The pros and cons of hydrogen fuel cells vs batteries

07 February 2023
Structure of a hydrogen fuel cell. Source: Emma Ambrogi/CC BY-SA 4.0

Many are still unsure which type of electric storage is better: hydrogen fuel cells or batteries. Both have their pros and cons, so let’s take a look at what each has to offer. With both technologies becoming more widespread and affordable, it is likely that hybrid solutions will soon emerge.

What is a hydrogen fuel cell?

A hydrogen fuel cell is a device that uses electrochemical reactions to convert hydrogen and oxygen into water and electricity. The structure of a typical hydrogen fuel cell is shown in the diagram above. At the anode, hydrogen molecules split into protons and electrons. The electrons are driven across the circuit, creating electricity and heat as the protons travel via electrolyte membrane. This process is both environmentally friendly and fruitful since, at the cathode, the oxygen atom joins the hydrogen atom to produce a water molecule.

The advantages of a hydrogen fuel cell

  • Hydrogen can be easily and safely transported as a compressed gas or liquid. The storage of hydrogen however is a complex and costly process.
  • Hydrogen fuel cells can be built both small and large. They can be used in residential and commercial settings, as well as in automobiles and other transportation vehicles.
  • These devices are quiet and have a low risk of overheating.
  • Hydrogen fuel cells generate electricity without the need for a chemical reaction. This makes them more efficient than other types of fuel cells.
  • These fuel cells can be used with renewable energy sources like solar and wind power.
  • Hydrogen fuel cells can be used to store surplus electricity from the grid. They can also serve as a backup power source during grid failures.

The disadvantages of a hydrogen fuel cell

  • It takes a lot of energy to extract hydrogen from other compounds. This means that more fossil fuels are needed to produce hydrogen fuel.
  • Hydrogen fuel cells are complicated and expensive. As a result, they are mainly used in space applications, where their high cost is not a key concern.
  • Hydrogen fuel cells have short lifespans and need to be replaced often.
  • These devices are not a perfect solution to energy storage, as they are bulky and heavy and have limited storage capacity.
  • Hydrogen fuel cells could have an environmental impact if produced with too much energy. Additionally, transporting and storing hydrogen could have an impact on the environment.
  • The technology is expensive and has not been proven on a large scale.
  • Hydrogen fuel cells are not as efficient as batteries and cannot store as much electricity.
  • Hydrogen fuel cells are not a quick and easy solution. They require significant research and development.

What is a battery?

A battery stores and releases electrical energy and chemical potential as electrons flow through a circuit. The electrodes are in a battery exchange with the electrons in the circuit. These units are usually assembled from electrochemical cells with two electrodes separated by an electrolyte, a substance that conducts ions. Batteries can be deployed for both small- and large-scale applications and are commonly used in portable electronics, electric vehicles and solar storage systems.

The advantages of battery storage

  • Batteries are lightweight and easy to transport. They are also easy to store and do not require much maintenance.
  • Batteries have a long lifespan and can last for 20 years or more.
  • These devices can be quickly charged and discharged. This means they can be used to store and release large amounts of electricity.
  • Batteries are reliable, cheap and easy to maintain. They rarely break down, and when they do, the damage can easily be fixed.
  • Batteries can be used to store both renewable and non-renewable energy sources.

The disadvantages of battery storage

  • Batteries are expensive and require significant research and development.
  • Limited lifespans may require frequent battery replacement.
  • Batteries are heavy and bulky, which makes them less suitable for large scale storage.
  • Batteries are sensitive to high temperatures and humidity. They could also be dangerous in the event of a fire.
  • Batteries are only useful for storing direct current electricity. They cannot be used to store alternating current electricity.

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How will these technologies evolve?

As more people begin to adopt clean energy, the demand for affordable and reliable storage options will increase. This means that hydrogen fuel cells will become an increasingly common energy storage tool in modern society. It is likely that hybrid solutions will also soon emerge.

To contact the author of this article, email GlobalSpecEditors@globalspec.com

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