July 15, 2015

Are fuel cells environmentally friendly? Not always!

Fuel crucial for life cycle assessment   

(July 15,  2015)  Fuel cells are regarded as the technology of the future for both cars and household heating systems. As a result, they have a key role to play in the switch to renewable energies. But are fuel cells always more environmentally friendly? An international team of scientists headed by Empa performed a series of calculations and reached a conclusion: It depends on the fuel. 

Two fuel-cell cars have been on the market since 2015: the Hyundai ix 35 fuel cell (above) and the Toyota Mirai (below). A study conducted at Empa concludes that these cars will only become more environmentally friendly than today’s models in the future, once there is hydrogen from renewable sources. Image: hyundai.presscorner.ch

In the future, we might be driving fuel-cell cars that burn solar-generated hydrogen. This would make the “zero emissions car” a reality. At the same time, small combined heat and power units – also based on fuel cell technology – could be placed in our cellars at home. They convert natural gas and biogas into electricity while generating heat as an added “bonus” to warm the building. 
Although this is technically possible, does it also make sense for the environment? Empa researcher Dominic Notter teamed up with colleagues from Greece and Brazil to analyze the life cycle assessments for the use of fuel cells: From their production, throughout their entire service life, all the way to their eventual recycling.

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