FAQ

Below is a list of frequently asked questions about fuel cells and hydrogen. If you would like more detail about any of these questions, or would like to ask a question that is not listed here, please contact us at info@fuelcells.org.

History

When were fuel cells invented?

The first fuel cell was built in 1839 by Sir William Grove, a Welsh judge and gentleman scientist, who conducted dozens of experiments using his “gas battery.” More than a century later, equipment manufacturer Allis Chalmers plowed a Wisconsin alfalfa field using fuel cell-powered tractor (1959). Serious interest in the fuel cell as a practical energy generator did not begin until the 1960′s, when the U.S. space program chose fuel cells over riskier nuclear power and more expensive solar energy, using fuel cells to furnish power for the Gemini and Apollo spacecraft and electricity and water for the space shuttle. Also in the 1960s, the first passenger vehicle, a prototype van, was built by GM (1966); major auto manufacturers began more concerted fuel cell development efforts in the 1990s.

A history of fuel cells can be found on the Smithsonian website.

 

Fuels

What fuels can be used in a fuel cell?

Fuel cells operate using hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe. Hydrogen combines readily with other elements and forms compounds. On Earth, hydrogen is chiefly combined with oxygen in the form of water. One method of hydrogen production is via electrolysispassing electricity through water between two electrodes. This process that can be made extremely clean and emissions-free by using electricity generated by renewable resources, such as solar or wind power.

Hydrogen is also present in organic matter, such as biomass and hydrocarbons. Thus any hydrogen-rich material can serve as a possible fuel source for fuel cells:

Hydrocarbon fuels – methanol, ethanol, natural gas, petroleum distillates, liquid propane and gasified coal – yield hydrogen in a process called reforming. Although the use of reformed hydrogen does lead to some carbon dioxide emissions, highly-efficient fuel cell systems produce significantly lower emissions than conventional power plants. In fact, emissions are so low that some areas of the United States have exempted fuel cells from air permitting requirements.

Hydrogen can be extracted from renewable biogases, such as landfill gas produced during natural bacterial decomposition of organic material, or anaerobic digester gas generated at wastewater treatment plants, breweries and agricultural processing facilities. Hydrogen made from renewable energy resources provides an extremely clean and abundant energy source.

Hydrogen can be derived from compounds containing no carbon, such as ammonia (NH3) or borohydrides (BH4-).

In the lab, researchers are examining novel hydrogen generation methods using enzymes, algae and cyanobacteria.

See our Hydrogen Basics section to learn more.

Doesn’t it take energy to create hydrogen?

Extracting any fuel takes energy – even getting gasoline from well to pump has a cost penalty equivalent of 20 percent of the energy content of gasoline. It does take more energy to generate hydrogen than gasoline, but looking at the whole picture is important. “Well-to-wheels” or “well-to-tank” analyses examine not only the energy cost, but also the environmental impacts from the entire pathway of producing, storing, distributing and utilizing different vehicle fuels.

An Argonne National Laboratory well-to-wheels analysis, for example, reports that most, but not all, fuel cell vehicle/fuel combinations achieve significant energy and greenhouse gas emission benefits over gasoline and alternatively-fueled vehicles. A 2010 U.S. Department of Energy well-to-wheels analysis comparing internal combustion, battery and fuel cell vehicles found that fuel cell-electric vehicles are one of the lowest users of petroleum energy and emit significantly less levels greenhouse gases than most other vehicle technologies. Another good source of well-to-tank energy efficiencies is the Clean Car Options web page.

How does hydrogen safety compare to other fuel sources?

Hydrogen, like any flammable fuel used today, requires certain safety precautions to ensure its safe transport, distribution and handling. As with other fuels, codes and standards have been developed and implemented for the safe handling and transport of hydrogen.

Certain properties of hydrogen make it safer than conventional combustibles. Hydrogen is much lighter than air and diffuses rapidly, which means that when released in an open environment is rises upward and dilutes more quickly into a non-flammable concentration. If it combusted, a hydrogen fire burns at a lower radiant temperature than a gasoline fire, significantly lowering the risks of secondary fires by the ignition of other combustibles in the vicinity. Hydrogen will not contaminate groundwater, nor will a release of hydrogen contribute to atmospheric or water pollution.

Carbon fiber composite tanks used to store hydrogen are very resilient to rupture, even upon high impact. Hydrogen tanks and systems are designed to withstand pressures 2.25 to 3.5 times their operating pressure, high-speed collisions, and direct shots from high-powered rifles and handguns without rupture or puncture. Hydrogen’s safety record provides no evidence of an unusual safety risk. Liquid hydrogen trucks have carried on the nation’s roadways an average 70 million gallons of liquid hydrogen per year without major incident. A high hydrogen gas mixture called “town gas” used to light streetlights and houses has been determined to have an equal safety rating as similarly used natural gas. Hydrogen has been handled and sent through hundreds of miles of pipelines with relative safety for the oil, chemical, and iron industries. Moreover, NASA has used liquid hydrogen as its major fuel source for the last half-century without major incident.

