Powering the future: Hydrogen fuel cell technology

Having been around since the early 1930s, hydrogen fuel cells are nothing new. Now, almost a century later, with fuel cells able to drive electric motors and maintain zero emissions, could the technology be the saviour of climate change? Priya Satish, Technology partnership executive at Alvant, takes a closer look.

Tell us a little about the benefits of hydrogen fuel cell technology

Hydrogen fuel cell technology uses hydrogen and oxygen as fuels in an electrochemical process to produce electrical energy. The by-products of the process are simply water and heat, making it an emission-free, environmentally friendly technology. Depending on its method of production, hydrogen can either be a completely green source of energy or a low carbon source of energy, making it a very highly reliable, flexible and sustainable fuel source. It is much more energy efficient too, when you compare to other energy sources such as combustion engines.

How does the technology address the issues raised at COP26?

One of the major topics addressed at COP26 was the decarbonisation of every sector and economy to reduce emissions contributing to greenhouse gases. In order to achieve net zero, the government has made several commitments to achieve the climate goals which includes phasing out the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030, speeding up the migration to electric vehicles and to increase investments in clean energy (renewables) and clean technologies. This lends itself to a huge opportunity for hydrogen cell technology.

A major part of its 10-point plan for the green industrial revolution – which falls under its climate change strategy – is low carbon hydrogen production and the development of the larger hydrogen economy. Hydrogen fuel cell technology has the potential to become a completely green, clean, sustainable technology which can be implemented in many sectors, like transportation and power generation, as well as other industries, as part of the global carbon neutral plans.

Do you think that hydrogen fuel cells (FCEVs) are more sustainable than EV batteries?

Even though battery electric vehicles (BEVs) play an important role in decarbonisation of the automotive sector, we need to realise that the production of the batteries used in EVs is still a carbon intensive one. The countries where these batteries are manufactured are still fossil fuel dependent for their electricity needs and their energy mix predominantly contains non-renewable sources. This makes the overall carbon footprint of the BEVs significant, even though they are zero emission vehicles.

However, the bigger problem with BEVs is the economic and social cost associated with the mining of some of the metals/minerals used in these batteries as there is a possibility for pollution and human exploitation alongside its production. Recycling and re-use of the batteries can off-set the problems associated with battery production, but the solution lies in the future. On the contrary, FCEVs which run on green hydrogen produced through electrolysis of water is a cleaner technology, given the electricity for the electrolysis process is generated from renewable sources. Even though there is still a lot more work needed to develop infrastructure surrounding the hydrogen re-fuelling stations, storage of hydrogen and the cost of FCEVs, I believe that once established, the economy of scale will help to bring down the cost of FCEVs. The most attractive feature of FCEVs is the refuelling time. This takes just five minutes for FCEVs – very convenient for users in comparison to BEVs which can take hours to recharge. BEVs’ driving range has improved drastically in recent times, with some models providing more than 400 miles on a single charge, yet still for longer driving ranges, FCEVs are a better choice because of their higher power density/energy density which makes them more suitable for long haul transportation like buses and commercial vehicles such as trucks.

Can you explain how Alvant fits into this alternative fuel solution?

Electrical air compressors are an integral and expensive part of the fuel cell systems (FCS). Fuel cell systems require special high-pressure air compressors which are highly efficient, lightweight, power dense and with minimal noise, vibration and harshness (NVH). The electric air compressors have a significant influence on the FCS’s performance. Alvant has been developing a low-loss high-performance rotor technology for the fuel cell electric air compressors by applying its core technology – aluminium matrix composites (also known as AMCs).

Alvant’s core technology has been developed over more than 10 years and is based on the convergence of advanced materials and a patented manufacturing process to produce AlXal – a highly versatile aluminium composite. Alvant’s rotor solution offers an opportunity to increase power density, operate at high-temperature and reduce manufacturing and operating costs for electric air compressors.

 So, is the future hydrogen?

Ah, if only it were that simple! Hydrogen is being promoted by many as the next generation fuel to power cars, heat homes and generate electricity. The global hydrogen generation market was valued at $130 billion in 2020 and expected to surpass $220 billion by 2030 at a CAGR of 5.4%.

But what’s crucial to understand is that 95% of the hydrogen produced in the world today is “blue hydrogen” – which is produced from natural gas containing methane, one of the greenhouse gases and a major contributor to climate crisis. Only 5% of hydrogen – in other words, green hydrogen – produced in the world is through the electrolysis of water which is a very expensive process. This process needs electricity which either comes from renewable and/or non-renewable sources. Therefore, reluctantly we have to say right now that hydrogen production is not a completely green process. With the current infrastructure and maturity of hydrogen technologies, CCUS (carbon capture, utilisation and storage) equipped hydrogen production would be the way to go, as it’s still cheaper than green hydrogen production and provides an opportunity to bring low-carbon hydrogen into new markets.

Talking of markets, we can see a strong drive to develop the hydrogen economy by Asian countries as their governments have stopped incentivising the battery technologies owing to the problems associated with its production. We can see a technology ‘leapfrogging’ happening in the Asian markets when it comes to EVs, particularly in long haul transportation with larger powertrain requirements but the jury is still out on smaller applications like road cars.

I personally believe that although it’s too early to say that hydrogen is the way to go, it would be wise to embrace and accelerate developments of the hydrogen technologies so that UK and Europe don’t end up as technology laggards.

However, in the case of power-intense long-haul transportation like aircraft, trains, trucks and buses and ships where switching to battery technology might be challenging, hydrogen technology shows a promising potential.