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Hydrogen fuel cells are set to play a key role in the transition to a clean, low-carbon energy future. Fuel cell technology promises an emission-free –– the combustion of hydrogen results only in the creation of water –– and efficient power source for electric vehicles, heat and power for buildings and a host of other applications. And while hydrogen is abundant and can be an effective carbon-free energy carrier, a number of challenges must be overcome for hydrogen fuel cells to achieve their clean energy potential.

Three Hydrogen Challenges

  1. Source: Global hydrogen demand stands at around 8 to 10 exajoules (EJ) annually but according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), roughly 95% of all hydrogen produced worldwide is so-called “gray” or “blue” hydrogen – produced through the steam reformation of natural gas. Hydrogen produced from renewably-sourced electricity for the electrolysis of water is carbon free but the available volume is woefully short of the global need.
  2. Fueling Infrastructure: According to recent figures from the U.S. Department of Energy, just 49 public hydrogen fuelling stations exist in the U.S. and Canada, the vast majority of which are located in Los Angeles and San Francisco. In 2020, the California Energy Commission approved a program to expand distribution infrastructure with up to $115 million in grant funding to boost fuel cell electric vehicle use but this will add just over 100 new stations in that state by 2027. By way of comparison, thousands of fleet and public fuelling stations, including virtually every U-Haul-like business in the U.S. and Canada, are already supporting the transportation sector.
  3. Fuel Cost: California Fuel Cell Partnership figures from 2019 show the average price of hydrogen for a light-duty fuel cell electric vehicle in California is $16.51/kg, or roughly $57 a gallon. With scale, the price of hydrogen will come down, but for now the National Average Retail Fuel Prices Conventional and Alternative Fuels report from October 2020 shows propane at well-below $2.99 a gallon.

Propane’s Fuel Cell Alternative

Solid Oxide Fuel Cells (SOFC) produce considerable temperatures as part of the electrochemical process.  That fact makes it possible to integrate a reformer with a fuel cell to produce hydrogen at the source. This means fuel cells using already low-carbon propane can chemically produce hydrogen. Traditionally, a solution like this would add significant costs and additional complexity but a commercially attractive approach has now emerged with a novel fuel cell architecture that makes it possible to use gaseous fuels like propane without the need for a reformer.

Developed some 30 years ago by U.K. fuel cell pioneers and the country’s oldest fuel cell company, Adelan Ltd., the microtubular SOFC (mSOFC) uses an ingenious internal structure to produce hydrogen from propane. mSOFCs offer a dependable and reliable source of electricity in even the most remote locations so long as an appropriate fuel can be sourced. Furthermore, the ability of this technology to use almost any clean fuel offers considerable opportunity for immediate and widespread fuel cell uptake.

Adelan’s chief executive officer, Dr. Michaela Kendall reinforced the point. She said, “Fuel cells that use widely available conventional fuels like propane or LPG represent a major gateway for the uptake of clean energy technologies, while the availability and price point of green hydrogen produced from renewable energy catches up to become an economically viable carbon-free alternative. Future-proofing by using bio feedstocks to generate bioLPG — another viable fuel for our fuel cells — can further reduce carbon for customers and transition us closer to net zero. This is a growing market.”

Using clean, low carbon affordable and abundant fuels in fuel cells means they can effectively bypass many of the key obstacles facing hydrogen and instead serve as the key technological stepping stone to the clean hydrogen economy of the future.

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About the Author

David Appleyard is a journalist with more than 25 years’ experience. He’s been published in The Times, the Economist and numerous energy and technology-focused magazines, websites and blogs including Renewable Energy World, Power Economics and Modern Power Systems.