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What happened to fuel-cell technology?

  1. Aug 20, 2013 #1

    I wonder what happened to fuel-cell technology.

    Is it so simple that hydrogen just couldn't be kept non-hazardous in the cars?

    Or what happened?

    I mean, let's face it, what more environmental-friendly can a fuel be?

    The only exhaust being pure water.

    And in the same time we could actually make some use of those ugly and incredibly inefficient wind-mills.

    The wind-mills producing hydrogen by electrolysis and, most importantly, not "just in time".

    Because after the superconductor-coils fiasco, we still need the energy to be produced just when we need it while we cannot store it (the only exception being water-power plants).

    Best regards, Roger
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  3. Aug 20, 2013 #2


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    "superconductor-coils fiasco"?
    Currently, batteries are usually cheaper and more reliable for cars. Fuel cells have some applications, however.
  4. Aug 20, 2013 #3
    Ok, but you still have to charge the batteries, right?

    So where should we take that energy from, you mean?

    It's like trains.

    I love travelling by train.

    But they don't go on air, unfortunatelly.

    Best regards, Roger
    Maybe I should explain your question. After superconduction was discovered everybody was excited about the possibillity to store energy in superconductive coils. But that failed, as you probably know.
  5. Aug 20, 2013 #4


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    You have the same question for fuel cells.
    Power management is easier with hydrogen, but then you have conversion and storage losses.

    Well, there are limited applications...
    Better superconductors could change that in the future, but I don't think this is likely.
  6. Aug 20, 2013 #5


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    Hi Roger. I work in the fuel cell industry and I can tell you it is still growing. A lot of the government grants and projects for fuel cell demonstrations have dried up but there is still lots of interest in both the automotive market and especially the material handling industry. Another market includes back up power for cell phone towers but I'm not as familiar with that one and I don't think they're as numerous. The automotive market will be slow to develop because of the high cost of the fuel cells and the need for significant infrastructure. For people using fuel cell cars right now, there aren't many places to refuel them. The cost for the fuel is where it needs to be but the cost of the fuel cells for mass production isn't there, and of course the infrastructure has to be developed.

    The other industry that is developing is the material handling industry. You may have seen large warehouses with a few hundred trucks backed into loading bay doors. All the large chain stores have these huge warehouses where they pack trucks to go to local stores. The goods of one type come in from factories on one truck and get stocked in the warehouse, while other trucks get loaded with a wide variety of stuff and go out to stores for delivery. These warehouses can employ hundreds of 'lifts' (ie: forklifts) that normally would use batteries. Those batteries are large, heavy, expensive and require removal and charging overnight. Where fuel cells can make a difference is in providing the power for those fork lifts. The lifts are refilled just like your car at a gas station except they use hydrogen gas at pressures to 350 bar. The one company with most of the business providing fuel cell packs to this industry is Plug Power. I understand they're doing ok but not great because they have to compete with batteries and right now the fuel cell packs are a bit more expensive. Regardless, I suspect Plug sells many thousands of fuel cells to the material handling market every year. When compared to batteries, and when taking operations, maintenance and capital costs into consideration, the fuel cells are fairly competitive, but the price has to come down a bit further for them to really take the market away from batteries.
  7. Aug 21, 2013 #6
    Hi Q_Goest!

    Very interesting story!

    But I must confess that I never would have thought of the material handling market. :)

    Sounds exciting!

    And I am very surprised and glad that the devepment of fuel cell has come so far as you describe.

    I thought it actually was a dead technology because noone, not even scientific magazines, has talked about it in decades (there might be a gasoline-fuled/oil automotive lobby here though...).

    So I wondered why because the concept is simply brilliant, I think.

    Not just due to the only exhaust being pure water but due to the availability while making use of those wind-mills in the same time.

    As I see it, anyway.

    And this means that it is totally environmental-friendly!

    Some people above has complained about the storage problem of hydrogen and such.

    Thinking about it like the layman I am, I can appreciate that.

    This is even why I ask my question.

    Could perhaps you who work in the field perhaps tell me how you have solved the storage problem?

    On the other hand, is hydrogen really worse than gasoline when it comes to explosive risks?

    I really hope the price will go down so fuel cells will take over.

