- Andrew English, motoring correspondent
It was Welsh scientist and justice of the peace Sir William Grove who, in 1839, discovered the principle of producing electricity from an electro-chemical reaction between hydrogen and air.
He called it the 'gas battery', though what we now know as the fuel cell wasn't really a feasible electricity producer until the mid 20th century. In 1955 General Electric’s Willard Grubb and Leonard Niedrach produced the first hydrogen-and-oxygen fuelled, proton-exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell, the type used in almost all automotive applications. It was one of these PEM fuel cells that was used by Nasa to generate power for the Gemini project in the 1960s.
A fuel cell is effectively an electricity-generating device using chemical reactions. There are lots of different types of fuel cell but the chemical reaction we are looking at here is that of combining hydrogen and oxygen to produce water and energy in the form of electricity.
The cell consists of a couple of electrodes; a positively-charged anode, and a negatively-charged cathode. These are in contact with an electrolyte, which has a synthetic polymer membrane to keep the oxygen and hydrogen apart and only permit the passage of certain types of ions.
So hydrogen atoms enter the cell at the anode side, where they are stripped of their negatively-charged electrons by the platinum catalyst, and then pass through the anode, travelling round an external electrical circuit to give electricity.
The positively charged hydrogen ions travel through the centre of the electrolyte membrane to the cathode side, where they are be joined by the oxygen atoms and rejoined by the electrons, which have travelled 'round the circuit. The output of the cell is therefore electricity, heat and water.
Each cell produces only a tiny amount of current so many cells are stuck together in what are known as 'stacks'. In these an ink consisting of the carbon, catalyst, and electrode are sprayed on to the solid electrolyte with carbon end papers which act as electrodes.
The beauty of the fuel cell is its theoretical simplicity and elegance, water-to-water (2H2 + O2 = 2H2O) but getting there isn't so simple. Hydrogen is the most plentiful element in the universe, but it doesn't exist as a free gas, instead forming strong bonds with other elements. As a result it's difficult and expensive to produce.
"Hydrogen is like money," said one expert, "it is all around us, but it doesn't necessarily belong to you."
The advantages of hydrogen fuel cells over internal combustion engines and battery-electric motors as vehicular propulsion include emissions, range and charging time. The hydrogen fuel cell car emits only pure water at the tailpipe, which is clean enough to drink and therefore does not contribute to local pollution. It only takes a minute or two to fill the tank of a hydrogen car, putting it broadly in line with a petrol or diesel car, and the range from this charge will be several hundred kilometres – something that could take hours for a battery-electric car to achieve.
One kilogram of hydrogen has the energy equivalent of one US gallon of petrol, so by weight, hydrogen has a pretty efficient bang, but depending on how you store it, its volume can be up to four times bigger than petrol. It's expensive and energy-intensive to store as a gas where it can cost up to 50 per cent of calorific value of the gas to compress, still more so when stored as a liquid at cryogenic temperatures, when it also boils off and vents to the air. It's also highly inflammable, loves to escape from containment and causes embrittlement of metals.
Extraction of sustainable hydrogen from water via a process known as electrolysis, which is basically a fuel cell operating in reverse, requires electricity. The source of this can be something as clean as a hydroelectric dam or as dirty as a diesel generator; a decentralised network of electrolysis plants powered by renewables is possible, but H2 will inevitably involve consumption of fossil fuels for some time.
The fuel cell only produces direct current so further losses are experienced in inverting the current into alternating current suitable for efficient vehicle drive motors. Many of these problems are being overcome, particularly by car makers such as Toyota and Hyundai.
Another issue is that a fuel cell will only operate with water, not steam or ice, so temperature management is essential. Heat has to be carefully dispersed, which is why fuel cell cars often have so many cooling ducts. And water needs to be carefully drained from the cell after use and restarting in very low temperatures has been a major hurdle, although Toyota claims its Mirai fuel-cell car will restart at temperatures as low as minus 30 degrees celsius.
There are plenty of naysayers about fuel-cell technology and you can see them scoffing on the internet, but most are either ignorant or are heavily invested in alternative technologies such as battery vehicles. It might have been some time in coming, but fuel cells are here and their number will grow as part of a wide variety of automobile power solutions of the future. Japan is wedded to the technology and its car companies have invested heavily, not just on developing fuel cells but also in the infrastructure of hydrogen filling stations.