Greenhouse Gas Implications of Extending the Service Life of PEM Fuel Cells for Automotive Applications: A Life Cycle Assessment


A larger adoption of hydrogen fuel-cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) is typically included in the strategies to decarbonize the transportation sector. This inclusion is supported by life-cycle assessments (LCAs), which show the potential greenhouse gas (GHG) emission benefit of replacing internal combustion engine vehicles with their fuel cell counterpart. However, the literature review performed in this study shows that the effects of durability and performance losses of fuel cells on the life-cycle environmental impact of the vehicle have rarely been assessed. Most of the LCAs assume a constant fuel consumption (ranging from 0.58 to 1.15 kgH2/100 km) for the vehicles throughout their service life, which ranges in the assessments from 120,000 to 225,000 km. In this study, the effect of performance losses on the life-cycle GHG emissions of the vehicles was assessed based on laboratory experiments. Losses have the effect of increasing the life-cycle GHG emissions of the vehicle up to 13%. Moreover, this study attempted for the first time to investigate via laboratory analyses the GHG implications of replacing the hydrophobic polymer for the gas diffusion medium (GDM) of fuel cells to increase their durability. LCA showed that when the service life of the vehicle was fixed at 150,000 km, the GHG emission savings of using an FC with lower performance losses (i.e., FC coated with fluorinated ethylene propylene (FEP) instead of polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE)) are negligible compared to the overall life-cycle impact of the vehicle. Both the GDM coating and the amount of hydrogen saved account for less than 2% of the GHG emissions arising during vehicle operation. On the other hand, when the service life of the vehicle depends on the operability of the fuel cell, the global warming potential per driven km of the FEP-based FCEV reduces by 7 to 32%. The range of results depends on several variables, such as the GHG emissions from hydrogen production and the initial fuel consumption of the vehicle. Higher GHG savings are expected from an FC vehicle with high consumption of hydrogen produced with fossil fuels. Based on the results, we recommend the inclusion of fuel-cell durability in future LCAs of FCEVs. We also advocate for more research on the real-life performance of fuel cells employing alternative materials.

Related subjects: Applications & Pathways
Countries: Italy ; Netherlands

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