In 2003, during George Bush’s presidency, hydrogen-powered cars were going to be the automobile of the future – next to the hover car, of course. An ambitious 1.2 billion dollars was designated to fund a hydrogen fuel package, aiming to slash global carbon emissions. Yet, this initiative never fully gained traction and electric car dealers like Tesla monopolized the clean-energy vehicle market instead.
So, what may have caused the disinterest? And is there a future for hydrogen fuel after all?
To create a demand for hydrogen-fueled automobiles, individual consumers would have to live near a hydrogen gas station. The infrastructure to build enough hydrogen fill stations across the country is where this endeavor fell short, though they are now becoming more accessible nearly ten years later. All that to say, hydrogen fuel cells have been gassing up forklifts, power generators, and sectors of public transportation, proving that the hydrogen fuel market still holds onto viable hope of breaching the mainstream.
While hydrogen-powered cars remain rare, other initiatives and modes of transportation and lifting equipment have readopted this old idea to cash in on the green-fuel economy. But what is the difference between hydrogen power and electric power? The main difference between hydrogen power and electric power is that hydrogen power does not consume electricity – it produces it!
A fuel cell works like a battery, but rather than “charging,” a fuel cell creates electricity through a chemical reaction occurring between hydrogen gas, which is administered at the pump, and oxygen, which is pulled from the air. Two plates with a negative and a positive charge sandwich an electrolyte membrane. A catalyst is created when the two gases meet, and a positive charge of hydrogen passes through the membrane. Electrons travel through a circuit and the gases meet to produce H2O as a byproduct. The energy emission of this process is immense, and the fuel cell releases enough electricity to run the electric motors of vehicles, machinery, and generators. The “exhaust” is simply the byproduct of water vapor and warm air, which is what makes hydrogen a green fuel.
Hydrogen fuel is the middle ground between standard gasoline-run vehicles and electric vehicles in how it operates. While it produces electricity, it still requires regular refilling at a pump. There are perks to this however, as filling a hydrogen tank takes minutes, as opposed to the hours it takes to charge an electric car, and it can run for much longer. While the hurdle of growing infrastructure is in motion to cater to hydrogen vehicles on the road, there are three practical applications taking advantage of the benefits of hydrogen fuel cells today.
The Economist summarized hydrogen fuel’s place in the market best: “It will fill in the gaps, rather than dominating the economy.” One of the ways that hydrogen fuel is filling in the gaps, is through its application in forklifts, back-up power generators, and in public transportation.
Hydrogen fuel cells for machinery, construction, and warehouse equipment is a unique option because unlike their electric counterparts, they can perform for much longer. When it comes to efficiency, electric machines can be a nuisance. But with hydrogen fuel, forklifts, for example, are fueled in under three minutes. Battery-powered forklifts require tedious maintenance to charge, clean, equalize, and to ensure batteries are not corroding. Hydrogen fueling systems can be installed onsite, taking up minimal space and meeting an immediate need.
In the realm of transportation, diesel trains are due to “phase out” by 2040 and be replaced by electric and hydrogen trains to decrease their large carbon footprints. Not only are hydrogen trains easy on the environmental pollution, but they are also easy on the noise pollution. Cummins wrote that hydrogen trains can run up to ten times longer than their electric counterparts before it is time to fuel up again.
Hydrogen can also perform essential functions as a fixed device. As a backup power source to residential homes, hospitals, businesses and more, hydrogen fuel cell generators are oftentimes more economical than any alternative. For the long haul, maintenance is less frequent, and they can endure harsh weather, both hot and cold. It is perfect for telecommunications in case of extreme outages. As long as generators are fueled, they will be ready when an emergency strikes.
As hydrogen fuel cells are consistently researched, improved, and developed to become more cost-effective, this environmentally friendly fuel has a promising future alongside its present undertakings.
Rocky Mountain Air Solutions is a distributor of hydrogen gas in Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, and Nebraska for its various uses in the automotive industry, aerospace, oil and gas, and more. While RMA does not serve the fuel cell industry yet, we can supply hydrogen in high pressure cylinders or in bulk, depending on your usage needs. Call your local branch today to get a usage estimate or to inquire about partnering with RMA as your hydrogen gas supplier. We look forward to serving you with flawless dependability.