Hydrogen is the simplest element because it consists of a single electron and proton. That means it is also the most plentiful element that we know of in the universe today. Interestingly enough, hydrogen doesn’t actually occur naturally on our planet as a gas. We always have it combined with other elements to create something new. When you combine one oxygen and two hydrogen, for example, you will get water.
We can also find hydrogen in several organic compounds that we use for fuel today. These items are called “hydrocarbons,” and they make up most of what we use for heating, driving, and similar needs. Propane, methanol, natural gas, and even gasoline all come from hydrocarbons. We also produce several chemicals and other usable goods from them through the heating process of reformation.
Our current technology requires us to make hydrogen by separating it from natural gas, but we can also create it by sending an electrical current through water to separate those components as well. Some bacteria and algae use sunlight to create hydrogen under specific conditions.
Because it is such a high energy resource, NASA has used liquid hydrogen as a fuel since the 1970s. Now we are looking at the advantages and disadvantages of hydrogen fuel cells to see if they would be useful in other vehicles or situations.
List of the Advantages of Hydrogen Fuel Cells
1. It offers an effective method of energy storage.
When energy is stored as hydrogen in the form of a liquid of gas, then it will not dissipate until it is used under the assumption that the fuel cell is properly constructed. That means this technology is useful as an energy resource for mission-critical needs, emergency generators, and applications that require long-term storage because there is less energy loss that occurs with this technology. Capacitors, batteries, and even hydrocarbon-based fuels cannot make a similar claim, which is why some need to be recharged even if they are not used.
2. This technology offers a high level of energy efficiency.
Most internal combustion engines operate at an efficiency level of about 25% when they are working as intended. If you look at the rate of the average power plant, then you can achieve an efficiency rating of 35%. According to the Connecticut Hydrogen-Fuel Cell Coalition, a stationary fuel cell when used with heating and power systems can have an efficiency level that exceeds 80%.
Because of the efficiency advantages which are available with hydrogen fuel cells, DaimlerChrysler has made over $1 billion in investments for this technology because it could be a future energy resource that can power the next generation of devices.
3. The emissions from a hydrogen fuel cell are virtually zero.
When we consume the energy found in a hydrogen fuel cell, then the vast majority of the emissions that we create from that process involve water vapor and hot air. The primary expense that we pay in terms of greenhouse gas emissions comes from the fossil fuels needed to produce the fuel cell in the first place. Each vehicle conversion from gasoline to this technology takes five metric tons of CO2 out of out atmosphere as a net savings.
As an added advantage here, the water that comes from the consumption of hydrogen fuel cells can be potable, which means you can turn heating and cooling needs into something to drink.
4. Vehicles using a hydrogen fuel cell achieve a better fuel economy rating.
Harlan Ellison was a speculative fiction author who was both prolific and influential with his work. He once reportedly said that “the two most common elements in the universe are hydrogen and stupidity.” Overlooking hydrogen fuel cell technologies would be irresponsible because the fuel economy possibilities with it are incredible. The average vehicle would be able to double its range using a comparable amount of fuel without creating tons of potentially harmful emissions in its wake.
That means an energy-efficient hybrid vehicle today could potentially go 1,200 miles on a “full tank” instead of only 600 miles. You would create a better environmental profile with your vehicle even when comparing it to electric-based technologies. You still receive the same acceleration profile as well, which means your driving experience remains similar to what it is today too.
5. We receive a greater level of consistency with hydrogen fuel cells.
You will receive a consistent level of performance no matter what the size of the unit is in virtually any situations. This advantage extends to the overall usage profile of the fuel. When you use a battery or a similar power source, then you have access to less power as the product ages or the energy levels run low, reducing the production you receive from a user standpoint. Hydrogen fuel cells continue operating without a drop off, even when the reserves are low, and you can replace the energy needed immediately assuming that you have a fuel source available.
That means you can drive, heat your home, or have emergency energy available at all times without needing to worry about the stability of the product.
6. It is possible to create hydrogen fuel cells with a neutral emissions cost.
When we create a standard hydrogen fuel cell, then we create a carbon debt that can last for up to five years, depending on how often the technology is being used for energy. As we burn this clean fuel resource, then we make payments on that debt until we create a net savings when compared to a traditional fossil fuel.
