At the COP21 held in Paris in 2015, countries agreed to limit global warming to 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to achieve this target, they must cut 60% of energy-related CO2 emissions by 2050. This is an uphill task given that the population is said to increase by more than 2 billion people during that period. While the world obsesses over battery technology as a solution to the crisis, there’s another alternative that is rapidly growing in popularity- Hydrogen Fuel Cells (HFCs).
With the total market potential for hydrogen technology said to reach US$11 trillion (~ €10.95 trillion) by 2050, including revenues of US$4 trillion (~ €3.98 trillion) from associated products such as fuel cell vehicles and the global hydrogen fuel cells market expected to be worthUS$19.5 billion (~ €19.42 trillion) by 2027, it’s pertinent to understand how hydrogen fuel cells work, what are the advantages of HFCs and how governments are pitching in.
What are hydrogen fuel cells?
A fuel cell is a device that generates electricity through an electrochemical reaction. In a fuel cell, hydrogen and oxygen are combined to generate electricity, water and heat. One of the earliest usages of fuel cells can be traced back to the 1960s, when NASA deployed fuel cells to power the electrical components of the Apollo and Gemini space capsules. Nowadays, HFCs power anything from forklifts to data centres to rockets. The Hydrogen Council estimates that hydrogen will power more than 400 million cars and SUVs, 20 million trucks and 5 million buses by 2050.
What are the advantages of HFCs?
Safe: For more than half a century, hydrogen has been safely used, transported and stored. According to the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association (FCHEA), fuel cell vehicles (FCEVs) have clocked in over 10 million miles of operation. Hydrogen is 14 times lighter than air which ensures that it disperses quickly. They are also less combustible- optimal combustion mixture with air is 29%, compared to just 2% for gasoline, and flames have low radiant heat, so there’s a low risk of secondary fires.
Abundance: Hydrogen is the most abundant chemical element in the universe, and there are a variety of ways to produce it. Based on how it’s produced, hydrogen can be divided into three categories-
Grey hydrogen: The most carbon-intensive form, uses fossil fuels and produces carbon dioxide as a by-product.
Blue hydrogen: It’s produced from natural gas, and it captures and stores most of the CO2 output.
Green hydrogen: Refers to the production of hydrogen through water electrolysis, and the by-product is oxygen.
A less talked about advantage of using hydrogen is its geopolitical ramifications. Since it’s abundant, any country can produce it, which is in stark contrast to fossil fuels which are concentrated in only a few places around the world, leading to energy security problems and geopolitical conflicts.
BEV vs FCEV: While both battery electric vehicles (BEVs) and FCEVs aim to reduce emissions, FCEVs have some clear advantages over their peers.
Weight: The weight of battery packs are one of the limiting factors for BEVs, but hydrogen-powered vehicles weigh comparatively less, making them more suitable for long haul transport.
Emissions: There are two ways to measure the environmental impact of vehicles- “Cradle to Grave”, which includes total emissions from the vehicle’s production, operation, and eventual destruction and “Well to Wheels”, which refers to the total emissions from the production of fuel to its use in daily life. According to one study, both of these measurements indicate that HFCs significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and air pollutants. Hydrogen-powered vehicles produce just 2.7 grams per kilometre (g/km) of carbon dioxide, whereas a BEV vehicle produces 20 g/km.
Charging: FCEVs take 15-30 minutes to refuel depending on tank size, whereas BEVs take more than three hours depending on the ability to fast charge. HFCs are also 40-60% energy efficient, while a typical ICE is around 25% energy efficient.
What are the Governments doing to help?
Large scale production of hydrogen requires an extensive infrastructure of pipelines and fuelling stations. This is where governments come in. Countries worldwide have announced plans to build 2,800 hydrogen refuelling stations by 2025. Currently, the announced clean hydrogen production capacity stands at 11 million tons of hydrogenby 2030. Governments have also invested in core technology research, established medium/long-term strategic plans and subsidy policies. Some of the major initiatives include:
US: The US recently re-entered the Paris Agreement intending to achieve net-zero long-term and 50% lower emissions by 2030. With the US’ re-entry, countries that have a net-zero ambition now account for 80% of global GDP. President Biden has also set a goal of reducing the cost of renewable hydrogen by 80% by 2030. The country ranks second in terms of the stock of FCEVs, increasing from about 9,200 at the end of 2020 to 12,400 at the end of 2021.
UK: With the announcement of its hydrogen strategy in Aug 2021, the UK joins other major economies, including Germany, Canada, France, and the Netherlands, who had published strategies in 2020.
The strategy earmarks £961 million (~ €1.13 billion)of funding for hydrogen-related projects, one-third of which is for hydrogen production projects and another one-third for end-users in the industrial sector. While this is a sizeable sum, countries like Germany and France have both committed €7 billion, and Norway has committed to spending nearly €1 billion on a single project.
The UK also reiterated its target for 5 GW of installed low carbon hydrogen production capacity.
Germany: The current global leader in hydrogen policy not only has a strong government subsidy framework, committing €7 billion to expand domestic green hydrogen pilots, but it also invests €2 billion in hydrogen exports abroad through international partnerships. The country is also a hydrogen imports market for multiple pipelines aiming to feed anticipated industrial demand as the country tightens its decarbonization goals.
China: In March 2022, the country announced its much anticipated national blueprint to develop a clean hydrogen industry. China's top economic planner National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), and energy regulator National Energy Administration (NEA), unveiled a development plan to build a hydrogen supply chain in 2021-2035.
China expects to produce 100k-200k metric tons (mt) of green hydrogen per year from renewables by 2025, which will cut down CO2 emissions by 1-2 million mt/year. The country already has subsidies in place for the value chains of automobiles powered by HFCs around Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangdong. Each of these metropolitan areas can receive up to ¥1.5 billion (~ €219 million) for fuel-cell vehicles and ¥200 million (~ €29 million) for hydrogen supply during a four-year demonstration period.
The country also plans to have 50k hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles by 2025, while currently, there are around 7,700 such vehicles as of Dec 2021, according to S&P Global's Platts Analytics.
South Korea: South Korea plans to expand its hydrogen market using private sector funding of at least US$38 billion (~ €37.84 billion). In Feb 2022, South Korea’s Ministry of Trade, Industry, and Energy announced that companies, including five domestic conglomerates—Hanwha, Hyosung, Hyundai, SK Group, and POSCO—had planned to spend this amount by 2030.
In the same month, the country passed the Hydrogen Economy Act, which primarily deals with the expansion of hydrogen's use in vehicle filling stations and fuel cells and provides for related government subsidies. The act supports a Hydrogen Economy Implementation Roadmap that will see the country install 310 stations serving FCEVs by the end of 2022 and 1,200 stations serving 2.9 million FCEVs by 2040.
The country leads in terms of FCEV deployment, with over 19,000 vehicles in 2021, almost doubling since the end of 2020.
Hydrogen and particularly hydrogen fuel cells, are absolutely critical in our race to save the earth from the devastating effects of climate change. Therefore, continued governmental and industrial commitment to HFCs is needed to drive rapid developments in hydrogen pipelines, fuel cell innovation and broader use cases. Governments should also establish a clear role for hydrogen in long-term policies and strategies, which will boost investor confidence in hydrogen investments. These measures will propel HFCs as the go-to energy solution in our fight against climate change.
About Globe Fuel Cell Systems
GLOBE develops digitally connected, hydrogen-based fuel cell aggregates for industrial applications. The Globe XLP80 is a fuel cell unit specially developed for use in intralogistics. The market launch will start in 2023. Another fuel cell unit from the modular XLP series in the 48 volt voltage class will follow at the end of 2023.