Someday soon, you could step into a car that produces zero carbon emissions or greenhouse gasses. You could blaze down the highway next to efficient buses, delivery vans, and semi-trucks that are equally clean-burning. Even your office could be equipped with emergency backup generators that run not on fossil fuels, but on hydrogen fuel cell technology.

These technological marvels aren’t just an optimistic vision of the future, they are all actually available right now.

Today, the world is locked in a race towards the future of clean energy. The ultimate victor remains unknown, but hydrogen has emerged as a clear front-runner, offering versatile options for energy production, distribution, and application.

What’s in a hydrogen fuel cell?

Hydrogen fuel cells combine hydrogen and oxygen, creating nothing but pure water as exhaust. By converting the chemical energy stored in the gasses into electrical energy, the energy can be harnessed to power electric drive motors, temporary storage batteries, or a variety of other end applications.

In a hydrogen fuel cell, H2 hydrogen molecules are split into positively charged protons (blue) and negatively charged electrons (yellow). The protons pass through an electrolyte membrane, but the electrons must flow through an external circuit, creating electricity. Ultimately the protons, electrons, and  oxygen molecules all combine to create water. Animation courtesy of BMW.

Hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (HFCEVs) may not have received the public hype of battery electric vehicles (BEVs), but the technology isn’t just for personal use. In fact, current storage and logistic challenges currently mean that hydrogen is often better suited for larger scale commercial applications such as heavy-duty trucking.

Hydrogen fuel is readily available and efficiently produced as a petroleum byproduct or through electrolysis using energy generated by renewable sources. As a liquid or pressurized gas, it’s relatively easy to transport and quick to refuel, bypassing the long charge times required by today’s batteries.

Especially as hydrogen production continues to move to renewable sources, electrolyzers and fuel cells represent a promising option for powerful, efficient, 100% clean energy storage and distribution around the world.

The Toyota Mirai is one type of hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle that has already been in production for a number of years. It can be seen on the road and used by customers in California. Image courtesy of USA Today.

10 Industry applications of hydrogen fuel cells.

Let’s take a look at 10 applications for hydrogen fuel cells — some of which you may not know!

1.      Warehouse Logistics

Dozens of companies with large warehouse and distribution needs are turning to hydrogen fuel cells to power clean trucks, forklifts, pallet jacks, and more.

2.      Global Distribution

Fuel cells boast both the range and power required for long-haul trucking and local distribution. Companies like Nikola, Hyundai, Toyota, Kenworth, and UPS are already building hydrogen powered semi-trucks and vans.

3.      Buses

Hydrogen power is being considered for other public transportation applications, including hydrogen fuel cell buses. Several major cities including Chicago, Vancouver, London, and Beijing have experimented with hydrogen powered buses.

4.      Trains

Hydrogen fuel cell trains have now appeared in Germany, and in the next five years, other models are expected to come to Great Britain, France, Italy, Japan, South Korea, and the United States.

5.      Personal Vehicles

Nine of the major auto manufacturers are developing hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (HFCEVs) for personal use. Notable models include the Toyota Mirai, Honda Clarity, Hyundai Nexo, and BMW I Hydrogen Next.

6.      Planes

Several experimental projects like the Pathfinder and Helios prototypes have explored application of hydrogen fuel cells in aerospace. These long-range unmanned vehicles utilized a hybrid system with hydrogen fuel cells which were replenished by electrical power from solar arrays, allowing for theoretically indefinite day and night continuous flight.

7.      Backup Power Generation

At a local level, stationary fuel cells are used as part of uninterruptible power supply (UPS) systems, where continuous uptime is critical. Both hospitals and data centers are increasingly looking to hydrogen to meet their uninterruptible power supply needs. Recently, Microsoft made headlines with a successful test of its new hydrogen backup generators, running one data center’s servers on nothing but hydrogen for two days.

8.      Mobile Power Generation

Hydrogen offers versatile options for mobile power generation. In fact, some of the earliest hydrogen fuel cells were developed by NASA to provide electricity for rockets and shuttles in space.

9.      Unmanned Arial Vehicles (UAVs)

From package delivery to search and rescue operations, many new applications of UAVs (i.e. drones) are significantly limited by the power and range provided by traditional batteries. Both military and private industry plan to overcome these challenges with hydrogen fuel cells that boast up to three times the range of battery-based systems. Fuel cells also have a higher energy to mass ratio and can be refueled in a few minutes.

10.  Boats and Submarines

Hydrogen fuel cells have found their way into a number of marine applications. Some boats like the Energy Observer even use onboard solar panels and wind turbines to generate their own hydrogen for a fuel cell system. For military stealth submarines like the German Type 212, hydrogen fuel cells offer an alternative to nuclear power with long range, silent cruising, and low exhaust heat.

Toyota and Hino are currently developing a series of hydrogen fuel cell electric trucks. Image courtesy of Toyota.

Safety Challenges Posed by Hydrogen Fuel Cell Systems

Before hydrogen can see widespread adoption as an alternative fuel, hydrogen must overcome several key obstacles to adoption.

  • Extreme conditions: Hydrogen has a relatively low energy density, meaning that it must be stored in large quantities for any practical application as a fuel. To compensate, modern transportation applications are pushing the limits of technology with higher pressures and extreme cryogenic temperatures.
  • Public perception: Notable incidents like the Hindenburg (although hydrogen was not actually the major contributor of the incident) have left their mark on the industry. Although today’s hydrogen applications are very different, industry will have to work diligently to correct public perception and update many local regulations that limit the use of hydrogen.
  • Infrastructure: Cities, highways, airports and more will require significant infrastructure changes to accommodate hydrogen storage, transportation and refueling. Handling of hydrogen on such a large scale represents logistical challenges and fire/explosion hazards.

A rendering of hydrogen fuel cell powered train slated for use in the UK as early as 2022. Image courtesy of Alsom.

WHA Supports Hydrogen Fuel Cell Technology

For decades, WHA has worked with industry to overcome the safety challenges associated with hydrogen. Our scientists and engineers are intimately familiar with the unique risks of hydrogen, having been involved in the creation of multiple global standards.

Many of WHA’s founding engineers began their careers at NASA, and WHA Principal Chemist, Dr. Harold Beeson served on the team that developed the NASA Standard for Hydrogen and Hydrogen Systems. This guide was later adapted into the AIAA Guide to Safety of Hydrogen and Hydrogen Systems.

WHA Mechanical and Forensic Engineer, Dr. Dani Murphy, also brings a wealth of experience from NREL (National Renewable Energy Laboratory) where she was involved in research for hydrogen fuel cells and infrastructure, including filing station design and safety.

We have partnered with both government and private organizations to provide failure analysis, hazard analysis and design support, custom testing, and technical training for hydrogen.

As the hydrogen economy grows, so do the risks. WHA is proud to stand with industry partners to help ensure a safer, cleaner future for everyone.

We simplify hydrogen safety.

Contact us today to learn more about failure analysis, hazard analysis, technical training, and other safety services available from WHA.

Contact Us