Batteries and Fuel Cells: Understanding differences and opportunities

Batteries & Fuel Cells

Energy systems across the globe are undergoing a fundamental transformation. As we continue to decrease dependence on fossil fuels, the world is demanding more diverse power solutions for our transportation needs. 

Cummins is proud to be at the forefront of this transportation evolution, working with freight and bus manufacturers and operators to design and deliver scalable, zero-emission electric transportation using both cutting edge battery and hydrogen fuel cell technologies. These technologies are well-positioned to make a real change in the transportation market, but the interplay between batteries and fuel cells is often misunderstood. Read on to learn how batteries and fuel cells are better together. 

INTEGRATION FOR BETTER POWER

Although fuel cell systems and batteries are seen by some as competing technologies, they actually work together to bring more options to the transportation and power landscape. 

At this point, battery electric vehicles are a technology that many of us know and love. From electric package delivery vans to all-electric excavators, there are already a number of fully electric powertrain applications that are growing in popularity.  

Although fuel cell systems and batteries are seen by some as competing technologies, they actually work together to bring more options to the transportation and power landscape.

Fuel cell power systems are designed to enhance and build upon the battery and electric drive platforms that continue to grow in prominence across the globe. While each system has its own advantages, combining the emerging technologies of batteries and fuel cell can help us reduce overall carbon and increase adoption of sustainable power without compromising performance. 

Fuel cell systems enhance the performance of batteries, allowing them to address distance and refueling time issues that have prohibited the adoption of battery electric vehicles for some applications. No matter how the engine and power source is configured, the battery system is and will always remain an essential piece of an electrified power solution. To this end, batteries will not be replaced by fuel cells — just enhanced by them. 

Drawing from over 100 years of experience in innovating powertrains, Cummins recognizes that diverse transportation markets need diverse solutions. To help foster the transition to cleaner power, Cummins is proud to provide a variety of diverse alternative power solutions. 

When considering which system is right for our customers, Cummins carefully considers range, weight, downtime, performance requirements, customer economics, and related infrastructure to provide the best options for the market — whether it’s fuel cell, battery electric or a more traditional form of power, we draw from our experience and expertise to work with customers and understand their needs. 


Fuel Cells & Electrified Power Infographic

STRENGTH IN DIFFERENTIATION

Comparing a battery and a fuel cell may be confusing as both can be used as sources of power, but in different ways. In battery electric vehicles, batteries store and deliver energy to the powertrain. A fuel cell electric vehicle generates electricity using hydrogen as fuel, and also delivers energy to the powertrain. The fuel cell can also charge the battery. The hydrogen itself acts as an energy carrier and storage device, much like a battery. However, most fuel cells configurations have limited ability to manage the powertrain energy demand in a dynamic fashion like batteries can. It’s the battery system that provides the quick response required to match the load demand from the powertrain.  

Fuel cells still provide a necessary enhancement to improve many of the performance and operational gaps we see in battery electric vehicles. Also, fuel cells have the potential to better utilize renewable energy on a large scale and increase the adoption of sustainable power sources faster. 

APPLICATION, PERFORMANCE AND OPERATION

In application, the largest difference between electric fuel cell and battery technology is found in their suitability for medium to heavy duty transport. When it comes to battery electric vehicles, maximum allowable axle weights constrain the number of battery packs that can be installed before compromising road weight limits and payload capacity. That’s why Cummins is continuously working to make our battery electric powertrain lighter and more efficient. 

Long distances and heavy payloads require larger and heavier batteries, and larger and heavier batteries lead to diminishing performance and efficiency. In some cases, operational requirements and patterns can be effectively served by battery electric vehicles before they hit the level of diminishing efficiency, where routes and payloads are not limiting factors — such as package delivery vehicles with shorter city routes and frequent stops. 

Ultimately, it’s not a matter of which technology is better — but rather which is more suitable to a customer’s conditions and needs.Fuel cell electric vehicles, on the other hand, can travel farther and carry more weight than their battery electric counterparts, making them more suitable for longer hauls and heavier loads. Fuel cell electric vehicles have a much higher energy density by weight, allowing them to overcome the range and weight challenges associated with battery electric vehicles. Hydrogen tanks are also more compact and lighter than an array of fully charged batteries. Plus, adding more hydrogen tanks typically costs less than adding more batteries. 