There is also the issue of hydrocarbon separation to consider with this technology today. The standard method in the United States is to split the hydrogen away from a fossil fuel, which then adds to the overall carbon debt. If we were to use electrolysis instead, then it wouldn’t take as long to reach a neutral status. Solar energy can produce a similar result. Although these eco-friendly processes are more expensive than the standard method, we do have a foundation in place right now that can help the environment in impressive ways.
7. A hydrogen fuel cell provides us with energy flexibility.
You can purchase a hydrogen fuel cell right now to meet the energy needs of your home or vehicle. When you buy or lease a car which comes with this technology equipped as a fuel resource, then automobile manufacturers in this industry today provide 3 years of hydrogen as part of your purchasing package.
That means some owners never need to worry about their fueling costs after purchasing their vehicle because they’ve paid for it already in their contract. Even if a driver does need to refill their hydrogen fuel cell to meet their driving needs, the equivalent price per energy basis is about $6 per gallon of gasoline – which isn’t that much more than what you would find in New York City, San Francisco, or other large urban centers.
8. Hydrogen fuel cells are a safe technology for us to use in virtually any situation.
Hydrogen fuel cell technologies provide negligible exposure risks to people when compared to combustibles and other energy resources in this field. The only issue of concern for human exposure is that the gas can prevent someone from retaining enough oxygen from each breath. You must maintain an oxygen percentage of 19.5% for adequate breathing to stay safe.
Although hydrogen does join with other elements to create some significant risks in different ways, those do not apply when looking at fuel cell technologies. For this area of concern, the primary risk factor is a freeze burn and a particular level of flammability that we already have when using hydrocarbon-based products.
9. You can reduce the risk of chemical exposure by using hydrogen fuel cells.
Did you know that there are more than 150 different chemical compounds found in the average home today? Several of the hydrocarbon-based items can even become a potential carcinogen in some situations. If you were to breathe in fuel vapors from gasoline or certain agents, you can trigger a severe headache, start feeling dizzy, and induce nausea. Switching over to hydrogen fuel cells helps to reduce the exposure risks because the same energy becomes useful over a variety of applications.
List of the Disadvantages of Hydrogen Fuel Cells
1. Hydrogen fuel cells do not work in every situation as of yet.
We need to store our fuel resources at the moment so that we can use them when they are needed. The only way to maintain hydrogen is to use up to 700 bars of pressure or keep it as a liquid at a low temperature. That means you must use additional energy to maintain this resource until you want to use it. Since that requires compression, failing to do so can increase the combustibility of this fuel, lowering its upper flammability limits by up to 75%. You can even experience this disadvantage with a slow leak from the fuel cell itself.
We still see blimps flying in the sky over sporting events, but the reason why we don’t use them for mass transportation is because of this specific disadvantage.
2. You must regulate the temperature of a hydrogen fuel cell to maximize its use.
If you want to operate a hydrogen fuel cell at its rate of highest efficiency, then you must maintain temperature conditions below 212°F at all times. When temperatures rise above this level, then you will not receive the same levels of fuel efficiency when driving. The polymer exchange membranes that are part of the composition of the fuel cell do not work well when exposed to high heat levels, which is why a conversion from gasoline to hydrogen does not usually happen. The traditional internal combustion engine produces too much heat.
3. There are still some risks to the environment to consider with hydrogen fuel cells.
If we were to release hydrogen as a gas into our environment in significant quantities, then we would create a negative impact on the ozone layer that could be as severe as what CFCs did in the generation before. Although it would require an extensive hydrogen economy that included transportation, manufacturing, and home heating to accomplish this disadvantage, it is an issue which should not be overlooked. We cannot allow the gas to accumulate if we want to continue working to improve the environment.
Adding hydrogen to our atmosphere would create more water at a higher altitude. That means we could experience higher levels of radiation at ground level, see mutations in plants, and shifts in our weather patterns which could change our growing seasons.
4. The cost to store hydrogen is expensive enough that it is prohibitive for most people.
Since 2006, the cost estimates for hydrogen fuel cell storage have decreased by more than 50%, but it is also still at $53 per kilowatt when looking at the stacks needed for a modern automobile. These expenses are far higher than what we experience with gasoline, especially when you look at the expense of gas separation instead of hydrocarbon refinement. The cost is still lower than electricity when looking at this disadvantage from an automotive standpoint, but it is still cheaper at this moment to operate on diesel, gasoline, or propane when you have a specific need to address.
