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Hydrogen is the simplest and most abundant chemical element in the universe, the source that powers the stars and the sun, which is essentially a giant ball of hydrogen and helium gases. Ostensibly infinite, we will never run out of hydrogen. However, hydrogen on Earth can only be found within compounds, such as in combination with oxygen in water – H2O – or in compounds with carbon known as hydrocarbons such as natural gas, coal, and petroleum. Separating hydrogen from these compounds requires an energy investment and in the case of separation from hydrocarbons, produces carbon emissions, but when carried out efficiently produces a valuable, safe and clean source of energy or fuel. And when separated from carbon-free molecules, hydrogen energy is carbon-free.
Having the highest energy content of any common fuel per unit of weight, some 3x higher than gasoline, hydrogen is used as a rocket fuel and in fuel cells. Because it can be stored and transported, hydrogen serves as a valuable energy carrier, and as such it complements renewable energy sources when they are not available. Technologies are emerging that allow more efficient production of hydrogen to leverage the element to replace fossil fuels in multiple, diverse applications, both to decarbonize hard-to-abate industries that have traditionally been dependent on hydrocarbons as well as for fueling the transport sector.
To meet the lion’s share of the world’s clean energy needs, the drive is on to produce electricity from renewable energy resources. However, electrification generally achieves efficiency levels of some 35%, while hydrogen can generate electricity with efficiency levels 3x higher. Therefore, hydrogen is the optimal clean power source for high energy consumers such as industrial processes and heavy transport such as railroads, heavy trucks, mobile machinery for construction and mining and even aircraft.
We are seeing today widespread growth of hydrogen-powered heavy vehicles on the road, especially fuel cell trucks. Unlike batteries, which directly store electrons to power electric motors, fuel cell trucks use tanks to store hydrogen gas or liquid molecules as the source of energy. Fuel cell trucks split hydrogen to free the electrons so as to power the electric motor, producing water as the only by-product. There are also hydrogen trucks that burn hydrogen in a process similar to diesel fuel in combustion engines. The hydrogen fuel consumed by the trucks can be produced by reforming natural gas and capturing CO2 or through water electrolysis. In recent years, commercial automotive OEMs have begun to more significantly adopt hydrogen truck technology, such as Hyundai’s launch of the first commercial fuel cell truck fleet.
While the technology for hydrogen trucks and hydrogen fueling is advancing rapidly and deployment is expanding, the major bottleneck to broad deployment is the scarce availability of hydrogen fueling infrastructure, which is expensive and time-consuming to construct and the complexity of the hydrogen supply value chain.
Nevertheless, hydrogen infrastructure in the long run does offer benefits. Hydrogen is gaining traction in other industries beyond transport, which allows scaling up of the investments. The hydrogen infrastructure is in some ways more beneficial and economical than electric truck charging infrastructure in that it has a smaller carbon footprint and there is no costly investment required to upgrade the power grid. Moreover, the rate of refueling with hydrogen is higher than the extended charging times required for electric trucks which cause logistical problems.
Hydrogen also shows great promise for railways and maritime shipping applications; in these industries the high volume of fuel required lends itself to more efficient hydrogen carriers such as ammonia or other LOHCs (liquid organic hydrogen carriers) that are being developed from different chemical compounds. Similarly, there are advancements in hydrogen-powered aircraft, such as the recent first flight of a hydrogen aircraft. Hydrogen planes essentially have four major components – a storage system to safely store liquid hydrogen, fuel cells to convert hydrogen to electricity, a device to control the power of the cells, and then a motor to turn a propeller. Hydrogen-propelled aircraft will offer the benefits of high efficiency, quiet operation and zero emissions.
EV charging can often be a long, drawn-out process. This is compounded by the fact that the industry has developed in many directions with entirely incompatible approaches and interfaces. Different EVs accept different amounts of power, and not all charging stations are compatible with every EV, meaning that things can quickly become overwhelming. In the US, for example, Tesla’s strategy was to intentionally install over 160,000 chargers which, for now, only work with Teslas. But the charging landscape is changing slowly. For example, Mercedes-Benz has plans to build a network of 2,500 high-powered chargers that will work with all EVs by 2027.
One doesn’t have to look too far to see how investing in EV infrastructure can reduce range anxiety and drive higher EV sales. Norway is the best example of this. The country has over 17,000 charging stations, meaning a driver wouldn’t have to drive more than 30 miles without a charging point. This translates to about 20% of all cars on Norwegian roads being EVs as opposed to the US, where it’s estimated that still, to date, less than 1% of cars are electric.
With the rapid rise in the number of electric vehicles on the roads, especially of private cars, the electric grid in many locations is challenged to provide sufficient charging capacity to be able to quickly charge multiple vehicles all across our highways. With EV fleets growing in size, the fleet managers need to invest in infrastructure to keep the vehicles concurrently charged. The lack of power capacity is causing EV driver range anxiety that threatens to slow the transition to clean EVs.
A new and out-of-the-box approach to the problem leverages the hydrogen refueling infrastructure, not to fuel the vehicles, but rather the vehicle chargers. Supplementing grid power and BESS energy storage alongside the renewable energy resources that are often preferred for EV charging in an effort to maximize sustainability, the hydrogen fuel cell offers an environmentally friendly insurance policy in the form of hydrogen that allows the charging station to generate power on-site at all times. Adding hydrogen to the EV charging station energy mix ensures uninterrupted availability – for as long as you have H2, you can charge the EVs. In this way, when sun, wind or other intermittent renewable power sources are not available, especially in extreme weather conditions, the hydrogen fuel cells will keep the charging station running. More benefits of hydrogen fueling include the ability for rapid deployment as well ais its flexibility and convenient transportability; hydrogen supports dynamic power fluctuation, enabling higher power flow in peak hours, and hydrogen or hydrogen carriers can be easily transported to different sites in winter and summer when EV drivers change their routes.
Another good reason to invest in hydrogen for your EV charging station is the opportunity to take advantage of the many government incentives available, such as the extensive new U.S. federal incentives for hydrogen technologies within the Biden IRA, funding opportunities for the EU Clean Hydrogen Joint Undertaking, extended government support for the hydrogen society in Japan as well as hydrogen strategies by various countries around the world.
The GenCell EVOX™ is a good example of a hydrogen fuel cell solution for EV charging. Combining alkaline fuel cell technology with battery storage, hydrogen fueling and energy management software, the GenCell EVOX ensures 24/7 availability of green, grid-independent power wherever EVs need to travel. Rapidly deployable in remote locations at end of grid or in dense locations where multiple EVs consume substantial grid power and require reinforcement, the EVOX can easily upgrade single phase to the three-phase power needed for EV charging. Gaining the best of both worlds, hydrogen-fueled EV charging enables faster electrification of transportation while eliminating the need for costly grid expansion in locations where it may not be justified; indeed the EV charging market can offer an additional stream of revenue to hydrogen fueling stations, enabling faster and more economical expansion of hydrogen infrastructure to accelerate the transition to a clean hydrogen power future.