Fuel cells were hailed as an innovative green technology set to revolutionize various industries. What ever happened to it?
Published: Thursday, April 20th 2017
Solar panels, wind turbines, lithium batteries for cars - there are a multitude of green power solutions being developed and refined for our needs.But, what ever happened to fuel cell technology?Once hailed as a green energy tour de force, fuel cells - especially those planned for use in vehicles - have mostly given way to other technologies.Let's investigate…
What Is a Fuel Cell?
Fuel cells are capable of creating electricity by using a chemical reaction through oxidization. The most well-known fuel cell type is a fuel cell which uses hydrogen and platinum.The technology was hailed as remarkably green. This since the only emissions resulting from using hydrogen fuel cells is water vapour.The platinum / hydrogen fuel cell is particularly valuable for South Africa's economy. If more industries turn to it, there would be a rise in the demand for platinum. With our country being the source of up to 80% of the world's reserves.Even with the greenhouse gases released during the production of hydrogen, using certain methods, this technology's carbon footprint is significantly lower than that of conventional vehicles. This is according to the US Department of Energy.
So, What Happened?
If fuel cells are considered such a green technology, why are they not being used more?A number of challenges faced the technology, the biggest factor being its cost.Fuel cell vehicles are more expensive to produce, and require more investment from carmakers, to decrease the cost for consumers.Secondly, the infrastructure needed to get the hydrogen to consumers is extremely costly to build.While countries, like the US, have made some steps towards building these public stations, there are not enough to support widespread adoption of these vehicles.Another challenge, according to the US Department of Energy, is the technology's durability and reliability.Fuel cell stacks (a group of fuel cells) are not yet as durable as traditional combustion engines.
What's The Current Situation?
While fuel cells don't have the same publicity that they used to have, there are still those who are continuing to refine the technology.In terms of the issue of creating greenhouse gases, while producing hydrogen, scientists are researching CO2-free methods to create the gas.These include solutions using wind power, solar power, or even human waste, Grist.org states.There continues to be slow rollout of hydrogen stations. Along with the production of cheaper and more effective fuel cell vehicles.Meanwhile, Toyota's Chinese research division is set to hold demonstrations of two fuel cell vehicles in October this year, according to FuelCellsWorks.The technology is slowly maturing, but has not solved all its issues yet.Analysts believe, however, the technology will reach high demand and more widespread adoption once these solutions have been found.
While South Africa has a significant amount to gain from adopting the technology, and pushing it further, government has been criticised for dragging their feet.In December last year, fuel cell analyst, Kerry-Ann Adamson, warned that the country should not have a false sense of security over the technology, MiningWeekly.com reported.She added that other countries were ahead in the race, while South Africa is lacking in adoption of fuel cells. This despite having policies in place.Fuel cells would have a lasting impact for South Africa. They would be able to be used to assist with electricity production and powering rural, remote areas.According to MiningWeekly.com, Doosan's Eric Strayer said that a 400kW fuel cell creates four times less carbon dioxide, uses 300 times less land, and provides six times more energy than a 400kW solar system does.Despite local issues, there is still hope for the technology to be implemented locally.Implats plans to implement a fuel cell power plant in 2018. This while government is developing a fuel cell special economic zone in Springs, Gauteng.