An Introduction to Fuel Cells – A fuel cell is an electrochemical device that continuously generates electricity without the need for any intermediate energy conversion. Hydrogen fuel cells work like batteries, but they do not need any recharging as they produce electricity if there is a supply of H2 and O2 as fuels.
A fuel cell is made up of a negative electrode (anode), and a positive electrode (cathode) sandwiched around an electrolyte. Hydrogen is fed to the anode, and the air is fed to the cathode. In a hydrogen fuel cell, a catalyst at the anode separates hydrogen molecules into protons and electrons. The electrons go through an external circuit, creating a flow of electricity. The protons migrate through the electrolyte to the cathode, where they unite with oxygen and electrons to produce water and heat.
Fuel cell technology is not a new technology as it is already used in space applications and the energy sector for a long time. However, adopting this technology in the automotive sector has been sluggish. Owing to the necessities of OEMs to go carbon neutral, advances in this technology are being made as many companies have launched production-ready vehicles in markets like Canada, Japan & and the US.
Market expectations and associated challenges
The expectation from the market is to have safe, green, sustainable, and reliable automobiles with minimal or no wait time for refuelling/recharging like ICE vehicles. However, the current technology is not adequate to cater to these needs. The challenges include a lack of adequate infrastructure (Refuelling stations), Hydrogen produced from fossil fuels which nullifies the effort to move to greener mobility and would require huge investments to produce green hydrogen through renewable resources. Also, the quantity of hydrogen currently produced is less as it is currently being produced only for industrial purposes and would require additional funds to increase the production to cater to demands from the automobile sector
OEMs and Industries’ interest in Fuel Cell Mobility
The automotive industry is experiencing multiple disruptions to shift to greener mobility. In this regard, fuel cell EVs have become one of the focus areas where OEMs, Tier-1s, and other companies have made investments in R&D to address the challenges and limitations of fuel cells and to use the technology commercially.
To reduce costs, OEMs have focussed their resources on the search for cheaper materials for fuel cell (FC) stack. The focus is also on establishing infrastructure for hydrogen production, storage, and transportation. Besides that, OEMs are working on the FC components manufacturing, thermal management, and ancillary systems design to suit the fuel cell stack.
Many companies in the US and Europe, mainly industrial power generation companies are collaborating with OEMs/Tier-1s for commercial production of hydrogen and are actively developing electrolyzers to extract green and blue hydrogen to cater to industry demands.
Way forward – EVs and Hydrogen Technology
Hydrogen technology is a front-runner for the long-range transportation segment, especially in commercial vehicle applications. Fuel cells are lighter and denser in comparison with batteries, which will amount to longer ranges with an option to refuel in minutes. Fuel-cell vehicles are expected to grow by 60% over the next 5 years. However, the formalization and feasibility of the automotive sector will happen at a slower rate.
As more and more vehicles with fuel-cell technology are introduced in the market, the focus soon will be on cost reduction with efficient and greener hydrogen production, cheaper fuel cell components, catalyst materials, and setting up of hydrogen refilling stations.
OEMs and Tier-1s must also work together to develop compressors, sensors, and piping components with design modification/new design to suit the FC stack system.
Fuel cells, along with their application in automobiles, will also be used for portable energy generation devices and stationary power generation.
OEMs are fighting an uphill battle in their search to find alternative fuels to reduce their carbon footprint. Thus, there is a move towards a greener ecosystem as per regulations imposed by government authorities in respective countries. Fuel cell vehicles are an excellent choice in this regard. They help reduce dependency on battery electric vehicles, which are suffering from problems like scarcity of lithium, cobalt, manganese, and other materials. Fuel cells with the option to refuel almost the same time as a conventional vehicle without any emission will serve as the best alternative to conventional vehicles.
Fuel cells can also be used as a portable energy generation device that can be transported to the required location and can be used as a power plant. This reduces our dependency on fossil fuels and will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and consequently reduce global warming.
However, this transformation to fuel cell mobility comes at a price. The components and materials used in FC stacks are very expensive, and hydrogen available in very limited quantity is currently being produced from fossil fuels. Hence, there is an urgent need for OEMs, energy companies, and suppliers to come together and invest in research and development of better materials for the fuel cell stack. The focus is also needed on developing more efficient electrolysis methods for the extraction of hydrogen, which would require the setting up of massive hydrogen plants. As more and more vehicles are introduced, the need for adequate infrastructure also becomes a point of concern. Both manufacturers and government authorities need to collaborate and set up these facilities all over the country for the convenience of customers.
After adequate measures are taken to introduce fuel cell vehicles to the market, it is essential that we remove the stigma attached to the purchase of FCEVs. Innovative marketing of these technologies and vehicles must be done to educate targeted customers. Efforts must also be made in offering aggressive incentives to customers. Fuel cell technology will then be successful and commercially sustainable.