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Fuel Cells and the Future of Clean Energy: New Options for Vehicle Electrification

Since our last blog post on The Great Fuel Cell Debate, the controversy surrounding fuel cells has only heated up, with both proponents and opponents of the technology becoming more active and vocal. Hydrogen power is increasingly becoming more of a global talking point, and hydrogen’s applications as a power source extend far beyond Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles (FCEVs). South Korea, for one, has recently expanded its hydrogen initiatives. The world’s largest hydrogen plant, the Shin Incheon Bitdream Hydrogen Fuel Cell Power Plant, opened in Seo-gu, South Korea in late 2021. The plant has a total capacity of 78.96 kWh (kilowatt hours) and the ability to supply power to approximately 250,000 households each year. The opening of the Shin Incheon plant is just the latest development in South Korea’s transition toward a hydrogen-based economy. The country has set an ambitious goal of providing 27.9 million metric tons of clean hydrogen annually by the year 2050. Whether hydrogen will become a top power source worldwide is certainly still up for debate, but one thing is clear: South Korea has bet heavily on hydrogen.

South Korea is not alone in this endeavor, either. While the country may be a current hydrogen leader with the opening of the Shin Incheon plant, Canada, Germany, Japan, and a number of other world leaders have also outlined detailed green hydrogen strategies within the past few years. Japan, for instance, began its quest to become a “hydrogen society” in 2017; with concrete cost and efficiency targets in place, Japan has already begun operating within an international hydrogen supply chain. This month, the world’s first ever liquid hydrogen tanker, the Suiso Frontier, will ship from Australia to Japan. While this step is certainly promising for the future of hydrogen power, the liquid hydrogen produced in the agreement between Japan and Australia is far from perfect. Hydrogen power is often marketed as an environmentally friendly alternative to more traditional energy sources; however, the hydrogen aboard the Suiso Frontier was generated through the burning of coal, an exceedingly high-emissions process. Tim Baxter, a senior researcher at Australia’s Climate Council, has described the joint hydrogen initiative as “just a new fossil fuel industry.”

If coal hydrogenation is not as environmentally friendly as it is often marketed, then what hydrogen sources can we use to reduce worldwide greenhouse gas emissions and create a cleaner environment? One of the current leading methods of clean hydrogen production is electrolysis, a method by which water molecules are separated into pure hydrogen and pure oxygen by an electric current. Clean hydrogen is still in its preliminary stages - even South Korea does not plan for its hydrogen sources to be 100% clean until 2050 - but ongoing worldwide research is making a strong push toward developing a sustainable, cost-effective method of producing clean hydrogen through electrolysis. Just this past July, for instance, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin developed a way to efficiently split oxygen molecules from water using solar power alone - one clean energy source fueling another. While the Texas researchers still have not managed to separate hydrogen from water molecules using this method, the study’s lead scientist, Dr. Edward Yu, claims that this capability is not far off.

What does this mean for Fuel Cell vehicles? For one thing, one of the most cited barriers to the expansion of FCEV technology has been a lack of available hydrogen infrastructure. Now, with countries like South Korea investing heavily in hydrogen and studies like that at the University of Texas finding promising results, widespread availability of hydrogen as a clean power source seems like a greater possibility than ever. Without the hydrogen availability barrier, FCEVs will be more cost effective, easier to maintain and refuel, and a much more practical solution to the limitations of Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs). The future, as always, is still uncertain, but if countries and researchers worldwide continue to invest in clean hydrogen, FCEVs may be much more prominent in the coming years.

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