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Science & Technology > Energy >

Hydrogen Fuel Cells: Niche Technology or Backbone of Tomorrow’s ‘Hydrogen Economy’?

Paper ID: 558 Last updated: 18/05/2011 14:34:15
Criteria: bullet Impact:  Likelihood:  Controversy:  Where: Global When: 11-20yrs How Fast: Years
0 people thought this paper expanded their thinking bullet
Keywords: bullet Energy - hydrogen, fuel cells, oil, pollution

Summary bullet

Interest in hydrogen fuel cells stems from their potential to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by replacing oil-based automotive fuels: they may one day form the backbone of an emerging ‘hydrogen economy’. Whether or not this happens, they will continue to be taken up in niche applications outside the transportation sector.

Discussion bullet

Fuel cells are electrochemical devices that convert fuel into electricity through chemical reactions. They differ from electrochemical cell batteries in that they must be refuelled (whereas batteries must be recharged with an external source of electricity). They also differ from internal combustion engines, which convert fuel into mechanical work by generating heat (rather than electricity). Whereas many different types of fuel cells exist, none have attracted more interest than hydrogen fuel cells, which combine stored hydrogen with atmospheric oxygen to produce electricity, whilst emitting only water vapour. Thus, since the 1990s, there has been much talk of today’s ‘oil economy’ transforming into tomorrow’s ‘hydrogen economy’. [1] [2]

The question then arises, could we see a ‘hydrogen economy’? The goal of a ‘hydrogen economy’ has seen significant investment in research and development (R&D) and infrastructure. This has been led by governments, and backed, to varying extents, by corporations with vested interests in the existing ‘oil economy’ such as vehicle manufacturers and petroleum companies. In 2003 the Bush administration launched a 5 year, $1.2 billion Hydrogen Fuel Initiative. [3] More recently, the European Union (EU) and Germany’s National Organisation for Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technology have contributed €470 million and €500 million worth of funding respectively, with both sums to be matched by industry. [4] [5] An early leader was Iceland, which began trialling hydrogen fuel cell buses in 2003, and has since laid down considerable infrastructure. [6] Another leader has been the State of California, which commissioned a Blueprint for a Hydrogen Highway in 2004 and has since subsidised a network of refuelling stations. [7] Hydrogen infrastructure is also being built in South Carolina, Florida, Japan, [8] Canada, Scandinavia and elsewhere in continental Europe. [9] Car companies are making use of this infrastructure to pilot and launch new vehicles.
Despite all of this investment, it is far from obvious that hydrogen fuel cells will form the backbone of a ‘hydrogen economy’ soon—or ever. There are three reasons for this. First, there remain significant technical hurdles to cost-effective hydrogen fuel cells. [10] [11] Second, there are significant cost-barriers to a large-scale adoption. These include the cost of producing hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, the cost of producing hydrogen and the cost of establishing refuelling infrastructure. Third, current methods of producing hydrogen raise doubts about the ‘green’ credentials of hydrogen fuel cells. Hydrogen can either be stripped out of hydrocarbons (typically natural gas) or produced by electrolysis (i.e. using electricity to break water down into hydrogen and oxygen). The first of these methods releases carbon dioxide directly; the second will do so indirectly if it uses unclean electricity. In both cases, further energy is then required to compress the hydrogen for transportation to refuelling stations. [1]

The merits and demerits of hydrogen fuel cells must be considered in the context of competing technologies, including biofuels, hydrogen internal combustion engines (HyICE) and battery-electric vehicles.

• Biofuels [see Sigma Scan issue paper 442] have the advantage of reducing carbon emissions whilst being deliverable through existing infrastructure. However, their capacity to replace oil is constrained by the availability of suitable land, which is also needed to produce food (noting that clearing rainforests to free up land for biofuel production is unlikely to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide). [12] [13]
• HyICE technology essentially involves burning hydrogen instead of oil within a combustion engine. [14] It is thus an alternative technology upon which to construct a ‘hydrogen economy’, which would involve less retooling within existing car plants. Because it is based on the same fuel as hydrogen fuel cells (i.e. H2), it will be feasible for refuelling stations to accommodate both technologies simultaneously.
• Battery-electric vehicles run on stored electricity and require recharging rather than refuelling. Like electrolytic hydrogen, it promises zero carbon emissions so long as green electricity is used. Its main advantage vis-a-vis electrolytic hydrogen is that it requires less electricity overall because it cuts out the process of electrolysis (which necessarily involves energy losses). [1] Its main disadvantages are inferior energy-density (meaning shorter range) and long charging times.

As an alternative to oil, hydrogen fuel cells – along with competing technologies – remain heavily dependent upon government subsidies and research expenditure. Accordingly, the technological competition which will play out in the next 25 years will be heavily shaped by governments, with significant potential for path-dependency if certain technologies find favour. Current trends are mixed: Continental Europe is beginning to follow early leaders, but in the United States (US) the Obama administration has dramatically curtailed support due to affordability concerns. [15]

For all of these reasons, it is not obvious that today’s oil economy will give way to a hydrogen economy or, if it does, that the hydrogen fuel cell (as opposed to HyICE) will form its backbone.

There are possible niche applications of hydrogen fuel cells. Even if a hydrogen economy does not develop, niche transportation roles may be realised, especially in public transport (where depots could be equipped to serve fleets of buses). The main future for hydrogen fuel cells may, however, be in sectors other than transportation, which is where the Obama administration has refocused public research expenditure. [16] The first large market is likely to be for standby power generation for office buildings and hospitals that need back-up energy during blackouts, as well as rural homes that want to live off the grid. In these circumstances, hydrogen fuel cells could be more efficient than existing diesel and other generators run on conventional oil-based fuels. More generally, fuel cells are attractive sources of power in remote locations and in air-independent environments, such as in spacecraft and submarines (the German Type 212 submarine, which employs hydrogen fuel cells, is a leader). [17] [18] Fuel cells provide power for extended space missions, and there is the possibility that fuel cells could be used to power permanent lunar outposts. [19] Hydrogen-based fuel cells also offer potential as a stored power source for small electronic gadgets. Currently, technological hurdles prevent this from being an attractive option, but future innovation could make this niche application feasible. Here too there will be technology competition: hydrogen fuel cells will need to demonstrate added value vis-a-vis rechargeable batteries.

