Hydrogen as a fuel – is it viable?

Hydrogen fuel cell powered train

Is the hydrogen economy ever going to happen and are fuel cell vehicles really a viable alternative? Lance Turner cuts through the hype and takes a realistic look at using hydrogen for transport and energy storage.

ANYONE interested in renewable energy will have come across numerous articles on hydrogen fuel cells, and in particular, their use in cars and other transport as a potentially greener replacement for conventional internal combustion engine (ICE) drivetrains. However, to date there are very few fuel cell vehicles on the roads, apart from a few in demonstrator fleets, all subsidised by either the government or vehicle manufacturers.

So why haven’t we seen the fuel cell revolution as promised? There are a number of reasons, but let’s first look at the basics of fuel cells.


What is a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle?

In its simplest form a hydrogen fuel cell consists of two electrodes (an anode and a cathode) separated by an electrolyte. Hydrogen gas is introduced at the anode and oxygen from the air at the cathode. The two combine to produce electricity, heat and water.

In a fuel cell vehicle, hydrogen is stored in high-pressure tanks and delivered to the fuel cell at a reduced pressure, while air is passed through the fuel cell stack (the common term for a number of fuel cells in a single unit) courtesy of an electrically driven compressor system. By varying the rate of gas flow through the stack, the electrical output of the fuel cell system can be controlled.

The electricity then normally passes through a DC to DC converter to produce a voltage suitable for the vehicle’s drive motor and battery bank (or ultracapacitor bank).

The resulting electricity powers one or more electric motors, which propel the car— exactly like a battery-based electric vehicle.

As mentioned, fuel cell vehicles include a battery or large ultracapacitor for temporary energy storage. This is required as a fuel cell takes a small amount of time to respond to gas flow rate changes. In a vehicle this would be an unacceptable delay—imagine putting your foot down only to have the car do very little for a couple of seconds. The battery and/or ultracapacitor store a relatively small amount of energy but they can deliver it immediately as a large amount of power. They also provide extra power when the total demand exceeds that available from the fuel cell stack (which usually has a lower maximum power output than the motors are rated for) such as when overtaking and hill climbing.

Indeed, the main difference between a purely battery electric vehicle (EV) and a fuel cell vehicle (FCV) is that the FCV has a combination of fuel cell system and small battery rather than a single large traction battery—in most other respects they are quite similar.

To store a usable amount of hydrogen in a small space, such as required for a vehicle drive system, you need to compress it enormously. How much does it have to be compressed? To gain acceptable ranges comparable to a typical petrol car or current long range EV (400 km or more), the level of compression is many hundreds of times atmospheric pressure.

Both Honda with their Clarity FCV and Hyundai with their ix35 vehicle use a maximum tank pressure of 700 Bar, or around 700 times normal atmospheric pressure, 70 megapascals, or over 10,000 psi in the old of pressure per square centimetre of tank surface area. terms. In more common terms, that’s 700 kg

Read the full article in ReNew 139.