present in a fuel cell, electricity can be generated. Fuel cells have a range of applications. For example, they can be used in combined heat and power boilers. These highly efficient solutions generate electricity and useful heat simultaneously. The electricity generated can be used on site to power a variety of appliances, with any excess exported to the grid.
Hydrogen fuel cells could have a huge impact on our planet and how we produce our energy, so we’ve taken a look at some of the advantages of creating this technology in this way.
Efficiency is a measurement that shows how much product or materials are produced from the energy that is inputted. High efficiency, therefore, suggests that nearly all of the energy that has been put in has been used to produce something with minimal wastage.
Fuel cells can have an efficiency of over 80 per cent, compared to internal combustion engines that currently operate at around 25 per cent efficiency and power plants at about 35 per cent. This is a huge increase in efficiency and shows that the power going in is creating much more energy.
A lot of energy is created with the intention of being used at a later date. One example of a device that stores energy is a battery. You can keep a battery in your cupboard for a long time but when you put it into an appliance, such as a clock, it is usually still able to power that device. This is because the energy has been stored in the battery until it needs to be used.
Storing electricity for future use has been a problem for a long time. For example, if you have solar panels on your roof and you have a week of glorious sunny weather, you may want to store the energy that’s been created to use the following week when it’s cloudy and raining. Unfortunately, the electricity that’s been created would need to be turned into a chemical fuel and stored in a very large battery, which would be expensive.
When hydrogen energy is stored, less energy loss occurs than in batteries. This means that fuel cell energy is good for use in backup generators or emergency lighting, as it could be stored for years but still work just as well.
When fossil fuels are burned, CO2 is produced. When hydrogen fuel cells are used to create electricity, the only byproducts are H2O (water) and heat. If fuel cell technology was used instead of traditional fuel in our cars, we could greatly reduce the amount of CO2 that’s being created. The water that’s formed during this process is drinkable, too. In fact, NASA has been using fuel cell technology for years to power its space shuttles and the water is used by the crew to drink. People are becoming more interested in fuel cells and the technology they could provide us with because they don’t create CO2 or other gases that are harmful to our planet.
At the moment, electric cars contain a battery that needs to be charged. Charging this battery can take hours, but the car may be only to drive a relatively short distance before it needs charging again. With fuel cells, as long as the cells have a constant hydrogen source, they can continue to create electricity. This means that instead of filling your car up with fuel at a petrol station, you could be filling your car up with hydrogen. You may be able to drive for a much longer distance on fuel cells than we can with rechargeable electric cars.
Unlike a standard engine, fuel cells don’t have any moving parts, which makes them completely noiseless. While for cars this isn’t necessarily a bonus, having a boiler that runs silently could be very beneficial, particularly for those people who may have a boiler in their bedroom.
So many renewable power sources are dependent on the right weather or conditions. For example, you’d need to live in a sunny place to get the best use out of solar panels, or an exposed area to produce lots of energy from the wind. But fuel cells can be available to everyone, no matter where you’re located and not dependent on factors that can’t be controlled.
Hydrogen fuel cells can be considered a renewable energy source if the hydrogen is produced by renewable energy, such as wind power. There are a number of ways in which pure hydrogen can be produced, from natural gas and coal to biomass and oil. Some of these methods of creating hydrogen, such as burning coal, are not environmentally friendly and cannot be considered renewable energy. However, if the hydrogen is created from wind or solar power, then the use of hydrogen fuel cells could be a renewable source.
For more information on how a fuel cell works, you can read our article on the topic.