Innovating fuel cells: Breaking the barriers towards a hydrogen future

Innovating fuel cells: Breaking the barriers towards a hydrogen future

Eliska Krizova, Fuel Cell Stack Engineer, at Bramble Energy, discusses the main challenges to a hydrogen future and some of the innovations helping clear the roadblocks

In recent years, hydrogen has become somewhat of a buzzword – and for good reason. It is the most abundant chemical element in the universe and one of the most abundant on Earth, where it’s mostly found in compounds like water and hydrocarbons. It also produces no greenhouse gases or other harmful emissions when used as a fuel, and it has a high energy content per unit of mass that’s greater than traditional fossil fuels like gasoline.

As the world grapples with the urgent need to combat climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, these unique features are seeing hydrogen touted as a versatile and clean energy solution.

While there’s no doubt it has great promise for decarbonising various sectors of the economy, the buzz around hydrogen not only reflects its potential but also the complexities involved in realising that potential.

Challenges in hydrogen utilisation

One of the main challenges to a hydrogen future lies in the fact that the majority of hydrogen is still derived from industrial processes that are far from green. As of 2020, a mere 0.1% of green hydrogen was produced from water by renewable-powered electrolysis.

Alongside cost of production and the current lack of hydrogen infrastructure posing other obstacles, hydrogen is also highly flammable and has low-energy density, which makes storage and transport something of a hurdle.

Nevertheless, the landscape has begun to shift and a pipeline of innovations and new thinking are rapidly emerging in response to these challenges.

As a result, we’re seeing various technologies contributing to the utilisation of hydrogen as an energy solution. Some of the most promising include:

Hydrogen Polymer Electrolyte Membrane (PEM) fuel cells for electricity generation

Hydrogen Polymer Electrolyte Membrane (PEM) fuel cells hold great potential in decarbonising various sectors and accelerating the transition to a cleaner, more sustainable future.

PEM fuel cells efficiently convert hydrogen and oxygen from the air into electricity through an electrochemical reaction, which means a significant portion of the energy stored in hydrogen can be harnessed and used for various applications, such as powering vehicles, generating electricity, and more. Crucially, when hydrogen is used as the fuel source in PEM fuel cells, the only byproduct is water vapour, making it a clean energy solution.

But, there are still hurdles to overcome. One of the main challenges facing the widespread adoption and economic viability of hydrogen fuel cells lies in their durability and stability. The membrane and electrodes within the fuel cell degrade over time due to various factors, such as carbon corrosion resulting from start-up and shut-down degradation, as well as mechanical and chemical stresses like cold start and freeze tolerance or sensitivity to impurities.

Hydrogen fuel cells don’t perform well in extreme temperatures, so developing an effective strategy that enables reliable cold start and freeze tolerance as well as enabling operation in high temperatures is critical.

Researchers and engineers are actively working on addressing these challenges. By developing materials that are resistant to degradation and optimising the cell design to minimise stress factors, and optimising the cell operation, progress is being made to extend the lifespan of fuel cells and reduce their overall maintenance requirements.

By optimising all aspects of fuel cell design and operation we can move towards higher power densities. This makes a lot of sense particularly in systems where weight and size constraints are crucial, such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), planes, cars etc.

Increased power density allows for smaller sized stacks and increased payload. Not only that, fuel cell power density is directly linked to its efficiency – the higher the power density, the more electricity can be generated from a given amount of fuel, this translates to improved overall system efficiency, enabling better utilisation of the fuel and reducing energy losses.

Printed circuit board (PCB) technology to overcome fuel cell cost barriers

Printed Circuit Board (PCB) is a fundamental component of modern electronics and serves as the foundational platform for connecting and supporting electronic components within electronic devices. In the realms of hydrogen fuel cells, the industry is currently undergoing somewhat of a revolution by leveraging PCB supply chain.

One of the challenges associated with the fuel cell stack is manufacturing. The high cost of materials and manufacturing complexity has been a significant barrier to their commercialisation, and innovation in manufacturing processes is essential to drive down the initial cost of fuel cells. By using PCB technology, we’re able to tap into the already established global PCB industry’s supply chain, making it possible to manufacture low-cost fuel cells anywhere in the world. With the cost barrier overcome, it paves the way for broader adoption.

Water electrolysis for hydrogen production:

Electrolysis is a technology that splits water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen using electricity. Electrolysers are used for this process, and advancements in this technology are making green hydrogen production more efficient and cost-effective.

Electrolysis, however, is also not without its challenges. Alongside cost, materials, scalability, intermittent power sources, environmental impact, and safety, one of the main challenges is its energy efficiency. The process can be very energy-intensive, particularly when using electricity from non-renewable sources.

Advancements in electrolysis technologies, such as proton exchange membrane electrolysis (PEM electrolysis), are focused on improving energy efficiency, and other ongoing research and development efforts are focused on improving affordability and scalability of electrolysis systems to accelerate the adoption of hydrogen.

Driving the hydrogen industry forwards

Alongside the above, there are various other technologies currently being developed, including storage solutions, transportation methods, sensors for safety, and other advancements in hydrogen production methods. What’s more, we’re seeing lots of work towards establishing supportive policies and regulatory frameworks, which will be critical for promoting the growth of the green hydrogen industry and gaining public acceptance and confidence.

While challenges clearly persist, with a continued focus on research, development, and collaboration, there is hope driving the hydrogen industry towards a more sustainable and widespread future.