The Ultimate Guide to Fuel Cells in 2023
Learn more about the power of fuel cells, how they can save the planet, and their uses in industry and education.
Fuel cells are central in the global transition to renewable energy. Offering an efficient, clean and most importantly renewable source of energy, fuel cells are rabidly occupying a central place in the future energy economy. But while they've been around for over one hundred years, they've only recently become a serious alternative to fossil fuels. In this ultimate guide, we'll explore all the types of fuel cells out there, their benefits and drawbacks, and how you can use them in different applications.
What is a Fuel Cell?
What’s a fuel cell? The easy answer is it's a device that generates electricity by combining hydrogen and oxygen to produce water, heat, and electricity. Fuel cells emit zero greenhouse gasses unlike engines powered by fossil fuels like gasoline. When you run fuel cell, the only emissions are heat and water. As opposed to batteries, fuel cells do not store energy, but produce electricity as long as hydrogen is pumped in. People use fuel cells for a variety of applications, from powering vehicles and homes to providing backup power in remote locations.
How do Fuel Cells Work?
Fuel cells are made up of three basic components: an anode, a cathode, and an electrolyte membrane. The hydrogen gets pumped into the anode, where it is divided into ions and electrons. The electrons, sent out of the fuel cell, are what creates the flow of electricity. The larger the fuel cell, the more electrons are sent out and the more power it can generate. It’s possible to buy a fuel cell today capable of generating 135kW – enough power to run a Class 8 truck or a community of homes.
Types of Fuel Cells
Each type of fuel cell comes with its own unique advantages and disadvantages. While there are a large variety of fuel cells out there today, the most common types of fuel cells are:
- Alkaline Fuel Cells (AFC): Known for being the oldest type of fuel cell, AFCs are often used to power small electronic devices. Pros are that they are quite cheap and can last a long time, but they have a low power output and can be quite difficult to run due to the fact they need pure H2 and O2 as input.
- Proton Exchange Membrane Fuel Cells (PEMs): PEMs are by far the most common type of fuel cell out there. Benifits include having a high power density and being able to operate in low temperatures. This means they need less time to warm-up and can start quite quickly. The cost of the materials required is, however, a major drawback. The catalyst (a major component of the fuel cell) can significantly add to the overall fuel cell price.
- Phosphoric Acid Fuel Cells (PAFCs): PAFCs have been used for over 30 years as stationary power systems. Reliability and long lifespan are significant advantages. Drawbacks include quite low efficiency, high operating temperatures, and long start-up time.
How Can I Use Fuel Cells?
Fuel cells can be used for a variety of purposes.
- They can provide primary or backup power to commercial trucks, residential buildings and industrial equipment.
- Where previously gasoline or diesel generators could provide power to remote buildings or campsites, fuel cells can produce as much or even more power with no emissions at the power source.
- Long-distance trucking is an area where fuel cells are particularly suited to replace combustion engines. Here the long distances and need for quick refuel times make hydrogen-powered fuel cells a preferred option over battery electric power.
- Fuel cells are also highly scalable, and it's straightforward to add more fuel cells to a ‘fuel cell stack’ to meet the specific needs of a given application, making them a highly flexible energy source.
Advantages of Fuel Cells
- Zero emissions: Another advantage of fuel cells is that they produce zero emissions. Fuel cells are essential in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and combating climate change. While fossil fuels release harmful greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere when burned, fuel cells produce only water and heat as byproducts.
- Versatility: Fuel cells are highly versatile. While batteries can be useful for small portable electronic devices and combustion engines, fuel cells can power everything from small electronic phones to large-scale industrial power plants. If someone is using a fuel cell for a small-scale application, it’s also easy to connect multiple fuel cells together and increase the capacity. Fuel cells are therefore suitable for a wide range of energy needs.
- Cost-effective: While fuel cells have a reputation for being expensive, the cost has decreased steadily in recent years. As more R&D happens and the process of production improves, it’s expected the price of fuel cells will continue to drop. Fuel cells should become increasingly affordable and accessible to consumers and businesses, helping to drive the growth of the fuel cell market.
- Reliable: Fuel cells are astonishingly reliable. As many businesses contemplate transitioning to renewable energy, fuel cells are increasingly being used because they can operate continuously for years without maintenance, providing reliable power even in harsh conditions.
- Secure: Fuel cells are one of the most secure power sources around. While fossil fuels are subject to price fluctuations and geopolitical tensions, hydrogen is relatively abundant. It can be produced close to the point of use, reducing the probability of world events driving up prices.
Fuel Cell Market and Industry
The global fuel cell market has seen significant growth in the past decade. Driven by increasing demand for clean and efficient energy solutions and an emphasis on transitioning from fossil fuels, the world market has grown to be valued at over $ 5 billion in 2023. It is expected to reach $ 42 billion by 2023.
Queensland in Northern Australia is a key global hub for the fuel cell market. As this region experiences strong sunlight year-round, it’s home to many solar farms which can supply electricity to hydrogen generators (electrolyzers). The hydrogen produced from these generators is then in a perfect location to be shipped across the Asia-Pacific region to China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.
The major players in this area are Hyzon Motors, the Stanwell Corporation, Ark Energy and ABB Australia.
Fuel Cell Education
The future market for fuel cells is dependent on a highly educated workforce with the skills, know-how and confidence to continue to innovate. There are different types of hydrogen education equipment that aim to teach this fuel cell workforce how this technology works. Fuel cell ‘science cars’ are small model cars powered by a reversible PEM fuel cell. This reversible fuel cell can generate hydrogen through water electrolysis, and then convert this hydrogen into electricity – powering the car.
Fuel cell STEM kits are becoming increasingly popular with teachers, as they provide a fun, interactive and hands-on way of learning about renewable energy.
As the decade goes on, fuel cells will play an important role in the global transition to renewable energy. This guide has aimed to give a comprehensive understanding of what a fuel cell is, how they work, the different types of fuel cells and their various applications. It’s also provided an overview of the advantages fuel cells offer over conventional combustion engines and summarized the role of fuel cells in industry and education. As fuel cells become cheaper and cheaper, their uptake is expected to continue to increase. If you’re interested in the price of fuel cells – check out our guide 8 Types of Fuel Cell by Price Point.