In addition, comprehensive studies have shown that hydrogen presents less of a safety hazard than other fuels including gasoline, propane, and natural gas. In 1997, Ford Motor Company in conjunction with the Department of Energy published a “Hydrogen Vehicle Safety Report” in which it concluded, “the safety of a hydrogen [Fuel Cell Vehicle] system to be potentially better than the demonstrated safety record of gasoline or propane, and equal to or better than that of natural gas.” The study cited hydrogen’s higher buoyancy, higher lower flammability limit, and much higher lower detonation limit as major contributors to hydrogen’s greater safety potential.

A great presentation on hydrogen safety can be found here.

 

Vehicles

How do fuel cell vehicles compare to other vehicles?

Fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) are an attractive alternative to battery-powered cars, internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles, and hybrids. Like battery vehicles, FCEVs have zero tailpipe emissions, and have a convenient, onboard engine like an ICE vehicle. However, FCEVs are much cleaner than both vehicle types because they avoid combustion and use input fuels much more efficiently than their counterparts. FCEVs can also be refueled quickly and can go longer between refueling. The Toyota FCHV-adv, Toyota’s latest fuel cell vehicle, achieves an impressive 68 miles per kilogram, and can go over 430 miles on one tank of hydrogen. The combination of range, efficiency, and cleanliness is why hydrogen offers the best promise of completely removing motor vehicles from the pollution equation.

To read more about the advantages of FCEVs, visit the Benefits section.

How will I get the hydrogen to operate my fuel cell vehicle?

Consumers will be able to fill up their fuel cell electric vehicles at energy stations across the country. These stations generate hydrogen onsite or receive shipments of hydrogen via truck or pipeline. Over 100 hydrogen fueling stations are currently operating around the world, and are demonstrating just how quickly and easily FCEVs can be filled. Many countries, such as Germany, Japan, and South Korea are building the necessary infrastructure to support FCEVs by mid-decade. In the U.S., California has more than 20 operating (8 public) and is supporting deployment of new public hydrogen stations in the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas, and other stations are open, or in planning, in a number of other states.

When will fuel cell vehicles be available to purchase?

Major auto manufacturers such as Honda, Mercedes, Hyundai, Toyota and Nissan have announced plans to commercialize their fleet of fuel cell vehicles between 2014 and 2016. The California Air Resources Board also sees mass production volumes by 2014. The costs associated with FCEVs have come down dramatically over the years, and the Department of Energy projects the cost of a FCEV engine at $225 per kilowatt in mass production. The industry’s ultimate goal is $30 to $50 per kilowatt. In either case, fuel cell vehicles will be affordable by the time they reach the marketplace, and will experience further cost reductions after large volume production occurs.

 

Non-Vehicle Applications

Can I use a fuel cell to power my home?

The answer is yes, fuel cells can be used to power homes. Can you buy a fuel cell to power your home yields a different answer – it depends upon where you live. Some countries are actively supporting fuel cells for residential use. Japan boasts more than 20,000 home fuel cell systems sold in the past couple of years, and has a commercial product, the ENE-FARM, that is sold by several different gas companies in the country. Homes in Germany and the UK are also installing fuel cells, but those are more in demonstration phase at this stage. Here in the U.S., manufacturers have units sized to feasibly power homes, but most are focusing on back-up power markets. One company, however, ClearEdge Power, is selling its fuel cell to residential customers in California.

I keep seeing ads for HHOs. Are these fuel cells?

No, and a lot of the companies promoting these Hybrid Hydrogen Oxygen (HHO) devices have been revealed to be shams. A few years ago we wrote a blog post on the Fuel Cell Insider about these fraudulent and potentially dangerous HHOs. In fact, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has investigated one HHO company and reached a settlement order that prevents them from misrepresenting the energy and fuel efficiency benefits of their product.

 

Policy

Why do we need a hydrogen economy?

The United States – indeed, the world – has a fundamental strategic interest in pursuing the hydrogen economy. Our nation’s reliance on fossil fuels presents fundamental challenges to our economic security, our energy security, our homeland security, and our environment. Hydrogen can be produced renewably and locally, giving communities a fuel flexible and secure energy source. Our current over-reliance on fossil fuels is untenable. Hydrogen and fuel cells must be an important part of our energy portfolio moving into the future.

What is the status of fuel cells today?

Fuel cells are being used all over the U.S. and the rest of the world. There might even be a fuel cell in your community. See our databases to see where fuel cells have been installed or demonstrated.

Scientists, developers, and industry are hard at work on other applications. Fuel cells are beginning to enter early markets, and cost is still a hurdle, but continued research, development, and deployment of fuel cells is improving the technology and reducing costs. In fact, industry has met or exceeded all of the Department of Energy’s goals and targets over the years. Since 2008, the projected high-volume cost of fuel cells has been reduced by more than 30 percent, and over 80 percent since 2002. Furthermore, the cost of hydrogen production has been reduced

Early markets including fuel cell-powered forklifts and stationary combined heat-and-power systems are also growing. Many of the major automotive manufacturers are developing fuel cell-powered vehicles, which should be on the market between 2014 and 2016.

