New Hydrogen Fuel Cell-Powered Fast Chargers Announced

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ABB has announced the launch of a strategic partnership with AFC Energy to create the next generation of high-power sustainable electric vehicle (EV) charging solutions for grid-constrained locations. The endeavor combines ABB’s energy storage solution and DC EV fast chargers with AFC Energy’s zero-emission, high-efficiency hydrogen fuel cell.

Image courtesy ABB

The partners say that, with this approach, pollution-free electricity is available by combining the most abundant element in the universe (hydrogen) with ordinary air (oxygen) — the only other byproduct being 100% pure water. The companies state that their strategic collaboration will deliver a fully autonomous, high-power EV charging system that will provide an end-to-end solution for high-power charging sites with limited grid connection.

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Zooming in on Hydrogen Power Systems for EV Chargers

AFC Energy is a provider of hydrogen power generation technology, which the company says can provide clean electricity for on- and off-grid applications. The company’s standard solution offers power for charging infrastructure where traditionally a diesel generator would be used.

The partnership with ABB is the UK-listed company’s first strategic collaboration with a global OEM. Developed in AFC Energy’s UK research and manufacturing facilities, the hydrogen power (H-Power) systems use a patented proprietary design to ensure highest efficiency, robust design, and economic operation while being free of pollutants and greenhouse gasses.

The company’s website states, “A key feature in the operation of an alkaline fuel cell is the notable role that the Hydroxyl group (OH– ion) contributes to the successful operation of the cell. The importance of the Hydroxyl group is true irrespective of whether it is a liquid electrolyte fuel cell or a solid anionic exchange membrane fuel cell.”

Noting that hydrogen is an important and abundant carrier of energy whose conversion into electricity through a fuel cell dates back over a 100 years, AFC Energy also acknowledges that the fuel cell sector and hydrogen economy has been challenged on 2 key fronts to bring this clean energy vector to market:

  • the grade of hydrogen necessary for effective fuel cell operation is often measured as Ultra-Pure Scientific Grade (99.999% H2) and comes at a significant price; and,
  • the loading of precious metals present in the fuel cell electrode has often made for a very expensive catalytic conversion of hydrogen into electrons.

Each of these characteristics directly affects the affordability of power produced from hydrogen. The company states that this can all be achieved without a loss in performance and efficiency. After a decade of research and development, they are bringing H-Power technology platforms to market, establishing an emissions-free solution to the world’s energy challenges.

AFC Energy’s alkaline fuel cell technology works by the electrochemical combination of hydrogen and oxygen in a non-combustion process. In doing so it produces electricity, heat, and water. Electrical generation will be continuous while fuel cells are provided with a continuous source of hydrogen and oxygen (from air) to sustain the fuel cell reaction. Backed by electro-chemistry manufacturer and distributor, Industrie De Nora S.p.A, AFC Energy’s patented alkaline fuel cell affords the flexibility of using low grade hydrogen streams (in some cases measured as low as 75% when cracking ammonia) with the opportunity to displace precious metals either entirely or to a greater extent than alternative fuel cells in the market today.

Hydrogen Fuel Cells: Ready for Prime Time?

The real key to understanding where the hydrogen fuel cell fits in is to first understand where the hydrogen will come from and how it will be extracted.

A fuel cell is an electrochemical energy conversion device. It converts hydrogen and oxygen into water, producing electricity and heat in the process. A fuel cell (like a battery) has a positive and a negative side. Hydrogen is injected into the negative side creating a direct current. Oxygen is injected into the positive side conducting electrons from the negative side and combining them with the hydrogen ions and oxygen to form pure water.

A classic paper by Lynch describes a key problem with hydrogen.

“Even though hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe it is not readily available. Hydrogen normally exists as part of something else (water, natural gas, methanol, etc.). As a result, it must be extracted from these other substances and that requires energy. Herein lies the dilemma. If we use fossil fuels (oil, natural gas, propane, methanol etc.) to extract the hydrogen, we are NOT really addressing the problem. We are still burning fossil fuels, polluting the atmosphere and delaying the transition to the hydrogen economy. The optimal solution is for the energy needed to extract hydrogen to come from a renewable source of energy.”

For hydrogen to reach its potential as an environmentally friendly source of energy, it is vital that its supply chain is made greener. Almost all of the world’s hydrogen comes from natural gas or coal. Green hydrogen will be necessary to displace the fossil-fuel sourced hydrogen.

A new report, “The Hydrogen Hype: Gas Industry Fairy Tale or Climate Horror Story?” was released by a coalition of groups in Europe that include Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) and Food and Water Action Europe. The key findings of the report show that the hydrogen lobby’s main players are fossil gas companies. Hydrogen is not without its challenges. It is already widely used in industry, and nearly all hydrogen today is produced from fossil fuels.

Final Thoughts

Bloomberg New Energy Finance predicts that by 2040 there will be just under 500 million EVs. Of those, 58% will be new passenger vehicle sales, and 47% of the global fleet will be electric. They’ll need adequate charging infrastructure to become a social norm, so current grid limitations will need to be eliminated. The global EV charging market is expected to reach $140 billion by 2030, growing at an estimated CAGR of 31.2%, and power network upgrades will be critical to facilitate this level of deployment.

The collaboration between ABB and AFC Energy aims to support the delivery of the charging infrastructure required to meet this increasing demand in remote regions where lack of grid access is an issue. Their press release states that “it will result in a new solution that will provide a secure, efficient, flexible and reliable local power supply, with zero emissions, and will be ready for deployment initially in the UK, Europe, United States and elsewhere, by the second half of 2021.” Naturally, the aim would be for the source fuel to be green hydrogen produced locally.

Check out this article by our CleanTechnica friend, Paul Martin, for more discussion on the topic.

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Substack:

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