Operationally, another consideration between the technologies is the impact on vehicle downtime and overall utilization. Fuel cell electric vehicles can be refueled within minutes. This results in significantly less downtime than other alternative power solutions, allowing fuel cell vehicles to be on the road just as much as conventional vehicles powered by an internal combustion engine. 

Battery electric vehicles tend to be more useful when they can be recharged easily and have utilization patterns that allow for recharging downtime, such as a daily route that begins and ends at the same place, along with a designated charging depot. 

The continued cost evolution of infrastructure will also play an important role in the selection of the right powertrain. High power charging solutions, such as megawatt level charging, have the potential to not only reduce the charging time from hours to minutes, but also reduce the amount of on-board battery storage needed to effectively carry out a mission. Real-time or dynamic inductive charging may also contribute to reducing the onboard battery storage requirements. Battery electric vehicles would then be able to recharge themselves while in operation.  

Additionally, continued growth in the availability and distribution of hydrogen will reduce the challenges associated with hydrogen fuel costs, as well as ensuring the long-term availability of Lithium and Platinum, critical elements in batteries and hydrogen fuel cells respectively. Recycling and developing second life opportunities of these systems is also essential. 

POWERING A MORE SUSTAINABLE WORLD

Ultimately, it’s not a matter of which technology is better — but rather which is more suitable to a customer’s conditions and needs. Battery electric solutions can effectively serve many transportation sectors. Where they fall short, fuel cells can help accommodate.  

Cummins provides both technology options, giving our customers the power of choice backed by a century of expertise in the transportation market. Our future of transportation will be electrified, and Cummins is leading that change with a diverse portfolio of options. 

Cummins Office Building

Cummins Inc.

Cummins is a global power leader that designs, manufactures, sells and services diesel and alternative fuel engines from 2.8 to 95 liters, diesel and alternative-fueled electrical generator sets from 2.5 to 3,500 kW, as well as related components and technology. Cummins serves its customers through its network of 600 company-owned and independent distributor facilities and more than 7,200 dealer locations in over 190 countries and territories.

Watch Now: How fuel cell electric vehicles are paving the road to zero

Cummins provides mobility solutions that allow customers to get from point A to Point B. But as the climate crisis continues and global companies pivot to adopt more sustainable practices, how do we help customers move people and things with minimum to zero air pollutants or greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions?

One solution is fuel cell electric vehicles.

Fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) use electricity to power an electric motor, similar to all-electric vehicles (EVs). The difference in FCEVs is that the electricity used to power the motor is produced using fuel cells powered by hydrogen. And unlike conventional internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles, FCEVs produce no harmful tailpipe emissions.

The key to FCEV success is hydrogen. When hydrogen is generated using renewable resources, such as solar and wind, it becomes a green energy source that can be used without the direct emissions of air pollutants.

Watch below to learn more about how Cummins fuel cell electric vehicles provide clean, zero-emissions transportation, from well to wheel.

Hydrogen plays an important role in Cummins’ mission to decarbonize the global economy. We continue to invest in the advancement of hydrogen and fuel cell technologies and infrastructure to ensure the production of hydrogen becomes more affordable and globally available.

With Cummins-powered FCEVs already on the road, we are well on our way toward Destination Zero.

Cummins Office Building

Cummins Inc.

Cummins is a global power leader that designs, manufactures, sells and services diesel and alternative fuel engines from 2.8 to 95 liters, diesel and alternative-fueled electrical generator sets from 2.5 to 3,500 kW, as well as related components and technology. Cummins serves its customers through its network of 600 company-owned and independent distributor facilities and more than 7,200 dealer locations in over 190 countries and territories.

Cummins New Power President emphasizes decarbonizing now at The New York Times Climate Hub

Cummins New Power President emphasizes decarbonizing now at The New York Times Climate Hub

Amy Davis, Vice President and President of New Power, painted a picture of a decarbonized transportation sector with the help of both battery electric and hydrogen-powered solutions at The New York Times Climate Hub in Glasgow, Scotland, earlier this month. And while the debate between various low- and zero-carbon solutions continues around the world, she urged governments and corporations to start doing something now – because the carbon you put out today, tomorrow and next week cannot be taken back.

