According to a new report from Technical Insights, a business unit of Frost & Sullivan, the fuel cell has a long way to go before it becomes a commercially viable fuel source.
Fuel cell costs are augmented by a few factors. These systems use expensive heat resistant materials that enable smooth functioning in very high temperatures, and they rely on precious metals, such as platinum, as catalysts. Moreover, conversion of available fuels to hydrogen requires expensive reformers.
‘At present, it is far less expensive to use power from the grid and other traditional sources,’ says Technical Insights Analyst Jayanthi Kamalaratnam. ‘Non-traditional fuelling infrastructures are needed, which translate into high costs.’
All fuel cells are either powered by fuels that are converted to hydrogen, or they are powered by hydrogen itself. This appears to be an advantage, because hydrogen is an abundant element with the potential to replace fossil fuels as an energy source. Still, this element has its drawbacks. It is expensive and currently requires high costs for storage and delivery. The infrastructure required to launch a full-scale hydrogen economy does not currently exist, and setting up a hydrogen-fuelling network further increases the expense of fuel cell systems.
Hydrogen is usually stored under high pressure, is relatively heavy, and does not lend itself to convenient refuelling. Storage in liquid form requires high energy to ensure safety. As the storage tanks are relatively large, liquid hydrogen is not suitable for use in cars. In transportation systems, converting non-hydrogen fuels, such as natural gas and ethanol, to hydrogen adds bulk and expense.
‘Hydrogen storage still remains a significant challenge as the fuel has a very low energy density at normal ambient conditions, making its storage difficult in any mobile storage vessel,’ says Kamalaratnam. ‘Researchers are investigating metal hydrides and carbon nanotubes as possible solutions.’
The success of fuel cells will depend on proactive consumer education and creation of awareness, as these power-producing systems are mostly used in consumer-oriented applications such as transportation systems and stationary residential and portable devices.
Consumers need to be convinced that fuel cells are capable of providing environment-friendly electricity and are highly efficient and reliable in the long term. Assurances on proper infrastructure, and having qualified, skilled personnel to provide maintenance services are likely to boost market acceptance. Reducing cost remains the key commercial and technological challenge.