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We Could Be Running on Hydrogen Fuel Cells, But...

It's harder to get than you'd expect.

Written by Megan Dailey
Posted October 1, 2017

Last week, we took a look at why hydrogen fuel cells are lagging behind lithium batteries in the EV industry.

Long story short: lithium is just easier to handle.

There was one point in particular, however, that caught the eye of a few of our readers:

First and foremost, the batteries do not store energy — they store pressurized hydrogen gas, which is used to produce energy on the spot.

Which prompted the extremely fair question... why not just use hydrogen for energy?

After all, if fuel cells are faster to refuel, more energy efficient, and 100% clean compared to today’s most popular battery type, why not just scale them up?

Here’s why hydrogen fuel cells aren’t powering your world just yet...

Can Hydrogen Be Used for Energy?

Before we answer this question, let’s take a look at how these batteries work.

Here’s a simple diagram to illustrate:

Hydrogen Fuel Cell Smol

Several chemical processes take place inside the fuel cell that produce the energy.

First, pure hydrogen is fed into the cell and broken into singular hydrogen atoms, which are positive, and electrons, which are the negative atoms we use for energy.

On the other side of the circuit, the hydrogen atoms are mixed with oxygen and reform into water.

What this means for hydrogen fuel cells as an energy source is:

  • They run on the most abundant element in our universe (hydrogen).

  • To complete the process, they require the second most abundant element on Earth (oxygen).

  • In the end, the only waste is not only clean but also useful (pure water).

It’s hard to believe we aren’t using these things everywhere already!

Though you’d be surprised at just how many things do, in fact, run on hydrogen fuel cells today.

According to the Department of Energy, despite the popularity of lithium in EVs, there were about 350 fuel cell vehicles on U.S. roads in 2016. Barely a drop in the bucket, for sure, but proof positive that it can be done.

Less noticeable but no less impressive were the more than 11,000 fuel cell–powered industrial vehicles, such as forklifts for warehouses, being used in 26 states.

Hydrogen fuel cells are getting even more use in stationary operations.

As of 2016, the DOE reported that the country had more than 235 megawatts of large-scale fuel cells in use as power plants.

Predictably, clean energy powerhouse California has the majority of these installations. Connecticut and Delaware have the largest single installations: 14.9 MW and 30 MW, respectively.

Where they’re not used as power plants, hydrogen fuel cells can be found in more than 40 states as off-grid backup energy providers.

You can even buy a personal-sized fuel cell as a backup generator online!

With all this in mind, even the clean energy skeptics out there must be wondering why we’re not running on hydrogen energy yet.

Supplies Are Limited

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in our universe. And while it’s only about 13% of the Earth, that still an impressively large amount.

The problem comes down to the kind of hydrogen we can use.

Much like lithium, hydrogen has to be purified to a certain degree before it can function correctly in a fuel cell.

And that, dear readers, is the problem.

Not only is it difficult — and expensive — to purify hydrogen to that degree, but the gas is notoriously difficult to handle once it’s been cleaned.

Transporting and storing it without contaminating the gas again becomes an issue.

It’s why lithium, which is volatile but can be purified relatively easily, has taken the energy world by storm, while hydrogen sits on the sidelines.

It’s also why hydrogen fueling stations are extremely rare; there are only 40 in the entire United States.

Yet the potential for hydrogen in the energy industry is just too high to ignore!

Investors in the energy space ought to be paying close attention.

Major car companies Honda and General Motors have partnered to create an $85 million advanced fuel cell production line.

Amazon has invested in fuel cells for motive operations.

This is not an industry that will be fading back into the background. In fact, it will be doing exactly the opposite as the push for cleaner energy alternatives continues.

We’ll be taking a closer look at the ever-growing potential in hydrogen fuel cells in the coming weeks.

Keep an eye out for these updates to hit your inbox soon!

Until next time,

Megan Dailey Signature

Megan Dailey

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Megan Dailey is a fresh young face on the investment scene. In her years as a research analyst with Angel Publishing, she’s learned that adapting fast to new investment situations is critically important to successfully navigating today’s volatile market. Her research has helped individual investors identify fast-growing companies in the energy industry that pay actionable investors back in spades. In an age of boundless information, her research is razor-focused on the most lucrative opportunities in energy and beyond. Megan’s research can be found in her weekly editorials on the Energy and Capital site. She also manages the Energy and Capital social media, and is always ready to answer your questions about energy investments via Facebook or Twitter!

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