Cummins is over 100 years old, and we’ve been powering all kinds of commercial applications. One of the things we know is that [transportation] is very diverse, and we believe it’s not going to take just one solution [to decarbonize it].” – Amy Davis, President of New Power

In parallel with the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP26, the Climate Hub hosted its program The Forum.  Over nine days, people across the globe tuned in to 45 live discussions, debates and workshops that addressed the mounting threat of climate change and what actions can be taken to stop it. 

Davis’ presence at The Forum was just one of numerous engagements and initiatives occurring in Glasgow that week. Cummins Chairman and CEO Tom Linebarger also attended COP26, meeting with governments, industry leaders and media to advocate for the shift from fossil fuels to low- and no-carbon solutions and demonstrating how Cummins will be part of the energy transition.

In the days leading to COP26 and The Forum, Cummins was accepted into two influential groups advocating for climate action

The consensus across conversations was that moving toward a carbon-free world is essential – but is it easier said than done? How do we make decarbonization happen? What does decarbonization even look like?

During the Transport and Mobility panel Time and Space: Moving People and Goods in a Carbon-Free World, Davis participated alongside Avinash Rugoobur, President of Arrival; Laura Lane, Chief Corporate Affairs Officer of UPS; and Peter Vanacker, President and CEO of Neste – all transportation and technology companies moving the industry toward a cleaner, greener future.

Watch the full discussion below as The New York Times climate reporter and panel moderator Brad Plumer opens the floor to Davis to discuss why Cummins is approaching decarbonization beyond just electrification, how infrastructure challenges have influenced hydrogen in mobility, and how transitionary periods lead to innovation in aftermarket solutions. 

Watch the full panel:

Cummins Office Building

Cummins Inc.

Cummins is a global power leader that designs, manufactures, sells and services diesel and alternative fuel engines from 2.8 to 95 liters, diesel and alternative-fueled electrical generator sets from 2.5 to 3,500 kW, as well as related components and technology. Cummins serves its customers through its network of 600 company-owned and independent distributor facilities and more than 7,200 dealer locations in over 190 countries and territories.

What is a fuel cell?

Fuel cells are a key technology to unlocking our carbon-neutral future

Fuel cells aren’t new. In fact, the first reference to hydrogen fuel cells appears in 1838 in the December issue of The London and Edinburgh Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science. Almost 200 years later, the world is recognizing fuel cells as a key technology to unlocking a carbon-neutral future.

Here is what they are, how they work and two fuel cell types that Cummins is investing in.

What is a fuel cell in simple terms?

Like batteries, fuel cells are energy converters – they use an electrochemical reaction to take the chemical energy stored in a fuel source and convert it to electricity. Unlike batteries, which contain a fixed supply of energy, fuel cells do not require recharging. As long as fuel is continuously supplied to the fuel cell, electricity, water and heat will be produced.

How does a fuel cell work?

A fuel cell is comprised of two electrodes and an electrolyte membrane. The electrodes are called a cathode and an anode, and they sandwich the electrolyte membrane between them. Within that system, a series of chemical reactions occur to separate the electrons from the fuel molecules to create energy.

The fuel, typically hydrogen, is fed into the anode on one side while oxygen is fed into the cathode on the other. At the anode, the hydrogen fuel molecules are separated into protons and electrons that will travel different paths toward the cathode. The electrons go through the electrical circuit, creating the flow of electricity. The protons travel through the electrolyte to the cathode. Once at the cathode, oxygen molecules react with the electrons and with the protons to create water molecules.

A fuel cell is a clean energy source with the only byproducts being electricity (power), heat and water. A single fuel cell alone only produces a few watts of power; therefore, several fuel cells can be stacked together to create a fuel cell stack. When combined in stacks, the fuel cells’ output can vary greatly, from just a few kilowatts of power to multi-megawatt installations.

What fuels can be used in fuel cells?

Fuel cells offer flexibility in the fuel type that can be used. While hydrogen is the most common fuel source for fuel cells (hence the common name, hydrogen fuel cells), hydrogen-rich fuels such as natural gas and ammonia are also viable fuel sources.

Hydrogen: When produced using renewable electricity – like solar, wind and hydropower – hydrogen is completely decarbonized and produces zero emissions. Hydrogen fuel cells (i.e. fuel cells that are fueled by hydrogen) produce power, heat and water and release no carbon dioxide or other pollutants into the air.

