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Enabling Innovation in Electrification through Fuel Cells

Manikandan Ramani, Director of Chemical Engineering, Plug Power Inc.
Manikandan Ramani, Director of Chemical Engineering, Plug Power Inc.

Manikandan Ramani, Director of Chemical Engineering, Plug Power Inc.

As civilizations have evolved - so too have our energy needs. By applying the total per capita energy consumption per day (Kcals/day) metric, we can actually show how much human beings have consumed energy over the years. Primitive people needed only around 2,000 Kcals/day, just enough to hunt. To put that in perspective, that amount of energy is about what’s needed to light a 100 W bulb for a day. This usage grew to around 70,000 Kcals/day for the industrial generation - people were now using energy for machines, railroad, electricity, and such. Now the technological generation needs around 250,000 Kcals/day, as our use of tools now includes personal vehicles, computers, phones, the internet, etc. – a whopping 100x increase from our primitive selves. About 70% of this new energy demand can be attributed to industrial, mobility and data assimilation. It’s becoming increasingly clear that we cannot sustain this energy usage through fossil fuels alone, with peak scenarios showing both fuel exhaustion and global warming consequences. Instead, we must turn to emerging energy innovations, many coming from renewables, to ensure we can continue to power our future.  

  Approach to enabling innovation in electrification through fuel cells is to approach appropriate mobility applications through specific market traits 

The electrification of mobility is certainly part of the answer, but leaves us asking: What is the right approach in the electric mobility revolution? While there may not be an industry consensus on it just yet, both batteries and fuel cells occupy the space quite effectively. While we are at the forefront of converting mobility applications to electrification with fuel cells, it only makes sense economically when we solve our customers’ pain points - specifically when you start to think about assets in a shared economy, in a world where autonomy becomes rapidly available and accessible. In short, any application that demands heavy utilization of its assets is primed for fuel cell power.

Our approach to enabling innovation in electrification through fuel cells is to approach appropriate mobility applications through specific market traits, including.

1. Power Density: fuel cell energy density is four X times more than batteries. This allows easy scalability for users without the elimination of cargo space. For certain payloads, you can put twice the number of goods in a standard delivery van - that equates to delivering twice as many packages - data supports a 50-60% increase in payload versus battery electric vehicles. Additional range can be easily modularized with fuel cells due to negligible weight addition, the weight addition due to batteries is a significant factor. Battery chemistry advancements are progressing well, but there is a technical limitation of the amount of material needed this will always give the advantage to the fuel cells.

2. Asset Utilization: Applications like EV taxis, automated guided vehicles, or any fleet vehicles that demand the vehicle to be on the road working, benefit from the extended use case operators see from their fleet.

3. Fast Fueling/Simple Infrastructure: Batteries can take hours, even an entire night, to recharge. In comparison, fuel cell-powered vehicles see ten times faster fueling, and you get twice the range! Additionally, once you exceed ten vehicles in your fleet, fueling infrastructure becomes more cost competitive than putting in extensive battery charging stations to keep up with demand.

4. Range: An Battery EV could have a range of 250 miles at the expense of consuming 400 litres of space for battery and 30% of the payload, where as fuel cells can achieve 300 miles range at the expense of consuming only 100 litres of space and less than 5% of the payload. Fuel cells allow vehicles to run longer - it’s that simple. As long as there is hydrogen fuel in the tank, the vehicle will operate at full, continuous power. This is important for delivery vehicle applications. FedEx, for example, has seen a 166% increase in miles per delivery cycle over standard battery power alone. As the range needs increase and the payload increases for a delivery truck, the wells to wheel efficiency for a fuel cell starts to outmatch the battery solution. Despite battery in general could be 80% efficiency, it needs more energy per mile driven due to the extra weight, so several analysis has concluded that the fuel cells are more efficient than the battery in delivery truck applications.

Of course fuel cells alone, while more adaptable than batteries, have their own challenges. With this in mind, hybridization jumps out as a clear fit when you consider how successful the partnering of the power of batteries and the energy density of fuel cells can be. When it comes to the weight of the battery/fuel cell hybrid, terrific advancements have already been made to ensure they can be applied to even the smallest of vehicles and devices. Coupling the two together also solves the range issue as, depending on the tech it’s applied to, fuel cells can more than double a battery’s range. Additionally, as more companies look to standardize applications through modular architecture, fuel cells are an ideal plug and play solution.

Our growth in the last five years shows that the market for this technology is real and steady, this has helped set up supply chain and logistics that continually cut costs and carbon footprints for enterprise companies around the world. While we all still have a lot to learn around developing alternatives to replace current power sources, we believe that the amazing strides we’ve made with fuel cells in recent years is certainly a step in the right direction in the world of e-mobility.

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