What support does the government, both Federal and State, offer for fuel cells?

The U.S. federal government has been involved in fuel cell and hydrogen research for decades now. The Department of Energy supports fuel cell and hydrogen research, development, and deployment through the Fuel Cell Technologies Program, a program of the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. The Fuel Cell Technologies Program works with partners to accelerate the development and successful market introduction of hydrogen and fuel cell technologies. Their website has technical information, publications, and other resources.

Other U.S. agencies are involved in fuel cell demonstration programs. The Department of Defense (DoD) has been supporting fuel cell deployments since 1996, with the launch of the Climate Change Fuel Cell Program. This program was followed with a PEM Residential Fuel Cell Demonstration Program that involved over 21 units being deployed at 12 different military locations. In 2012 DoD will continue its support with the PEM Backup Demonstration Project. The DoD’s Defense Logistics Agency is taking a proactive role in deploying fuel cell-powered forklifts in their defense depots around the country. The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) maintains a fuel cell bus research program that has helped deploy fuel cell buses in cities across the country.

Beyond research grants and demonstration projects, the federal government also has tax incentives in place that help support the fuel cell market. The Federal Fuel Cell Tax Incentive will be in place until 2016. There are also investment tax credits on installing hydrogen fueling infrastructure.

Almost every state has some sort of fuel cell or hydrogen legislation, demonstration, or activism taking place today. See our State of the States: Fuel Cells in America 2011t and Year End Policy Wrap-Up, or the U.S. Installation and Policy Database for more information about your state’s offerings.

Why should government support fuel cell development?

Fuel cells can provide major environmental, energy and economic benefits that advance critical national goals. Development and optimization of energy technologies has always been a partnership between government and the private sector.

Hydrogen and fuel cell technologies have historically received less government support compared to other energy technologies. Tax credits for natural gas drilling, military support for gas turbine technology, support for solar power research, nuclear power research and coal cleanup technologies total in the hundred billions of dollars over the past few decades.

The U.S. government should take three steps to help commercialize fuel cells:

  1. Significantly increase the fuel cell budgets of the Departments of Energy and Transportation, and elsewhere, particularly for market transformation.
  2. Take the lead in purchasing early power units and vehicles.
  3. Continue and expand programs to help “buy down” the cost of early units installed around the country.

What are other countries doing to support hydrogen and fuel cell technology?

The U.S. faces fierce competition from other countries for leadership in fuel cell technology. Japan, Korea, Germany, and the United Kingdom are aggressively promoting fuel cell development with tax credits, low-interest loans, grants, and demonstration programs to support early purchases and drive down costs. Additionally, these governments have been vocal in their support for fuel cell technologies, giving additional support to emerging fuel cell companies. The U.S. should pay close attention as other countries move aggressively towards a hydrogen and fuel cell future.

 

Sales

How can I purchase a fuel cell?

Fuelcellstore.com has hundreds of fuel cell products including fuel cell kits, stacks, components, and learning demonstration units. The site is a great destination for fuel cell experts and novices alike, and provides educators with many resources to integrate fuel cells into the classroom.

If you are a business owner, fuel cells are available today for several commercial markets. Fuel Cells 2000’s searchable directory, the Industry Top 200, will help you find the leading fuel cell manufacturers, suppliers, and integrators. Depending on the state in which you are located, incentives may be available to help reduce the cost of installation. Power purchase agreements (PPAs) have become a popular option offered by the major fuel cell companies to encourage installation. Under a PPA, customers can avoid the upfront cost of buying the fuel cell system and can instead purchase the power generated from the unit under a multi-year contract. A PPA allows customers to lock in a fixed rate for electricity while the cost of maintaining the system is assumed by the manufacturer or third-party installer.

Fuel Cells 2000 maintains excellent contacts with fuel cell companies and installers, and can offer valuable guidance to your fuel cell project. For those interested in installing a fuel cell system, please contact us at info@fuelcells.org.

 

Support

What can I do to promote fuel cells?

Talk them up! To friends, family and anyone who will listen. Write letters to your Senators, Representative, the President, and your local media encouraging them to support fuel cells.

Check out our database of U.S. policy and demonstrations to see what initiatives and installations are in your state. If there isn’t much activity, see what other states are doing and encourage your local and federal lawmakers to follow suit.

See the technology first hand by visiting a hydrogen fueling station or fuel cell installation (like New York’s Central Park police station) or schedule a visit to a company involved in the industry located near you. There are loads of fuel cell and energy conferences around the world – see if any are in your area, some conferences and exhibitions are free to attend or have ride and drives and public events.

If you are hosting an event and need a speaker, or attending an event and want to bring informational materials about fuel cells or hydrogen, drop us a line at info@fuelcells.org.