Hydrogen is the lightest and most common chemical element in the universe, but it is plagued by concerns about its net energy value (NEV). Depending on the type of energy used to make hydrogen fuel, it can be a remarkably sustainable energy source. To be a viable environmentally sustainable power source, hydrogen fuel must be manufactured using renewable sources of energy like solar.
A 2005 Scientific American article reported that car company executives “foresee no better option to the hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle in the long run.” The same year, International Energy Agency (IEA) suggested that 30 percent of the global stock of vehicles—700 million cars and trucks—could be powered by hydrogen fuel cells by 2050. By 2016, global sales for the hydrogen and fuel cell sector are estimated to be $8.5 billion, creating tens of thousands of jobs.
A fuel cell converts the chemical energy from a fuel into electricity through a chemical reaction with oxygen or another oxidizing agent. Hydrogen can be used in internal combustion, gas turbine, external combustion engines and fuel cells. In addition to burning completely clean (other than water and a bit of nitrous oxide), the energy efficiency of a hydrogen fuel cell is generally between 40-60%, and up to 85% efficient if waste heat is captured for use.
Hydrogen fuel cells have been around for almost 175 years. They have been used by NASA, in commercial and industrial settings, and in residential buildings, as well as in remote or inaccessible areas. The U.S. Navy has researched hydrogen-powered drones and there is even a tabletop “hydrogen power station” that produces hydrogen from water using a standard power outlet that costs around $200. Hydrogen power is also used to power a wide variety of vehicles.
In 2011, Genco ATC third-party logistics provider partnered with customer Kimberly-Clark Corporation, Plug Power Inc., Air Products, and the Aiken-Edgefield Development Partnership to launch the nation’s first multi-use industrial park fueling station to supply hydrogen directly for industrial, commercial, and government use. The fueling station supplies hydrogen directly to Kimberly-Clark’s 450,000-square-foot distribution facility and powers hydrogen fuel cell forklifts.
According to the book, Transport Revolutions: Moving People and Freight without Oil, creating hydrogen gas by splitting water molecules via electrolysis ends up using up about half of the energy it creates. Another half of the resulting energy is taken up by the conversion of hydrogen back into electricity within fuel cells. “This means that only a quarter of the initially available energy reaches the electric motor.”
Concern about the net loss of energy is an obstacle to the widespread adoption of hydrogen power. Because there are no naturally occurring reservoirs, hydrogen must be created with the help of some other source of energy. To make hydrogen fuel, it needs to be freed through electro-chemical or catalytic means. Hydrogen must be extracted (freed) from natural gas, water or biomass. The most common means of hydrogen production is the electrolysis of common water. But it takes more energy to produce hydrogen gas than it takes from burning it or using it to produce electricity in a fuel cell.
It makes no sense to use fossil fuels to make hydrogen fuel. Using fossil fuels to make hydrogen fuel emits more CO2 than would be gained from using the hydrogen.
The issue of NEV is a serious concern; however, when partnered with renewable sources of energy like solar, hydrogen remains a promising fuel for the new energy economy. The Universities of East Anglia, York and Nottingham are using nanotechnology to harness the vast energy of the sun to produce hydrogen fuel. According to research presented at the Royal Society’s annual Summer Science Exhibition in July 2011, they have created a solar cell that produces hydrogen directly.
Honda’s solar-hydrogen refueling station project is an innovative approach from Honda that uses sunlight to make hydrogen to power a fuel cell. It is expected that Honda’s hydrogen refueling breakthrough will eventually allow for the development of a home station.
Honda’s home solar hydrogen refueling station is a six-kilowatt solar array, which powers an electrolyzer that splits water molecules into hydrogen atoms. Home refueling takes eight hours of charging for an average commute (30 miles or 50 km). At a “fast-fill” public station, five-minutes of refueling enables a vehicle to travel 240 miles. A solar hydrogen refueling system could move beyond the research stage and into the market-ready phase as soon as 2015.
In places like the Canadian province of British Columbia (B.C.), hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and infrastructure are already being developed. The government of B.C. has launched hydrogen initiatives as part of its clean energy strategy. One of the more innovative projects is known as the Waste Hydrogen Utilization Project (IWHUP), which recycles waste hydrogen from industry, like sodium chlorate plants for use in vehicular and stationary power applications.