Natural gas: As widespread production of green hydrogen is still in progress, natural gas is currently the most-used fuel to power fuel cells. In this case the fuel cells are not completely emission-free, but they do offer significantly lower emissions than other fuels, like oil and coal.

Ammonia: Ammonia is most used in agriculture as fertilizer. However, in recent years, several companies have been working to develop green ammonia. Green ammonia is made with hydrogen that comes from water electrolysis powered by alternative energy, making it another option for a low-carbon fuel.

What types of fuel cells is Cummins investing in?

There are six types of fuel cells that are under development, each primarily classified by the kind of electrolyte they employ. Each type of fuel cell has its own advantages, limitations and potential applications. Out of the six, Cummins has recognized the potential in two types of fuel cells – proton exchange membrane fuel cells and solid oxide fuel cells - and has invested in the advancement of their technologies and their application.

Proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells: Also referred to as polymer electrolyte membrane fuel cells, this type of fuel cell uses a polymer electrolyte and operates at lower temperatures of around 80 degrees Celsius. PEM fuel cells are more suitable for mobile and back-up power applications due to their high-power density and quick start-stop capabilities.

Solid oxide fuel cells (SOFCs): SOFCs use a hard, non-porous ceramic compound as their electrolyte and operate at high temperatures, as high as 1,000 degrees Celsius.  This type of fuel cell is most suitable for stationary applications because it is highly efficient and fuel flexible. In addition, waste heat may be harnessed and reused to increase the overall system efficiency.

Why invest in fuel cells?

Already leaders in PEM electrolyzers that produce green hydrogen through electrolysis, we are working on making green hydrogen more readily available for future use in fuel cells. Cummins was awarded a U.S. Department of Energy grant for the advancement of SOFCs and have seen our fuel cells successfully support the operation of battery electric vehicles.

Fuel cells may predate the beginning of Cummins, but we are wasting no time discovering how to advance their technology to create a zero-emission future.

Cummins Office Building

Cummins Inc.

Cummins is a global power leader that designs, manufactures, sells and services diesel and alternative fuel engines from 2.8 to 95 liters, diesel and alternative-fueled electrical generator sets from 2.5 to 3,500 kW, as well as related components and technology. Cummins serves its customers through its network of 600 company-owned and independent distributor facilities and more than 7,200 dealer locations in over 190 countries and territories.

Video Case Study: Cummins HyLYZER® PEM electrolyzer in Bécancour, Quebec

The Cummins HyLYZER in Bécancour, Quebec, Canada, is the largest proton exchange membrane (PEM) electrolyzer in operation in the world. A new video case study highlights the installation’s ground-breaking green hydrogen production capabilities, making it a beacon for a zero-carbon future.

Watch below: 

Commissioned in January and installed at the Air Liquide hydrogen production facility in Quebec, this 20-MW electrolyzer system features industry-leading technology, including four compact, pressurized HyLYZER electrolyzer skids fitted inside the existing building. The systems are modular and scalable, perfect for large-scale utility applications.

Through a phased ramp up, the Cummins HyLYZER system is now at full operation and can produce up to 8.2 tons of low-carbon hydrogen per day — or nearly 3,000 tons of hydrogen annually. It’s powered by the region’s electric grid, which is largely supplied by renewable hydro-electric power. This means the hydrogen produced at the plant is “green” and almost entirely carbon-free.

Through this green hydrogen production, the facility is preventing approximately 27,000 tons of CO2 emissions per year. This is equivalent to taking 10,000 fossil-fueled cars off the road.

Since its commissioning, the system in Bécancour has increased Air Liquide’s hydrogen production capacity by 50%, allowing them to respond to the growing demand for low-carbon fuel in the North American market for both industrial and mobility purposes.

Cummins Office Building

Cummins Inc.

Cummins is a global power leader that designs, manufactures, sells and services diesel and alternative fuel engines from 2.8 to 95 liters, diesel and alternative-fueled electrical generator sets from 2.5 to 3,500 kW, as well as related components and technology. Cummins serves its customers through its network of 600 company-owned and independent distributor facilities and more than 7,200 dealer locations in over 190 countries and territories.

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