Fuel cells produce electrical energy directly from the chemical potential energy that is stored in H2 and O2 molecules. Using a Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM), the unit needs only to be supplied with pressurized H2. Fuel cells are inherently more efficient and reliable than combustion engines, and their only by-product is water. These advantages make them a favourable technology in the quest of alternative energy sources.
Fuel cells have already made their way in the market, and even though the available capacity is currently limited, facilities are increasing. Fuel cell-powered buses and forklifts are in operation across the USA and public refueling stations are increasing worldwide, to provide hydrogen for electric automobiles.
In Canada, Toyota and Honda teamed up to build a hydrogen facility close to Montreal this year. Their joined venture is backed by the government of Quebec, and will utilize the hydropower which is abundant in the area in order to electrolyze hydrogen from water. Another hydrogen facility is under development in Quebec city. Each of the facilities has a capacity of producing some 200kg of hydrogen daily- enough for 50 fuel-cell vehicle refills.
It is no coincidence that Toyota and Hyundai are investing in hydrogen stations. Both companies have a keen interest in fuel cell technology and have developed fuel cell-powered electric vehicles. Sales in the US and Japan are increasing, and research is ongoing towards the construction of cost-efficient fuel cell systems providing longer ranges (currently averaging between 312-380miles).
GM has a joint venture with Honda for the production of fuel cell stacks, and Ford and Fiat are also investing in research on fuel cell technologies. Scaling up the technology and expanding existing infrastructures may be the key to reducing costs and making fuel-cell technologies more accessible.