Research Article: Fuel cells are a commercially viable alternative for the production of “clean” energy

Date Published: December 14, 2015

Publisher: Springer Netherlands

Author(s): Dimitris K. Niakolas, Maria Daletou, Stylianos G. Neophytides, Constantinos G. Vayenas.


Fuel cells present a highly efficient and environmentally friendly alternative technology for decentralized energy production. The scope of the present study is to provide an overview of the technological and commercialization readiness level of fuel cells. Specifically, there is a brief description of their general advantages and weaknesses in correlation with various technological actions and political strategies, which are adopted towards their proper positioning in the global market. Some of the most important key performance indicators are also discussed, alongside with a few examples of broad commercialization. It is concluded that the increasing number of companies which utilize and invest on this technology, in combination with the supply chain improvements and the concomitant technological maturity and recognition, reinforce the fuel cell industry so as to become well-aligned for global success.

Partial Text

The European Union is committed to transforming its transport and energy systems into low-carbon systems by 2050 and to decouple economic growth from resource and energy use, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, increasing energy security, while maintaining a strong competitive global position. Some recent studies (Lund 2010; Akikur et al. 2014; Maalej et al. 2014; Rothuizen and Rokni 2014; Yazdanie et al. 2014) have concluded that hydrogen, together with electricity, alternative power sources, sustainable biofuels and natural gas, could gradually become a much more significant component of the European energy mix. Fuel cells at the same time are the most efficient means of converting various fuels, especially hydrogen, to clean, efficient, reliable power and heat for a wide range of energy-related applications, including portable devices, combined heat and power (CHP) and road and non-road transport (FCH JU-2-MAWP 2014).

The major advantage of fuel cells is their high thermodynamic efficiency, which can take realistic values in the range of 40–60 %. Meanwhile, there is concomitant production of heat with the electric energy; heat that is available at slightly lower temperature of the one that the cell operates. This means that fuel cells have the potential to be used for cogeneration of electricity and heat, covering thus the heat and power needs for domestic and other larger scale industrial applications, which is very interesting under the perspective of the steadily increased tendency for decentralized power production.

Durability issues/stability and useful lifetimeMajor challenges in producing, transporting and storing hydrogenProduction cost use of (rare-noble) expensive raw elements and materials.

The new multiannual working plan (MAWP) of the FCH JU is focussing its activities on demonstration and field testing projects aiming to the faster development of fuel cell systems and their market penetration. However, the massive use of fuel cells still needs breakthrough research on materials and their interfaces (mainly the electrochemical interfaces) as these are summarised in the following topics:Novel materials and novel fuel cell design concepts, which will allow the effective reduction of precious metal loadings. This can be achieved through two main approaches. One is the development of novel, more active, electrocatalysts aiming to atomic distribution of the metal active phase on stable nanostructured supporting materials. The other approach is through the synthesis and development of stable anionic alkaline polymer electrolytes, which will allow the use of non precious metal electrocatalysts.Simulation and understanding the functionality and operational characteristics of a 3D structured electrochemical interface. This research topic aims to (i) 100 % utilization of the active electrocatalyst and (ii) the innovative design of the flow fields. As a result, a uniform distribution of the reacting gases can be achieved along the 3D structure of the catalytic layer, i.e. below the gas streams and below the ribs of the bipolar plates.Novel designs, engineering and operational concepts can be conceived so as to improve the performance of fuel cells. This advance can be accomplished by means of an integrated approach, based both on materials development and on the deployment of innovative cell designs. The specific strategy will permit the effective control of (i) the electrocatalytic activity, especially in terms of the efficiency of the electrochemical interfaces and (ii) the poisoning effect of the feeding gases on the electrodes’ performance.

Fuel Cells and Hydrogen (FCH) technologies introduce radical changes and their potential social and environmental benefits will not be monetized on the short term, which increases the investment risk for early movers. Despite its significant progress, the technology has not yet achieved competitive levels of life-cycle cost and overall performance required for a large-scale deployment, though the commercialization of some specific products (e.g. passenger cars, buses, materials handling vehicles, backup power, portable power) has already begun. Thus, a strong technology leapfrogging to reduce the costs would be very beneficial. Large concerted research and development (R&D) actions such as the European fuel cell and hydrogen joint technology effort, the Japanese ENE-FARM program and other actions would be highly justified and could save billions of euros in market deployment efforts otherwise required. The time to breakthrough could similarly be reduced by 60–70 % (Lund 2010). On the other hand, it has to be mentioned that so far all fuel cells that have been commercially introduced are, more or less, based on “conventional” materials and concepts, which have been tested and technologically established for quite some time. Thus, a large-scale introduction of fuel cells might be already feasible even without major breakthroughs. The latter statement is further verified by the recent commercial introduction of fuel cell vehicles by Toyota and Hyundai.