Do Fuel Cells Have a Future as an Energy Source?

The concept of fuel cells as an energy source is credited to a chemist, William Grove. He demonstrated in 1839 that electric current could be produced by an electrochemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen over a platinum catalyst. Thereafter, many alternate forms of the technology emerged for producing electricity from various materials and catalysts.

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History of Fuel Cells

During the OPEC oil embargoes of the 1970s, many governments and consumers became more concerned about energy efficiency and environmental awareness. Not surprisingly, fuel cell technology as an alternate energy source grabbed the headlines. Government entities began sponsoring the development of FCEV (Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles) and hydrogen-powered electric vehicles.

Between the1970s and 2000s, fuel cell technology developed to the point of being used to power fleets of transportation buses and power generation systems. The main benefit of this technology includes the generation of clean electric power. This energy does not produce byproducts that are harmful to the environment. Today, fuel cell technology is available as educational kits, battery chargers, UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply) backup kits and other products. However, the technology still remains in the product research and development stage. This is due in part to fuel cell technology being unprofitable.

This brief history of fuel cell technology leads to the question: Do fuel cells have a future as an energy source? The answer to this question may emerge from discovering these:

  • What fuel cell products are currently available?
  • Why is it difficult for fuel cell products to be profitable?

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What fuel cells products are currently available?

In spite of the incredible potential of fuel cells to provide clean and inexpensive energy, it is surprising that its commercial adoption has been slow. Currently, very few fuel cell companies have been profitable. These companies include:

  • Plug Power designs and manufactures GenDrive and GenFuel products that replace conventional batteries. Their products are used to power forklifts that are used by companies such as Walmart, Kroger, Whole Foods, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz.
  • Ballard Power manufactures power backup systems for telecommunication companies.
  • FuelCell manufactures and installs distributed power generation systems for electric utility companies, hospitals, and universities.

Toyota FCHV Bus

Why is it difficult for fuel cell products to be profitable?

The main reason why fuel cell companies have not been profitable is due to startup and operational costs. Although fuel cells provide clean, inexpensive energy, it is much simpler to use coal or natural gas. These industries have been around for a long time, so their processes are now streamlined.  Unless legislative action requires the use of clean energy, the adoption of fuel cells will remain slow.

Conclusions

Fuel cells are attractive for energy production because they provide clean energy, with no harmful byproducts. Although commercial adoption of fuel cells remains slow, it is possible that the technology could become disruptive and make a significant impact on the energy industry. That could happen if environmental pollution due to the burning of fossil fuels becomes a global concern. So far, large countries that account for a great deal of pollution, such and China, have been indifferent about the pollution they cause.

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