    The capacity of batteries nowadays is astonishing but they are not so simple to produce and will definitelly involve more environmental-unfriendly components than fuel cells.

    This is why my perspective on fuel cells is so "brilliant", if I may say so. :)

    Because no environmental-unfriendly energy is needed.

    And we all know that most of our energy production today is rather environmental-unfriendly.

    Me, I hope for fusion power plants.

    And it might not be so naive as it sounds. :)

    Best regards, Roger
    I think most people do not understand or refuses to understand that even if you have a battery-powered car, you are not so environmental-friendly when you charge it.
  8. Aug 22, 2013 #7


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    This is slightly misleading. Whether you're talking about gasoline, batteries, hydrogen, fuel cells, whatever, you need to consider not only the end fuel consumption, but the origin of the fuel itself. Gasoline may be dirty in end consumption, but in the end we are just pumping some liquid out of the ground and shuttling it around the globe. To synthesize some of the other fuel sources requires a great deal of energy. For example, huge excavators and other gasoline/kerosene/diesel/oil-powered mining equipment is used to harvest some of the metals that get put into batteries. I'm not saying I'm pro-gasoline, simply that there is a lot to consider.

    So the reason it fell to the wayside is because of a simple physical fact: hydrogen is unstable, and thus scarce in the atmosphere. In fact, it's so unstable that even storing it after it's made is very dangerous and poses a different set of problems.

    This means that the hydrogen fuel needs to be artificially made by any number of methods. So in the end, guess where the energy comes from to make mass amounts of hydrogen (enough to reasonably justify an entire emerging technology)?

    Coal-fired power plants. And when you do the math, this whole process ends up being less environmentally friendly than jumping into your Chevy Suburban and gunning it down the road. That's right, the carbon footprint is larger.

    This doesn't even take into account the fact that there is an existing economic infrastructure in place for gasoline that will not budge, much less die, easily.

    Ultimately, if someone finds a way to produce hydrogen more cheaply, the idea could see a revival. More generally, if someone finds a better way to produce mass quantities of energy more cheaply than coal fired power plants, than you could see big shifts.

    This could be as easy as making the efficiency of solar cells go from ~40% to ~80% (the maximum possible efficiency, given the temperature of the photons emitted at the sun's surface, is 86%. Thanks wikipedia.)
    Last edited: Aug 22, 2013
  9. Aug 22, 2013 #8
    Hi Kreil!

    I do not want to be mean but I kind of wonder if you might need stronger glasses ;)

    The lines just after the one you so conveniently quoted reads, and I quote myself

    Now quoting you

    Sounds like you actually are in the oil business...

    Best regards, Roger
  10. Aug 22, 2013 #9


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    I read the lines, but I should have emphasized this point more: "enough to reasonably justify an entire emerging technology"

    The scope is huge. I don't know the numbers, but I would hazard a guess that wind mills can't make *nearly* enough hydrogen via electrolysis to not only keep up with potential demand, but to drive prices down to make it feasible. And that's the balancing act that must be done.
  11. Aug 22, 2013 #10

    jim hardy

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    Folks far removed from the energy industry generally don't grasp the scale.

    The world uses around a cubic mile of oil per year.
    http://www.theoildrum.com/node/3084 [Broken]


    From http://spectrum.ieee.org/energy/fossil-fuels/joules-btus-quadslets-call-the-whole-thing-off

    ,, "here" referring to this graphic from 'theoildrum'


    So start today building a hundred windmills every day.
    At end of fifty years, if they last that long, you'd have built enough (about 1.6 million) that you could shut off the oil spigot. Well for today's usage anyway (actually 2006's).
    But the first half million you built will be getting might rickety by then....
    And that's a technology problem not a political one.

    But to the subject of the thread -
    Hydrogen is awful stuff to handle. I would not ride in the same car with a bottle of 3000 psi hydrogen .
    I do like the fuel cell idea when coupled with H2 production by reducing water with aluminum.

    old jim
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  12. Aug 22, 2013 #11


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    Hi Roger. Regarding storage, there have been a lot of concepts attempted and tested but the primary means of storage today is simply high pressure gas or cryogenic liquid. BMW is toying with combining those two methods and having a cryogenic, high pressure (ie: supercritical) storage tank they call "cryo compressed". These methods all have drawbacks. Gas can be stored indefinately without loss of product but it is VERY high pressure so the potential for catastrophic leaks is significant. Cryogenic hydrogen is low pressure so leaks aren't as severe but it can't be stored for very long and the tank will eventually need to vent to prevent overpressurization. If that tank is in a garage or other enclosure, you end up filling that enclosure with flammable gas. BMW's concept has similar drawbacks to cryogenic storage but it clearly will allow for longer storage times prior to venting. The main issue is how to refill a supercritical, cryogenic storage tank. That for another day.