B.C. is a world leader in hydrogen fuel cell transportation solutions and they have already deployed a number of vehicles and considerable infrastructure. B.C. has the largest number of hydrogen fueling stations of any province in Canada. BC Transit has a fleet of 20 hydrogen-powered fuel cell buses in Whistler, which is the largest deployment of its kind in the world. More than $6 million in provincial funding has been earmarked for new charging stations and upgrades to hydrogen fueling stations at existing facilities. Canada also has invested in three other hydrogen initiatives: The Vancouver Fuel Cell Vehicle Project, Hydrogen-Powered Delivery Van Project and the Hydrogen High-Pressure Valve Development Project. These three programs are part of the Canadian Transportation Fuel Cell Alliance’s goal of moving Canada towards expanded use of hydrogen and fuel cell technologies.
The government of BC’s investments in hydrogen support clean energy and create green energy jobs. The province is home to 35 hydrogen and fuel cell technology companies that employ 1,200 people. These companies include Ballard Power Systems, Angstrom Power, the Automotive Fuel Cell Cooperation, Powertech Labs, HTEC and Sacre-Davey Engineering.
B.C. has also provided provincial funding for the development of the world’s first small-scale hydrogen liquefaction plant. The plant will be built in North Vancouver and it will supply clean hydrogen throughout the Pacific Northwest. It will produce 1200 kg/day of liquid hydrogen, which is enough to fuel a fleet of over 1,500 passenger fuel cell vehicles or 50 transit busses. B.C.-based Hydrogen Technology & Energy Corporation (HTEC), and Sacré-Davey Engineering, along with international partner Air Liquide, are building this innovative, high-tech plant.
“HTEC is excited to lead this innovative project that is enabled by progressive government support, leading-edge hydrogen technologies and the availability of clean hydro power. It demonstrates that solid opportunities are beginning to emerge for businesses and investors in hydrogen energy,” said Colin Armstrong, HTEC Vice President.
B.C. is powering vehicles with hydrogen fuel. The province has attracted hydrogen focused automotive giants to the province. Automotive Fuel Cell Cooperation in Burnaby B.C. is a company that employs more than 200 people. In March 2011, Mercedes-Benz Canada announced plans to build a new hydrogen fuel cell facility in Burnaby.
B.C. also built a hydrogen highway system for the 2010 Olympics. The BC hydrogen highway runs between the cities of Vancouver and Whistler. Companies like Ford test drove its Focus FCV cars along the hydrogen corridor, gathering information about operating hydrogen cars in cold weather conditions. A few dozen Californians are already driving one of Honda’s FCX Clarity fuel cell cars.
Honda’s FCX Clarity FCEV is a hydrogen powered electric car. The fuel cell combines hydrogen with oxygen to make electricity that powers the Honda E-Drive electric motor. Water vapor is the car’s only emission.
Compared to previous generations of fuel cell vehicles, the Clarity is over 397 pounds lighter and has 120% better power-to-weight ratio. The power plant is 20 percent more fuel efficient, 45 percent more compact and 10 percent more energy efficient. The FCX Clarity’s compact and lightweight lithium-ion battery is used as a supplemental power source capturing lost energy during deceleration and braking.
Honda has indicated that the Clarity will come with the option of a home refueling solar array. Eight hours of home refueling will give the car enough range for the average commuteof 30 miles (50 km). At a “fast-fill” public station, five-minutes of refueling gives the vehicle a range of 240 miles. The car is likely to be sold commercially around 2018 in the luxury large sedan category. This is a car that may very well offer us a glimpse into the automotive future.
Like Honda, Toyota is also betting on hydrogen fuel cell technology. The Toyota prototype demonstrates that the hydrogen fuel cell can offer the range of combustion engines with better efficiency than hybrid drives.
Early versions of their Highlander hydrogen fuel cell prototype (FCHV-adv) had a 431 mile estimated range on a single tank of compressed hydrogen gas and an average fuel economy of 68.3 miles/kg (approximate mpg equivalent).
Jared Farnsworth, Toyota Technical Center advanced powertrain engineer said, “This evaluation of the FCHV-adv demonstrates not only the rapid advances in fuel cell technology, but also the viability of this technology for the future.”
The 2009 Toyota Highland Hybrid achieved an EPA-estimated rating of 26 mpg combined fuel economy and has a full-tank range of approximately 450 miles.
With premium grade gasoline priced at about $3.25, the gasoline-powered V6 Highlander hybrid is estimated to travel approximately 26 miles at a cost of about $3.25. Currently, hydrogen gas pricing is not fixed, but DOE targets future pricing at $2 to $3 per kilogram. Therefore, the FCHV-adv is estimated to travel approximately 68 miles at a projected cost of about $2.50 – more than double the range of the Highlander Hybrid, at equal or lesser cost, while producing zero emissions.
