Whether powering a supply chain or helping you get to the grocery store, transportation is a critical component of modern life.
While indispensable, transportation represents the largest single source of CO2 emissions in the US. Technology enables us to work, shop, and communicate globally without ever leaving our homes, but the need to move people and goods from one place to another will not disappear. As the world demands more sustainable solutions, many industries are seeking energy sources beyond fossil fuels. The automotive industry is no exception, and it is leveraging fuel cells in the effort to help preserve our shared planet.
Fueling Transportation Responsibly
Fuel cells offer a more sustainable way to generate electricity for a variety of applications. Fuel cells convert a fuel source directly into electricity. For transport applications, the hydrogen fuel cell is the most common type of fuel cell used. Hydrogen fuel cells produce only electricity, water, and heat as by products of energy generation. If the hydrogen is generated by renewable energy, the entire well-to-wheel process emits zero carbon.
Vehicles powered by fuel cells have the potential to reduce both greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change and dependence on oil. Unlike traditional engines, fuel cells have no moving parts and do not require complicated mechanical gearboxes to transmit power. They do not wear down and will operate reliably as long as a fuel source is available. By contrast, standard mechanical engines typically last no more than 10 years.7 Hydrogen fuel cells enable vehicle versatility, efficiency, and sustainability.
Advantages of Fuel Cells
More industries are adopting fuel cells because they can use different fuel sources and have operational advantages over conventional power sources, such as batteries and combustion engines.1 These advantages include:
Range and Ease of Refueling
Unlike batteries, fuel cells don’t need separate charging steps that can take hours and put a vehicle out of commission when refueling. Fuel cell vehicles can refuel almost as quickly as traditional gas engines, taking less than five minutes.2
To double the capacity of a battery, the size of the battery itself must be doubled. However, a fuel cell only needs extra fuel to double its capacity. Therefore, for applications where payload is important (such as long-haul trucking), fuel cells are more efficient in terms of payload weight per mile traveled.4 Furthermore, fuel cells convert the chemical energy of fuel directly into useful electrical energy. By contrast, internal combustion engines must first liberate that energy as heat and transmit it mechanically—incurring efficiency losses in the process. Overall, fuel cells operate two to three times more efficiently than diesel and gas internal combustion engines.5
Because fuel cells running on hydrogen emit only water and heat, the air around their environment is clean and safe to breathe. Alternatives like combustion engines emit pollution—such as toxins, particles, and greenhouse gases (GHGs)—from burning hydrocarbon fuels.
Fuel cells can also be modified to suit the desired application. This includes adjusting the amount of power they deliver, depending on whether they’re supporting single vehicles, bus fleets, or utility grids powering entire neighborhoods. Stationary fuel cell systems can even help balance the energy grid by providing supplementary power when intermittent power sources—like renewables—can’t match energy demand.6