    Other concepts that have been tested include metal hydride storage which has the advantages of low pressure storage at relatively high gas density, but they are expensive. The concept I like the best regards the use of a liquid phase carrier. Basically, the hydrogen is attached to a liquid molecule. When heated to ~ 200 C, the hydrogen is given off and used in the fuel cell and the depleted liquid gets passed on to a storage tank. That depleted liquid can then be removed from the tank, hydrogen 'added' back to it and the liquid recycled back into a vehicle storage tank. More detail here: http://chem.engr.utc.edu/Documents/FuelCell/Disk/Storage/ST9 Cooper.pdf These concepts are still years away from being practical.

    Regarding explosive risk, hydrogen is easily ignited (ie: takes very little energy to ignite) and has a very wide explosive range, so even small amounts (~ 4%) of hydrogen in the atmosphere can ignite as can very high concentrations (75%). See for example:

    So yes, it is very dangerous. The precautions taken to ensure the safety of the storage and delivery of hydrogen are extreme compared to gasoline for example. And that's an understatement.
  13. Aug 22, 2013 #12


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    Hi Kreil. I don't disagree with most of what you say here but today, the vast majority of hydrogen is produced from natural gas, not coal. Because it's made from natural gas, and because of the end to end efficieny of the entire process, hydrogen actually produces a smaller carbon footprint than gasoline powered vehicles.

    Some years ago when the hydrogen fuel cell concept had just started out, we had a lot of customers asking for hydrogen that came from a renewable energy source such as an electrolosis process. But today, we don't see that at all. I think the intent has always been to find a renewable source of hydrogen but that's a long way off yet. There are some very interesting concepts out there such as the use of biomass and bacteria to produce hydrogen but they haven't really gone anywhere.
  14. Aug 22, 2013 #13


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    Thanks, Q_Goest. Good to know. My information was mainly based on what I learned in a 2006 physics class ("Energy and the Environment"), so I'm not surprised things have progressed a bit.

    The scalability requirement just seems daunting. I mean finding a renewable process is difficult enough, but it also has to be one that could be scaled up to the proper levels in order to drive down costs for consumers. I'm rather skeptical that hydrogen can ever overcome such a hurdle barring a huge technological breakthrough.

    I've always felt like we should be investing *heavily* in solar cell research to improve efficiency. The energy is there, and there's plenty of it. We just need a bigger rake:

    Quick and dirty reference: http://www.ecoworld.com/energy-fuels/how-much-solar-energy-hits-earth.html [Broken]

    "In full sun, you can safely assume about 100 watts of solar energy per square foot. If you assume 12 hours of sun per day, this equates to 438,000 watt-hours per square foot per year. Based on 27,878,400 square feet per square mile, sunlight bestows a whopping 12.2 trillion watt-hours per square mile per year.

    With these assumptions, figuring out how much solar energy hits the entire planet is relatively simple. 12.2 trillion watt-hours converts to 12,211 gigawatt-hours, and based on 8,760 hours per year, and 197 million square miles of earth’s surface (including the oceans), the earth receives about 274 million gigawatt-years of solar energy, which translates to an astonishing 8.2 million “quads” of Btu energy per year.

    In case you haven’t heard, a “quad Btu” refers to one quadrillion British Thermal Units of energy, a common term used by energy economists. The entire human race currently uses about 400 quads of energy (in all forms) per year. Put another way, the solar energy hitting the earth exceeds the total energy consumed by humanity by a factor of over 20,000 times."
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  15. Aug 23, 2013 #14


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    That is true, but what is the relevance of that number? Solar radiation is not a power socket where you can connect your battery.
    By the way, I think this calculation does not include all the radiation needed to grow plants (for humans, or for earth in general), which is way more than humans need in a direct way.
  16. Aug 23, 2013 #15
    Hi Kreil!

