Chemical Industry and Chemical Engineering Quarterly 2005 Volume 11, Issue 3, Pages: 105-113
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Fuel cells and hydrogen economy

Barbir Frano

Fuel cells with applications ranging from power generation to transportation need hydrogen as fuel. Hydrogen is not a source of energy, and hydrogen is not a readily available fuel. Hydrogen is more like electricity - an intermediary form of energy or an energy carrier. However, while electricity infrastructure is already in place, hydrogen infrastructure is practically nonexistent. It is this lack of hydrogen infrastructure that is considered to be one of the biggest obstacles to fuel cell commercialization. Commercialization of fuel cells, particularly for transportation and stationary electricity generation markets, must be accompanied by commercialization of hydrogen energy technologies, i.e., technologies for hydrogen production, distribution and storage. In other words, hydrogen must become a readily available commodity (not as a technical gas but as an energy carrier) before fuel cells can be fully commercialized. On the other hand, it may very well be that the fuel cells will become the driving force for development of hydrogen energy technologies. Fuel cells have many unique properties, such as high energy efficiency, no emissions, no noise, modularity, and potentially low cost, which may make them attractive in many applications even with a limited hydrogen supply. This creates what is often referred to as a 'chicken and egg problem' - does the development and commercialization of fuel cells come before development of hydrogen energy technologies or must hydrogen infrastructure be in place before fuel cells can be commercialized? Hydrogen as fuel cannot compete in today's market with the very fuels it is produced from (including electricity). Also, as any new technology, hydrogen energy technologies, such as fuel cells, are in most cases initially more expensive than the existing mature technologies, even when real economics is applied. Hydrogen energy technologies are expensive because the equipment for hydrogen production and utilization is not mass-produced. It is not mass-produced because there is no demand for it, and there is no demand because it is too expensive. This is a closed circle, or another chicken-and-egg problem. The only way for hydrogen energy technologies to penetrate into the major energy markets is to start with those technologies that may have niche markets, where the competition with the existing technologies is not as fierce and/or where they offer clear advantage over the existing technologies regardless of the price. Another push for commercialization may be gained through governmental and/or international subsidies for technologies that offer some clear advantages. Once developed, these technologies may help reduce the cost of other related hydrogen technologies, and initiate and accelerate their widespread market penetrations. This article discusses the role of fuel cells in the future Hydrogen Economy, and explores possible transition paths and strategies.

Keywords: hydrogen, economy, fuel cell

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