Hydrogen is the simplest element that we know of in the universe today. One atom contains just a single proton and electron. That also means it is the most plentiful element of which we have access today. Despite this abundance, it does not occur naturally on our planet as a gas. It is always combined with other elements, such as H20 creating water thanks to its combination with oxygen.
What is unique about hydrogen is that you can also find it in several organic compounds. Hydrocarbons make up many of our fuels, including propane, natural gas, and gasoline. Using the process of heat application called reforming, hydrogen can be separated from those hydrocarbons to create the potential for a high-energy fuel cell.
NASA already uses liquid hydrogen as a fuel, propelling rockets and the space shuttles into space with it when the programs were active. Fuel cells with this element powered the electrical systems of these space vehicles, producing water as a clean byproduct that is pure enough to be consumable.
Now we’re looking at ways to adapt this technology to our other lifestyle needs, such as transportation. It could be useful as a source of electricity or heat for buildings. These are the primary advantages and disadvantages of hydrogen fuel cells to consider.
List of the Advantages of Hydrogen Fuel Cells
1. Hydrogen fuel cells do not create harmful emissions when consumed.
When hydrogen fuel cells are consumed to create energy, they only emit warm air and water vapor. This advantage applies for any application of the technology. You can create consumable water through the use of this technology while heating your home, driving your vehicle to work, or putting on your helmet to blast off into space.
The impact of switching from gasoline to a hydrogen fuel cell is nothing short of impressive. Giving this technology to just one vehicle would remove almost 5 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions from the atmosphere each year.
2. Hydrogen fuel cells offer a better fuel economy compared to hydrocarbons.
When you compare the fuel efficiency of a hydrogen fuel cell compared to a standard tank of gasoline, you will receive about double the mileage on a comparable amount of resources. In practical terms, that means a vehicle with a range of 700 miles on standard unleaded fuel would be able to go almost 1,400 miles if it were equipped with a hydrogen fuel cell. When you add in the advantage of reducing emissions on top of this one, then we can still go about our daily lives effectively without worrying about what we’re doing to the environment.
3. Hydrogen fuel cells offer consistency across every size.
Hydrogen fuel cells offer a consistent performance no matter how big or small they happen to be. This technology performs equally in any situation. That means you can rest assured that your vehicles, home generator, or furnace will operate with reliable consistency with a power output that doesn’t drop off any because of its size. Then there is the fact that with fuel access, this product doesn’t require time to recharge, which means you have the potential for continuous power generation from even the smallest of fuel cells.
4. Hydrogen fuel cells offer a robust safety profile to consider.
Hydrogen fuel cells offer fewer exposure risks to individuals when compared to other fuels and technologies. The only concern for human exposure is the fact that the gas acts as a simple asphyxiant. People need to maintain oxygen levels above 19.5% for adequate breathing. Although hydrogen does combine with other elements to create some significant risk factors, those do not apply with this technology. The primary risk involves a freeze burn when using liquid nitrogen, along with a certain level of flammability that we already take on when using fuel resources.
That means it becomes possible to reduce the exposure risks that come from using refined fuels in many of our vehicles and homes. There are more than 150 different chemicals found in your typical gasoline product. These items include benzene, xylene, and other potential carcinogens. Even breathing fuel vapors can be enough to induce dizziness and headaches.
5. Hydrogen fuel cells can be manufactured without an emissions cost.
When we look at renewable and clean technologies for power, there are still emissions costs that we must pay upfront before we can begin to take advantage of its carbon-reduction tendencies. This “carbon debt” is paid off in 2-5 years (and sometimes longer) of power generation because there are fewer greenhouse gases being generated because of consumption.
Hydrogen fuel cells are different. We can produce them from renewable resources such as water or solar energy. Although it is more expensive to separate hydrogen from water than it is from hydrocarbons, we do have the potential technologies already in place to make this a feasible fuel for our daily needs.
6. Hydrogen fuel cells are a practical technology.
Hydrogen fuel cells are not a technology of the future. It is something that you can go out and purchase right now for your transportation or home heating needs. When you purchase a vehicle that is equipped with this technology (or sign a lease for one), then automakers include three years of fuel as part of the initial purchase. That means some owners never have a need to visit a refueling expense because they’ve paid for it already. Even if you do need to refill your hydrogen fuel cells for driving needs, the equivalent price per energy basis is about $6 per gallon of gasoline.
List of the Disadvantages of Hydrogen Fuel Cells
1. Hydrogen fuel cells might still be harmful to the environment.
In an article that appeared in a 2003 issue of the journal Science, researchers at the California Institute of Technology found that it was possible for hydrogen to create a negative impact on the environment if it were to be released in high quantities, such as what would occur within a hydrogen economy. If the gas were allowed to accumulate, then it could indirectly cause as much as a 10% decrease in the ozone layer.
This disadvantage would occur because the extra hydrogen would mix with the stratospheric air to create more water at higher altitudes, creating a different, yet still potentially devastating impact that may be similar to what CFCs once produced.
