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Hydrogen fuel cells technology – advantages, disadvantages and applications

22 January 2021 Update 21 March 2024

Hydrogen fuel cell technology could prove to be the most cost-effective automotive power generation option available today. What is a hydrogen fuel cell and how does it work?

What is a hydrogen fuel cell?

In the near future, hydrogen fuel cells could be widely used in motor vehicles. This solution has numerous advantages, and there are many indications that hydrogen powered cars will become increasingly popular. At the same time, it is important to remember that hydrogen fuel cells, just like any other technology, have certain limitations. But first, it is worth finding out what this type of system looks like and how it can supply energy to a vehicle's engine.

The function of a fuel cell – regardless of its type – is to generate electricity through the oxidation of the fuel that is supplied to it. Operation of hydrogen fuel cells, however, is completely different from that of galvanic cells, which include batteries and accumulators. Unlike these types of components, fuel cells do not need to be recharged and can start operating almost as soon as they are supplied with fuel.

Hydrogen tank dome manufactured at Knauf Industries.

Hydrogen tank dome manufactured at Knauf Industries.

Hydrogen fuel cells are the most widely used variant. The electrodes are immersed in an electrolyte and use hydrogen (at the anode) and oxygen (at the cathode). This, among other things, eliminates the harmful substances produced during the combustion process – instead, only steam is released into the environment.

See more: How to reduce carbon footprint for the automotive sector?

How does a hydrogen fuel cell work?

Thanks to the use of hydrogen, the fuel combustion process does not change the chemical composition of the electrolytes or electrodes. This is another important aspect concerning the differences between fuel cells and galvanic cells. Batteries are based on reactions that can lead to changes in the substances used – hence the need for charging, which involves reversing these processes.

The principle of a hydrogen fuel cell is quite simple: hydrogen releases electrons, which then react with oxygen to produce electricity, leaving only steam as a by-product of the reaction. Some cells use compounds containing a large amount of hydrogen, such as methane or methanol, instead of pure hydrogen – in these cases the efficiency is slightly lower, and the combustion process also produces a small amount of carbon dioxide.

Hydrogen fuel cell applications

Hydrogen fuel cells find quite a few applications in various industries:

  • energy technology – for supplying energy to places where free access to the power grid is impossible;
  • construction of autonomous robots,
  • emergency power systems,
  • space technology – ships and probes,
  • automotive industry.

This last point, in particular, is worth noting. Hydrogen fuel cell engines are a solution that is being adopted by an increasing number of car manufacturers. There are already several models from top brands with such a drive – the efficiency of hydrogen fuel cells is quite high, which allows them to be used even in buses.

See more: Shock absorbers for automotive hydrogen storage tanks 

Hydrogen cars – technology, infrastructure and other factors influencing their implementation

Although the technology for both hydrogen fuel cells and hydrogen engines is now quite advanced, we are still quite far from large-scale adoption of this type of technology. However, their number is steadily increasing and the growing popularity is the result of a combination of several important factors. Among other things, it is worth paying attention to the regulations in force – the European Union, together with other organizations, is currently putting great emphasis on eco-friendliness in road traffic, supporting initiatives related to alternative fuels and clarifying legal issues related to electromobility.

One decisive advantage in the day-to-day operation of a hydrogen car is the wide availability of this element – it can be found almost anywhere, thus keeping costs at a minimum. One 'tank' in the latest hydrogen cars allows you to travel even more than 700 km, which is a significant advantage over other electric vehicles. Currently, however, a sizable obstacle is the lack of available infrastructure to power hydrogen cars.

See more: Kinds of electric cars vs. development of the electromobility – what are advantages of HEV, PHEV, FCEEV cars?

How to fuel a hydrogen car?

From the driver's perspective, the refuelling process looks similar to that of a combustion car. However, there are a few important differences – one is that hydrogen at filling stations is usually measured in kilograms rather than litres. Moreover, refuelling a hydrogen car requires careful control of the pump rate, as fuelling the vehicle too quickly can result in dangerously high temperatures. Charging time for a new hydrogen car at a typical station is around 3 minutes.

Hydrogen car prices

For the time being, hydrogen cars are quite expensive – the prices of the models available in Poland are around EUR 65,000. With the development of infrastructure and the growing popularity of alternative fuels, however, the figures will gradually fall, as is the case with other electric cars. Legal regulations of the European Union and Member States may play an important role here – already in many places, drivers can count on concessions related to the use of such cars, such as free parking, riding on bus lanes, free entry to clean transportation zones, discounts on third-party liability policies or more favorable depreciation limits for entrepreneurs.

Hydrogen fuel cells – advantages and disadvantages

The construction of hydrogen fuel cells is relatively simple, as is their principle of operation – thanks to this, chemical energy can be converted into electricity very quickly and easily. At the same time, the risk of failures and abnormalities is very low. A huge advantage of using this type of fuel cell is its neutral impact on the environment. The by-product of burning hydrogen is only steam, unlike a number of harmful substances produced when using solid fuels. What is more, the hydrogen fuel cell also generates low noise levels. Hydrogen fuel cell technology also allows for efficient operation over long periods of time and the possibility of large instantaneous overloads. A single cell produces a very low voltage current (between 0.5 and 1 V), but they can be combined in almost any number, which allows for considerable scalability and wide application.

The downside of hydrogen fuel cells is the rather high cost of the materials used to produce the catalysts. In addition, the efficiency of this type of system is lower than when storing energy in batteries. The process of producing hydrogen also requires some energy input. Despite this, hydrogen is believed to have considerable potential as an energy source for both cars and stationary applications. It should be borne in mind, however, that hydrogen fuel cells are a technology that is still in the development phase, but the value of companies in this sector is constantly increasing.

State-of-the-art solutions for electromobility with Knauf

The constantly developing technology of hydrogen power is becoming more and more popular. For this reason, it makes perfect sense to turn to solutions that will perform well in this fast-growing market. Modern cells use EPP foam components, which provide effective thermal insulation coupled with shock and damage protection. One of the leading manufacturers of such parts is Knauf Industries, which also offers a range of other innovative electromobility solutions.

Contact our specialists to learn about our full offer.

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