First invented in 1839 by William Grove, a fuel cell is an electrochemical energy conversion device that produces electricity by combining hydrogen and oxygen into water. Like batteries, fuel cells convert potential chemical energy into electrical energy and generate heat as a by-product. However, the chemical energy is stored inside batteries—rather than generated— they can only operate for a limited duration until they need to be discarded or recharged. Fuel cells, on the other hand, can continuously generate electricity as long as they are supplied with fuel (hydrogen) and an oxidant.
More than 65,000 fuel cells, totaling over 300 MW, were shipped worldwide in 2016. Stationary fuel cells are using hydrogen to generate power at leading companies such as Apple, Verizon and Coca-Cola. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles from Toyota, Honda and Hyundai are coming to market, metropolitan areas are beginning to migrate to hydrogen-fuel buses. Hydrogen refilling stations in California and other states are overcoming the challenges of hydrogen distribution for consumers. Indeed, the US Department of Energy notes that hydrogen and fuel cells are on the verge of a “tipping point”.