Hydrogen Fuel Cells & Their Role in Infrastructure Development

Sustainability /
Hydrogen Fuel Cells & Their Role in Infrastructure Development

As the world moves to decarbonize and change the tides of climate change, sustainable technologies like hydrogen fuel cells are garnering more attention every day. So, how does a hydrogen fuel cell work? Additionally, what roles will they play in mass transit, energy production, public utilities, and other sectors?

In this guide, we’re breaking down everything you need to know to prepare for the bright future of hydrogen fuel cells: what they are, current use cases, and their potential applications in modern infrastructure.

What Is a Hydrogen Fuel Cell?

A fuel cell is, at its core, a type of battery. Unlike traditional batteries, however, they don’t have to be recharged—only refueled. Fuel cells include a few key components:

  • Electrodes – A positively charged electrode (cathode) and a negatively charged electrode (anode)
  • Proton exchange membrane (PEM) – A permeable membrane sandwiched between the electrodes
  • Flow plates – Material that directs fuel, air, and electron flow throughout the cell

In a hydrogen fuel cell, pure hydrogen fuel moves to the anode, where a catalyst separates the electrons from the hydrogen molecules. Electrons move through an external circuit to produce an electrical current (energy), whereas H+ molecules (positively charged hydrogen protons) move through the PEM to the cathode on the other side of the cell. As air moves to the cathode and oxygen combines with H+ protons, they form H2O (water) as a byproduct.

This brings to attention one of the most important facets of hydrogen fuel cells: Their output is electricity, heat, and water only.

Current Use Cases

While they haven’t received ample press in recent years, current fuel cell applications are only growing:

  • Multiple manufacturers offer hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) for consumer purchase.
  • Various spacecraft use hydrogen fuel cells to produce energy onboard.
  • By the end of 2022, the US had just over 200 operational hydrogen fuel cells in power plant facilities across the US.

Fuel Cells in Modern Infrastructure

While their current use is mostly limited to the industrial sector (with one important exception in commuter vehicle applications), hydrogen fuel cells have the power to revolutionize modern infrastructure.

Let’s explore a few use cases that are on the horizon.

Power Generation

Some power manufacturers around the US are already experimenting with hydrogen fuel cells to generate electricity. As fuel cell technology becomes more accessible, they can be leveraged to generate power for:

Two of the benefits of transitioning to hydrogen for energy production include:

  1. Reduced reliance on fossil fuels – Fossil fuel reliance is of great concern politically, economically, and environmentally. Decreasing our reliance on fossil fuels will benefit nearly every sector of American life, from lowered gas prices to cleaner air.
  2. Decreased carbon emissions – Hydrogen fuel cells only emit energy, heat, and water—no greenhouse gasses. As climate change continues to loom, decreasing our emissions at scale is paramount. Hydrogen fuel cells can help us do just that.

Transportation Sector

In addition to the commuter vehicle market, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are transforming mass and public transportation fleets. Hydrogen fuel cell buses are increasing in popularity around Europe and Asia, but some US cities are following suit:

  • The Orange County Transportation Authority in Southern California recently introduced 10 hydrogen fuel cell buses to its fleet.
  • The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority plans to purchase 10 hydrogen fuel cell buses as part of a 2024 pilot program.
  • The Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada has already introduced two hydrogen fuel cell buses to its fleet, but it plans on adding seven more by the end of 2024.

Buses aren’t the only potential use for hydrogen fuel cells in public transit. Trams and trains are primed for hydrogen conversion as well.

Public Utilities

Aside from power generation, hydrogen has the power to transform other public utilities and spaces. Hydrogen could be harnessed for:

  • Streetlights
  • Traffic
  • Charging stations for electric vehicles

Incorporating hydrogen fuel cells at scale has the potential to transform local cities (or entire regions) into self-sustaining, closed-loop energy systems.

Looking Toward a Hydrogen-Powered Future

What could a large-scale implementation of hydrogen do for the planet and the economy? Let’s explore three potential implications of the hydrogen transition.

Improved Air Quality

Reduced reliance on fossil fuels and increased air quality go hand in hand. When thinking of greenhouse emissions, it’s often commuter cars and highway traffic that come to mind—but hydrogen also has the potential to eliminate emissions from:

Making moves to protect (or even improve) air quality isn’t just about protecting the environment—it will also impact our health. Pollution exposure can cause significant health problems. Put simply, an investment in air quality is an investment in public health.

Energy Sector Jobs

While decreased reliance on fossil fuels will surely eliminate some fossil fuel-related jobs, the transition to hydrogen fuel cell technology poses multiple opportunities for job creation. After all, it will be impossible to incorporate more fuel cell technologies at scale without skilled workers in sectors like:

  • Public utilities and infrastructure
  • Architecture and engineering
  • Manufacturing
  • Refinement
  • Public transit

As the nation continues to incorporate hydrogen fuel cell technologies, more skilled experts will be required to manage and support these projects. In other words, the hydrogen transition will lay the groundwork for mass job creation.

Local Self-Sufficiency

The growth of hydrogen fuel cells also presents an opportunity for local communities to obtain self-sufficiency. When buildings, cities, and regions can produce their own power with hydrogen, cities gain more control over their local resources and energy production.

Promoting local self-sufficiency just makes sense:

  1. It boosts local economies – With ample hydrogen jobs and a more local energy market, money can stay in the communities where it’s generated.
  2. It supports emergency preparedness – If something were to compromise a city’s connection to the rest of the region (a natural disaster, for instance), robust local infrastructure can support stability as cities recover and return to normal.

With homegrown hydrogen fuel cell infrastructure, even rural areas can regain control of their energy production.

FASTECH: Building the Future of Energy

Hydrogen fuel cells are already making waves in the energy and transit sectors, but this is just the beginning of hydrogen’s bright future. And when it’s time to transition to alternative energy (like hydrogen fuel), you need an EPCM partner you can trust.

FASTECH is an end-to-end energy solutions provider with one simple goal: building sustainable clean energy infrastructure.

For a closer look at our work, explore our recent case studies. And when you’re ready to start your next sustainable energy project, reach out to our expert team.

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