Implications bullet

Possible implications of further development of hydrogen fuel cells include:

• Hydrogen fuel cells may play a role in reducing global carbon dioxide emissions. The size of this contribution will depend on uptake within the transportation sector, as well as the means by which hydrogen is sourced.
• In the medium-term, hydrogen economies are likely only in regions with abundant access to renewable energy (such as Iceland, with its abundant geothermal power), or in countries which ‘go nuclear’ [see Sigma Scan #437]. It is difficult to predict whether (and over what time period) hydrogen economies may emerge in other countries. Much will depend upon emerging technologies aimed at reducing the carbon footprint of fossil fuel usage [see Sigma Scan issue paper 440].
• If the vision of a hydrogen economy fades in leading economies, R&D funding for fuel cell technology is likely to fall. A slower rate of technological progress may then spill over into the uptake of fuel cells in other niche applications (which also experience technology-competition). The exceptions to this are applications in air-independent environments (for example, space, submarines.)

Early indicators bullet

Several countries, with Iceland at the fore, have begun constructing ‘hydrogen highways’ (i.e. networks of refuelling stations).
Hydrogen fuel cells are being employed in lieu of diesel generators as backup systems or in remote locations.

Drivers & Inhibitors bullet

Oil-security concerns.
The imperative to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide.
The shift away from fossil fuels to renewable sources of electricity.
Demand for clean, reliable remote/backup power generation.
Demand for small, portable power sources.
Government investments in the green economy.

Cost of generating ‘green’ hydrogen.
Cost of producing hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.
Cost of refuelling infrastructure.
Technology competition (biofuels, HyICE, battery-electric vehicles).
Increasing climate scepticism and lack of confidence in climate science.

Parallels & Precedents bullet

Shift away from leaded petrol to unleaded petrol and to liquified petroleum gas.
Uptake of hybrid petrol/electric and (to a lesser extent) pure battery-electric vehicles.

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Sources bullet

1The Economist04/09/2008Unknown author (2008). Hydrogen cars: The car of the perpetual future. The Economist [online], 4 September.Visit siteTech
2Los Alamos National Laboratory2006Thomas, S. and Zalbowitz, M. (2006) Fuel Cells - Green Power. Los Alamos National Laboratory [online]Visit siteTech
3US Government Accountability Office01/2008US Government Accountability Office (2008). Hydrogen Fuel Initiative (Highlights). Report to congressional requesters. [online]Tech
4Europa Press Release10/10/2007Europa (2007). Commission promotes take-up of hydrogen cars and the development of hydrogen technologies. [online], 10 October.Visit siteTech
5German Federal Ministry of Transport2010German Federal Ministry of Transport, Building and Urban Development (2010). National Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technology Innovation Programme (NIP). [online]Visit siteTech
6CNN20/09/2007Mihelich, P. (2007). Iceland phasing out fossil fuels for clean energy. CNN [online], 20 September. Visit siteTech
7The State of California15/03/2010California Environmental Protection Agency (2005). California Hydrogen Highway: Blueprint Plan. [online] Visit siteTech
8Hydrogen cars now2010Hydrogen Fuel Cars Now (2010). Japan's Hydrogen Highway. [online]Visit siteTech
9The Guardian15/09/2009Unknown author (2009). Germany to create national hydrogen fuel network by 2015. The Guardian [online], 15 September.Visit siteTech
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11Journal of Material Science2001Steele, B.C.H. (2001) Material science and engineering: the enabling technology for the commercialization of fuel cell systems. Journal of Materials Science; 36: 1053-1068 [online]Visit siteTech
12Foreign Affairs2007Ford Runge, C. and Senauer, B. (2007) How Biofuels Could Starve the Poor. Foreign Affairs [online]Tech
13International Food Policy Research Institute03/2010Al-Riffai, P., Dimaranan, B., and Laborde, D. (2010) Global Trade and Environmental Impact Study of the EU Biofuels Mandate - Final Report. International Food Policy Research Institute for the Directorate General for Trade of the European Commission. [online] Visit siteTech
14Europa Press Release30/03/2007Unknown author (2007). EU-funded ‘HyICE’ project a major step forward for hydrogen. EU Transport Research. Europa [online], 30 March.Visit siteTech
15New York Times07/05/2009Wald, M. (2009) U.S. Drops Research into Fuel Cells for Cars. The New York Times [online], 7 May.Visit siteTech
16Scientific American08/05/2009Biello, D. (2009) R.I.P. hydrogen economy? Obama cuts hydrogen car funding. Scientific American [online], 8 May Visit siteTech
17Siemens AG21/08/2006Hammerschmidt, A. (2006) Fuel Cell Propulsion of Submarines. Advanced Naval Propulsion Symposium 2006, Arlington USA.Visit siteTech
18Commonwealth of Australia. Department of Defence1995Mart, P. and Margeridis, J. (1995). Fuel Cell Air Independent Propulsion of Submarines. Melbourne:Defence Science and Technology Organisation Aeronautical and Maritime Research Laboratory [online]Visit siteTech
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The contents of this paper were supplied by the Institute for the Future, and have been reviewed by the Outsights-Ipsos MORI Partnership. Any views expressed are independent of government and do not constitute government policy.