Climate change mitigation efforts contribute to hydrogen fuel cell market growth

18th February 2021 By: Donna Slater - Creamer Media Contributing Editor and Photographer

There is a growing market for hydrogen-fuelled, proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells, which rely on platinum catalysts, in the transportation sector, especially zero-emissions powertrains in heavy-duty and fleet commercial vehicles, according to platinum investment stimulator the World Platinum Investment Council (WPIC).

In addition, the WPIC says other industries are also looking at ways to decarbonise their operations with PEM fuel cells, one such company being Microsoft, which has committed to being carbon neutral by 2030. As such, Microsoft is exploring the potential of using hydrogen fuel cells for back-up power generation at its data centres.

In a world first, Microsoft last year successfully trialled the use of hydrogen fuel cells in powering a row of data centre servers for 48 consecutive hours. The trial is seen as a precursor to the wider deployment of hydrogen fuel cells for standby power, replacing diesel generators as a way of overcoming the intermittent nature of electricity from renewable energy, or for use in parts of the world where the electricity grid is unreliable.

The WPIC notes that there is even potential for Microsoft to go a step further by developing ancillary electrolyser capacity for hydrogen storage, integrating its own generation capabilities with the wider hydrogen ecosystem.

The organisation states that reliable standby power is crucial to technology and telecommunications businesses, where continuous connectivity is paramount.

Historically, PEM fuel cells used to provide back-up power were fuelled using liquid methanol. However, when powered by “green hydrogen”, they can assist in meeting climate change goals, with water and heat being the fuel cell’s only by-products, the WPIC notes.

The council points out that PEM fuel cells offer other advantages too, such as being more effective than batteries for back-up power because they last longer and are more predictable. “Fuel cells can provide reliable back-up power for ten years or more with undiminished power quality and quantity, requiring little on-site maintenance.”

Able to withstand a wide range of temperatures and easily scalable, the WPIC says PEM fuel cells are well-suited for deployment in remote or unmanned locations, such as at mobile phone towers.

Further, there is also scope for PEM fuel cells to provide stationary power for construction projects. In the UK, the WPIC says, “a pioneering initiative” has seen the installation of a hydrogen fuel cell to provide off-grid power at National Grid’s Viking Link interconnector project in Lincolnshire. Off-grid power is needed until this site has a grid connection, with the fuel cell system providing enough heat and power for the construction village during that time, removing the need for diesel generators.

With regard to the deployment of stationary fuel cells to provide domestic power supply, solid oxide fuel cells tend to be the preferred technology, the WPIC reveals.

However, the organisation highlights that South Korea is leading the way in the development of large and modular hydrogen fuel cell power plants. In this instance, energy solutions company Hanwha Energy has completed its $212-million hydrogen fuel cell power plant, located at the Daesan Industrial Complex in Seosan.

In terms of growth this year, the WPIC notes that, according to Johnson Matthey, platinum-based stationary power applications will experience some growth in demand in 2021.

In the longer term, they have the potential to further support the build-out of an integrated hydrogen ecosystem.

As the number of applications for hydrogen grows, in heavy industry and in transportation, it supports the growth of green hydrogen electrolyser capacity and the wider adoption of fuel cell electric vehicles, states the WPIC.