Irv Miller, TMS group vice president, environmental and public affairs added, “Toyota’s hydrogen fuel cell technology has advanced rapidly over the last two years. In 2015, our plan is to bring to market a reliable and durable fuel cell vehicle with exceptional fuel economy and zero emissions, at an affordable price.”
General Motors is currently part of an effort to test FCVs and implement a viable hydrogen refueling infrastructure in Hawaii, one of the most fossil fuel dependent states in the U.S. The Hawaii Hydrogen Initiative aims to bring upwards of 20 hydrogen refueling stations to Hawaii by 2015.
Engineers at the US Department of Energy’s (DOE) National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) are testing this technology. NREL engineers spent six weeks investigating the Kia Borrego Hydrogen Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle (FCEV).
The Kia FCEV has a 115 kw-fuel cell stack, which is housed under the floor of the passenger compartment. Rather than using gasoline or electricity, the SUV-sized vehicle is fueled with compressed hydrogen and has a range of 466 miles per fill-up, the equivalent of 59 mpg. The demonstration vehicle has a 110 kw traction motor and 100 kw ultracapacitor rather than a battery. An ultracapacitor is very powerful and offers great pick up.
NREL engineers achieved a truly zero emissions fuel cycle for Kia FCEV’s hydrogen fuel with the help of wind and solar energy. This is part of the Wind2H2 project, where wind turbines and solar panels are linked to electrolyzers, which pass the renewably-generated electricity through water to split it into hydrogen and oxygen. Kia is scaling up facilities to support FCEV production in 2014-2015.
NREL researchers also tested a Mercedes-Benz A-Class F-Cell vehicle and are actively looking to expand the testing process with other automakers. Other car companies are actively pursuing adding hydrogen fuel cell vehicles in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere.
Hydrogen power is not limited to vehicles. In 2010, Ballard Power Systems announced the deployment of the largest hydrogen fuel cell in the world. This first time deployment demonstrates the viability of clean energy on a large scale. The fuel cell is the size of a tractor trailer and is completely transportable. It is capable of generating up to one megawatt of power, which is enough to power 500 homes or the equivalent of a small town.
The fuel cell has traveled from its manufacturer, Ballard Power Systems in Burnaby, B.C., to FirstEnergy Generation Corp, in Eastlake, Ohio for a five year trial run. The utility plans to run the fuel cell during periods of peak demand, to ensure uninterrupted power to customers.
This fuel cell generator is known as CLEARgen(TM) and it is based on Ballard’s proton exchange membrane (PEM) technology. As a transportable technology, it can replace dirty diesel generators with clean energy solutions in remote communities. It’s also capable of running off by-product hydrogen from chemical plants.
Ballard provides clean energy fuel cell products enabling optimized power systems for a range of applications including backup power solutions to cell phone companies. Ballard fuel cells are also powering vehicles like buses and forklifts.
Most recently, Apple has announced that it is developing a battery that will run on hydrogen-fuel. This battery will be able to power all of Apple’s portable devices including iPhone, iPad, iPod and Macbook. What makes this technology so revolutionary is that it has the ability to provide power for weeks as opposed to hours or days. This eco-friendly, long-lasting battery is light and small in size.
“Our country’s continuing reliance on fossil fuels has forced our government to maintain complicated political and military relationships with unstable governments in the Middle East, and has also exposed our coastlines and our citizens to the associated hazards of offshore drilling. These problems have led to an increasing awareness and desire on the part of consumers to promote and use renewable energy sources.” Apple stated in its filing.
Panasonic is also getting into the hydrogen energy business with fuel-cell generators, which it hopes will be part of new energy technologies that triple revenues by 2018. Panasonic plans to provide hydrogen fuel cells for home use.
The real value of hydrogen is in its capacity to provide longer lasting power for digital devices and eliminating range anxiety in vehicles. Whether in a vehicle or an ipod, hydrogen power outperforms current battery technology.
Hydrogen, particularly solar generated hydrogen power, is one of the most abundant and cleanest sources of energy on earth. There is an irresistible allure to cars and portable technologies that are powered by sunlight and emit only water vapor. From the very large to the very small, hydrogen will be part of our energy future.
Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of The Green Market Oracle, a leading sustainable business site and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.
Image credit: Fuel Cell & Hydrogen Energy Association