Five Ways Construction Can Use Fuel Cell Technology

Fuel cells alone won't be enough to bring the industry to zero net emissions, but they provide a promising way forward. Fuel cell technology could turn the construction sector into a far greener industry.
By Emily Folk
October 28, 2020

The construction industry is notoriously carbon-intensive, but it doesn't have to be. As environmental concerns grow, it's increasingly crucial for companies to go green, and new technologies make that possible. One of the most promising of these technologies is hydrogen fuel cells.

Fuel cells generate electricity from a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen. If they use sustainably obtained hydrogen, then they're entirely carbon-free, emitting only electricity, heat and water as byproducts. As these technologies become more affordable and efficient, their uses grow.

Construction companies can use fuel cells to become more eco-friendly. Here are five potential use cases for the technology.

Zero-Emissions Generators

Construction sites use a considerable amount of energy to power lights, appliances and other electrical equipment. The industry standard has been to use diesel or gasoline generators to provide this electricity. If teams turned to fuel cell-powered generators instead, they could easily reduce their carbon footprint.

A major construction project in the United Kingdom adopted hydrogen generators in August in an attempt to go green.

The power source resides in a shipping container and can provide enough energy for the entire project. Portable solutions like this are readily available and won't disrupt regular work to use.

Hydrogen Vehicles

Most conversations about hydrogen power revolve around fuel cell-powered vehicles, which can also apply to construction. While most hydrogen vehicles today are for consumers, there have been developments in hydrogen-powered construction equipment. Most recently, Hyundai unveiled a mid-sized hydrogen forklift capable of lifting five tons.

Smaller fuel cell forklifts are already available for use, and more options will emerge in the future. With further advancement, construction companies could see fuel cell-powered excavators, cranes or bulldozers. Fuel cells can effectively power anything that uses a combustion engine.

Eco-Friendly Facilities

The same U.K. project that adopted hydrogen generators also implemented fuel cell cabins on the worksite. These facilities provide kitchens, toilets and changing rooms to workers. Running all of those features on fossil fuels would generate considerable amounts of emissions, but they're carbon-free with fuel cells.

Construction companies could use fuel cell technology to provide more facilities for workers. Since they wouldn't increase their carbon footprint, construction teams could more comfortably install more amenities like this. Employee morale—and productivity—would rise, but carbon emissions wouldn't.

Fuel Cell-Powered Buildings

The potential for fuel cells in construction doesn't stop at the building process itself, either. Firms could start constructing buildings that rely on hydrogen power, and there's already precedent for this. The UC Irvine Medical Center has drawn 30% of its energy from a fuel cell plant since 2016.

Roughly 90% of the electricity in the United States comes from thermoelectric power plants, most of which rely on fossil fuels. New energy sources are in dire need, and future construction projects can meet this demand. By building structures optimized for fuel cell energy, construction companies can pave the way for a green future.

Sustainable Construction Materials

Lastly, the construction industry could move toward sustainably produced materials with fuel cell technology. Right now, 70% of the world's steel comes from processes that use coal. Fuel cells could offer an alternative, powering electric furnaces to enable low-emissions smelting or recycling.

As fuel cell technology advances, it could power the factories that produce construction materials. Consequently, the construction industry's overall environmental impact would diminish.

Going Green With Fuel Cells

Fuel cells are still a relatively new technology, with plenty of room for advancement. These resources will inevitably become more versatile and reliable, leading to even more potential applications in construction. The more companies invest in fuel cells now, the sooner that could happen.

Fuel cells alone won't be enough to bring the industry to zero net emissions. They do, however, provide a promising way forward. Fuel cell technology could turn the construction sector in to a far greener industry.

by Emily Folk
Emily Folk covers topics in sustainability and green manufacturing. She is also the creator of Conservation Folks.

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