Sustainable energy has been at the heart of modern innovations large and small, from efficient light bulbs in living rooms to solar panels powering buildings. One of the newest breakthroughs in energy technology can often be found zipping around the streets in front of the Department of Energy (DOE) in Washington, DC—a car powered by hydrogen fuel cells.
“Today’s energy sector is faced with the challenge to deliver resilience, security, availability and flexibility throughout multiple sectors in the economy while minimizing air quality impact,” said Sunita Satyapal, Director of the Fuel Cell Technologies Office (FCTO) in the DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. Hydrogen fuel cells are one of the solutions scientists have been exploring for the past four decades, including at the FCTO, which was formed in the mid-1970s during the first oil embargo.
A fuel cell is similar to a battery in that it produces energy from a chemical reaction, but it doesn’t need recharging. When you refuel a fuel cell car with hydrogen, it mixes with oxygen, and the chemical reaction generates power—all without the combustion reaction used by gasoline-powered cars.
This makes a hydrogen powered car much more efficient than a regular car. With combustion, most of the energy produced is burned off as heat. With hydrogen fuel cells, more than 60 percent of the energy goes into powering the car. So, you get more mileage out of a fuel cell car. The FCTO estimates that in today’s fuel cell car one kilogram of hydrogen (equivalent to one gallon of gasoline) gets you over 60 miles in driving. An added benefit of the hydrogen fuel cell is that it only emits heat and water vapor, making it a clean energy source, and the refueling process is similar to a traditional gasoline powered car.
There are still challenges to scaling-up this new technology, however.
“Even though we’ve seen a great deal of progress, fuel cell costs are still high, hydrogen tank cost is also high, and the manufacturing and supply chain is very limited,” Satyapal said. Right now, there is not a “robust, cost-competitive hydrogen refueling infrastructure,” to support fuel cell technology. As of October 2017 there are 31 publicly available hydrogen stations, located in the urban areas of California (though there is funding for more in the state, and plans to open new locations throughout the Northeast).
There are also currently only three hydrogen fuel cell vehicle models available for public purchase or lease—some which you can see parked by the DOE building, as part the FCTO’s research and development activities.
Those fuel cell cars—painted on the side with colorful logos touting clean emissions—are also a key part of the DOE FCTO’s goal of supporting this emerging technology. But even though progress has been achieved, there is more work to be done before hydrogen and fuel cell technology is widely available across multiple sectors.
“Part of the success of hydrogen and fuel cell technologies will depend on factors such as user confidence and societal awareness,” Satyapal notes, along with the cost of hydrogen and availability of stations.
In addition to informing the public about fuel cell technology, the FCTO is exploring ways to cut manufacturing costs, collaborating with national labs and private industries, and championing new and innovative hydrogen-fueled projects.
The breakthroughs in research and development supported by the FCTO can have other applications beyond passenger cars, too. Fuel cells and hydrogen are powering buses, trucks, forklifts, and buildings like the new World Trade Center. Other uses for this emerging technology include powering trains, ships, and even the lights at Super Bowl 50 in 2015.
These real-world applications and far-reaching impact are something that Satyapal is particularly excited about. She grew up the daughter of two scientists, who she calls her role-models and the number one reason she and her sisters pursued STEM careers. Growing up in New York City, something else left a lasting impression, too—a blackout which left her entire neighborhood dark, except a police station near Central Park. That police station, which still had its lights on, was powered by a fuel cell prototype. Now, hydrogen and fuel cells are Satyapal’s specialty, and she’s excited about the role that DOE can play in helping fuel technological innovation.
“Advancing technologies that can dramatically enable a more resilient, flexible and cleaner energy future for the nation is truly rewarding,” Satyapal said. “Working together and identifying synergies are two examples… we could also apply in addressing issues and overcoming barriers in other sectors or technologies.”
Learn more from the Department of Energy’s Fuel Cell Technologies Office at the 2017 Smithsonian Ingenuity Festival. On Thursday, November 30, you can see a hydrogen fuel car on display at our Museum building in Washington, DC. Follow the conversation online with #SmithsonianIngenuity.