2. Hydrogen fuel cells require regulated temperatures for maximum performance.
Hydrogen fuel cells operate efficiently when temperatures are below 212°F. If temperatures rise above this level, which is possible under certain driving conditions, then the efficiency rate of this technology becomes greatly reduced. This disadvantage occurs because the polymer exchange membranes used in this technology do not function correctly when exposed to excessive heat. That is why you are seeing hydrogen-specific models of vehicles introduced to the market with this technology instead of incorporating it on existing cars and trucks.
3. Hydrogen fuel cells are not compatible with some technologies.
It is not possible to store hydrogen like we do gasoline when considering fuel cell technologies. You either have to store the hydrogen as a gas at a very high pressure, up to 700 bars, or you have to maintain it as a liquid at a very low temperature. That means you must either take up a lot of space or consume a lot of energy to maintain this fuel resource. If it is not compressed, then the upper and lower flammability limits of it are 75% and 4% respectively. During a leak, up to 60% of the available product may also combust. That is ultimately why we stopped using dirigibles as a mass-transport system because of what occurred during the Hindenburg disaster.
4. Hydrogen fuel cells experience significant transport losses.
The normal rate of boil-off losses for liquid hydrogen is approximately 20%. When these fuel cells go through the processes of manufacturing and transportation, then the losses may be as high as 50%. Industry professionals already expect a 1% loss each day during transport. This disadvantage means that hydrogen fuel cell manufacturing must occur locally for us to obtain the many benefits it could potentially provide. If there are not enough resources available within the local infrastructure, then some regions will benefit, and others will not. That is why even a state-based or provincial switch to this technology is currently not feasible.
5. Hydrogen fuel cells experience significant transportation and storage costs.
The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that the present cost of automotive hydrogen fuel cell stacks at $53 per kilowatt when manufacturing volumes reach 500,000 units each year. Although that is about 50% lower than what 2006 estimates projected for the transportation and storage costs of this technology, they are still much higher than what we experience with gasoline or other “traditional” fuels.
The Toyota Mirai production sheet specifically states that the System delivers to kilowatts per kilogram with the power output of 114 kW maximum. This implies that the fuel system weight is 57 kg. With the added weight of the storage tanks, that means this technology offers a cost that is higher than gasoline, but lower than electricity from a transportation standpoint.
6. Hydrogen fuel cells may also experience higher liquid fuel transportation costs.
The current pipelines which we use in North America to transport liquid hydrogen to where it is needed were installed with a significant expense. Recent pipeline installations have cost upwards of $200,000 per mile. Although that rate is about 90% less than what it was in the 1990s, the costs can still be significantly higher than what other fuels costs to transport to a consumption destination. That is one of the reasons why the comparative cost per gallon is about double of what the average driver pays for gasoline without applying taxes to the transaction.
7. Hydrogen fuel cells need more development to become a renewable resource.
Although we can create hydrogen from renewable resources, the current infrastructure on our planet does not support these activities. The current supply that we use for the hydrogen fuel cells is developed from the same fossil fuels that we used to create gasoline, natural gas, and propane for consumption. There may be fewer total emissions to consider when using this technology over traditional option, but there is still a cost that must be paid with carbon dioxide and methane releases. Many of the gains that we experience are offset by the current use of hydrocarbons for gas generation.
8. Hydrogen fuel cells are still difficult to purchase.
Toyota is at the forefront of making hydrogen fuel cell technologies available to the general public. The cost of ownership for a Mirai is reasonably affordable if you are in the market for a four-door sedan, but it is still about three times higher than what an entry-level gasoline powered vehicle would cost a family of four. The 2019 model is currently available with a $349 36-month lease and $2,499 that is due at signing. You would then receive up to $15,000 worth of complementary fuel with your agreement. The MSRP is $58,500.
9. Hydrogen fuel cells are currently available in select markets only.
Consumers can only take advantage of hydrogen fuel cell technologies if there is a fueling station close to where they live or work. In the United States, that means you could only purchase this vehicle if you live in California or Oahu. There are only 8 dealers authorized to sell the Toyota Mirai in California, while there is only one location for purchase in Hawaii. This disadvantage may disappear eventually as access to this technology improves, but for now it is a significant barrier for consumers who are interested in reducing their environmental impact without sacrificing their ability to drive.
The pros and cons of hydrogen fuel cells offer us access to an exciting new technology that could one day help us to reduce the number of harmful greenhouse gas emissions that escape into our atmosphere. Moving to a hydrogen economy is not without its fair share of risks. We must find ways to reduce escaping gas into our atmosphere to eliminate the potential issue of ozone reduction. There must be new technologies developed to help us create affordable hydrogen as well. If we can hit these potential milestones, then our future world could look like a very different place – yet still feel very familiar.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Masters Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years. If you would like to reach out to contact Natalie, then go here to send her a message.