    I want to apologize for the way I expressed myself. It was a bit harsh.

    I just found it strange that you didn't even consider my naive(?) idea.

    Having said that, I find this discussion very interesting.

    Jim Hardy above explained the huge scale in a very pedagogic way and I must confess that I was too much of a dreamer to even consider that.

    Even though I thought that there are quite a few wind-mills in the world and many of them are located along the coasts.

    Best regards, Roger
    Last edited: Aug 23, 2013
  17. Aug 23, 2013 #16


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  18. Aug 23, 2013 #17
    Hi Jim!

    Very interesting picture!

    Thank you for supplying it.

    It really sobered me up ;)

    With regard to the picture, I once calculated that it goes around 10000 wind mills in a nuclear plant.

    Your nice picture shows some 660 "only".

    I think it is even worse.

    Anyway, some 50 nuclear plants as substitute for the huge qubic mile of oil consumed each year is astonishing to say the least.

    It is a pity that we can't build cars with fission reactors in them.

    Actually, some crazy folks in the DDR did that once :)

    And we will probably not be able to build cars with fusion reactors either.

    At least not in the near future...

    But I strongly believer in the fuel cell technology.

    And I am glad to hear Q_Goest telling me lots of interesting details regarding how far that technology actually has come.

    Brings hope for the near future.

    Finally, your link regarding "AlumiFuel" was very interesting.

    This while thinking that my idea still would be feasable.

    At least as a complement.

    Because it is no lie that wind mills really do not contribute that much to the world's energy demand. Not even if we build millions of them. That would just consume natural resources and "polute" the environment (and bird life) simply by being so ugly :)

    So instead of "poluting" our coasts even more, the ones that already are standing there could use the water right next to them for electrolysis.

    Being picked up by pipes or fuel cell driven boats ;)

    Best regards, Roger
  19. Aug 23, 2013 #18

    jim hardy

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    Sorry, but I do not.

    I have pestered that company trying to interest them in powering things like this Aeros cargo blimp


    http://aeroscraft.com/ (you gotta see the pictures there !)

    and I get back polite emails saying their product line is aimed at small scale applications like weather balloons.
    Yet their website does speak to transportation market.... ????

    I never thought to ask them about cost.
    My Dad was a weatherman and I remember as a kid watching him fill some weather balloons. NOAA used high pressure hydrogen from bottles in an outdoor shed with vented roof in case of leaks..
    So if this little company is penetrating that market their cost must be not too bad.

    I believe economy of scale could make this technology go. I also believe it'd be far safer than these exotic batteries.

    We don't often think of aluminum as an energy storage medium.
    But the tight Al-O bond is so energetic that aluminum was a precious metal until late 1890's when electrolytic refining was invented. That's why so many aluminum refineries are found in regions served by hydroelectric generating stations.
    Now - if you have to put in that much electrical energy to separate the aluminum atom from its oxygen , you should be able to get a lot back by letting it recombine. That's what these guys do except they let the energy dissociate water instead of making electricity.

    I think i'm on Alumifuel marketing department's 'nuisance list' -
    maybe somebody else would shoot them an inquiry as to cost?

    old jim
  20. Aug 23, 2013 #19
    Hi Q_Goest!

    Thank you very much for your reply!

    Very interesting!

    Sorry, I knew my question was stupid but yet I asked it anyway.

    The only excuse is that I am an amateur and a dreamer regarding these things :)

    One of the bold things above do however make me kind of proud.

    I have actually thought in kind of those termes ("Liquid Phase Carrier", LPC).

    I thought "could you not mix some kind of gas with the hydrogen to make it safe to store/use".

    I did however not think so far as to use a liquid as carrier and (thereby) being able to reuse the carrier and thereby not polute.

    I thought more like "this could not be done because burning the combined fuel/gas would polute" and I want only water as exhaust.

    Another thought has been "could you not distribute the gas inside the canister/tank with some kind of spunge" (sounds rediculous, right?) :D

    Best regards, Roger
    I'm from Sweden...:)
    Last edited: Aug 23, 2013
  21. Aug 23, 2013 #20
    Hi Jim!

    This was very interesting to read.

    The nice link you supplied did however not explain this.


    Best regards, Roger
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