5. There are transportation losses to consider with hydrogen as well.
Because of the stability of hydrogen in a fuel cell, it is an exciting technology that many industries are looking at right now to see if it can help to create new efficiencies. We must transport this gas or liquid from its processing center to fuel cell storage, which means there will be an issue of energy loss when looking at this fuel for an option.
When you look at the normal rate of loss from boiling off with hydrogen, an outcome of 20% or lower is not unusual. As you introduce the manufacturing processes needed to create the fuel cell, then the losses can peak at 50%. It is expected to lose at least 1% of your overall product for every day of transportation required with this resource. That means our only option is to build manufacturing facilities that are close to our production resources to reduce the amount of total loss.
6. It costs more to transport hydrogen than it does most other fuels.
Although the installation cost of pipeline construction, shipping, and tanker movement for hydrogen have all gone down by up to 90% since the 1990s when fuel cells were first becoming available, there are still significant expenses to pay when installing the infrastructure necessary for this technology. Recent estimates show that it costs about $200,000 per mile to create a core network for moving gas or liquid versions of this fuel.
It is because of this disadvantage that the price of hydrogen fuel is sometimes double that of standard gasoline. You can get twice the fuel economy out of it, but the overall fuel expense tends to even out at the end because of this issue. For many drivers, it might even cost more to drive with a fuel cell at the end of the day.
7. This technology is not widely available right now.
The only way that you can take advantage of hydrogen fuel cell technologies right now is if you live in an area where the sale of vehicles with it is permitted. That means Californians can purchase a car with it, and so can certain residents of Hawaii. There are currently only eight automobile dealers in the United States authorized to sell vehicles equipped with these fuel cells. As the purchaser, you must prove your residency to follow through with the purchase.
That also means you cannot take a road trip with your vehicle if your round-trip distance exceeds the mileage range of your vehicle. According to the California Fuel Cell Partnership, there are only six stations that fall outside of the Los Angeles metro area, the Bay area, and Sacramento. Two of those fuel stations are in San Diego, one is in Santa Barbara, and there are two along the I-5 corridor between LA and San Francisco. The final option is on I-80 near the border with Nevada.
8. You will pay a premium price to purchase equipment with hydrogen few cells.
Although you can receive up to $15,000 of fuel with your purchase of a vehicle, you are still going to pay about $43,000 for an entry-level model that uses hydrogen as the fuel for driving. The MSRP for the 2019 Toyota Mirai is just under $60,000. You do have the option to sign a 36-month lease for this vehicle at an authorized dealer, but the monthly cost is about $350 per month if you have excellent credit. That means you’ll pay about three times more to access hydrogen technology when compared to a traditional gasoline car – even when you receive a complete fuel stipend over the lease or financing period.
9. It is not currently a complete renewable energy resource.
We do have the option to produce hydrogen from renewable resources, but there is not enough infrastructure in place right now to make it a viable option. That means we’re using fossil fuels to create hydrogen, so it isn’t as environmentally friendly as some proponents like to claim. There are still fewer emissions overall since we don’t create a carbon dioxide expense during consumption, but that is the only benefit right now. Everything up until the point of consumer use still pays the same greenhouse gas expense as any other hydrocarbon-based fuel that we use for transportation or home heating and cooling.
Conclusion of the Advantages and Disadvantages of Hydrogen Fuel Cells
Hydrogen fuel cells are one of those technologies that give us a lot of hope for the future. If we can find an affordable way to separate hydrogen from water, then we have an easy fuel to use that is safe in a variety of ways and won’t cause additional greenhouse gas emissions. Although there are risks for ozone depletion in a complete economy featuring this technology, there are still some ways to stay diversified to limit the damage.
The bottom line that we face is this: climate change is here. Whatever the reason might be for its presence, there are reasonable steps that we can take to limit its influence in our lives.
The advantages and disadvantages of hydrogen fuel cells show us that if we can develop the necessary technologies to make this a widely available resource, then our future society could be very different from the one that we have today. It will give us more energy diversity while reducing the potential impact of carbon dioxide, methane, and other GHG emissions.
Natalie Regoli, Esq. is the author of this post and the editor-in-chief of our blog. She received her B.A. in Economics from the University of Washington and her Masters in Law from The University of Texas School of Law. In addition to being a seasoned writer, Natalie has almost two decades of experience as a lawyer. If you have any questions about the content of this blog post, then please send Natalie a message here.