life cycle assessment of PEM fuel cell
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09-10-2010, 01:36 PM

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A preliminary life cycle assessment of PEM fuel cell
powered automobiles

M.M. Hussain a, I. Dincer b,*, X. Li a
a Department of Mechanical Engineering, University of Waterloo, 200 University Ave West, Waterloo, Ont., Canada N2L 3G1
b Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Ontario, Institute of Technology, 2000 Simcoe Street North, Oshawa, Ont., Canada L1H 7L7


This paper provides a preliminary life cycle assessment (LCA) of polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) fuel cell powered automobile.
Life cycle of PEMfuel cell automobile not only includes operation of the vehicle on the road but also include production and distribution of
both the vehicle and the fuel (e.g. hydrogen) during the vehicle’s entire lifetime. Assessment is based on the published data available in the
literature. The two characteristics of the life cycle, which were assessed, are energy consumption and greenhouse gases (GHGs) emissions.
Greenhouse gases (GHGs) emissions considered in the present assessment areCO2 andCH4. In addition, conventional internal combustion
engine (ICE) automobile is also assessed based on similar characteristics for comparison with PEM fuel cell automobile. It is found that the
energy utilized to generate the hydrogen during fuel cycle for the PEM automobile is about 3.5 times higher than the energy utilized to
generate the gasoline during its fuel cycle. However, the overall life cycle energy consumption of PEM fuel cell automobile is about 2.3
times less than that of ICE automobile. Similarly, the GHGs emissions of PEMFC automobile are about 8.5 times higher than ICE automobile
during the fuel cycle, but the overall life cycle GHGs emissions are about 2.6 times lower than ICE automobile.


The growing concerns about urban air quality, regional acidification and climate change are the driving forces for cleaner and more efficient use of energy. The technology, which receives considerable attention, is the polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) fuel cell, a potential replacement for the conventional internal combustion engine (ICE) in transportation applications. PEM fuel cell powered automobiles using hydrogen have many advantages, such as energy efficient and environmentally benign operation, compatible with renewable energy sources and carriers for future energy security, economic growth and sustainable development. However, to validly assess the energy consumption and emissions from automobiles powered by PEM fuel cells, the methodology must consider the total system over its entire life cycle. The life cycle of an automobile technology must include all the steps required to produce the fuel, to manufacture the vehicle, and to operate and maintain the vehicle throughout its lifetime including disposal and recycling at the end of the lifetime. Assessing the future vehicle technologies such as PEM fuel cell automobiles over its entire life cycle is essential to obtain correct information on energy consumption and emissions during various life cycle stages, to determine competitive advantages over conventional technologies, and to develop future scenarios [1]. Numerous studies on life cycle assessment (LCA) of future technologies have been reported in the literature, mainly focusing on different stages of life cycle, various fueloptions and variable degree of details and impacts [2–14]. Raugei et al. performed a life cycle assessment of molten carbonate fuel cells (MCFC) plant and compared with the conventional natural gas turbine plants. Pehnt performed the life cycle assessment of PEM fuel cell stacks and concluded that the production of fuel cell stacks leads to environmental impacts which cannot be neglected compared to the utilization of the stacks in a vehicle. Weiss et al. [3] assessed the technologies for new passenger cars that will be developed and commercialized by the year 2020. It was reported that their quantitative results are subject to the uncertainties due to project and implimentationions into the future and those uncertainties are larger for rapidly developing technologies such as fuel cells and new batteries. In another assessment from Weiss et al. , it was concluded that hydrogen is the only promising fuel option for automobile systems with much lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions only if it is produced from non-fossil sources of primary energy (such as nuclear, wind or solar) or from fossil primary energy with carbon sequestration. Handley et al. studied the impact of end-of-life stage of PEM fuel cells under European Union vehicle waste directive. They concluded that, while opportunities for re-use of components are limited, all components of PEM fuel cell could be recycled. Recently, MacLean and Lave [7] examined the possibilities of a ‘greener’ car that would use less material and fuel, be less polluting, and would have a well managed end-of-life. They concluded that there are limited options to make vehicles much greener without giving up the attributes of consumer demand, and greener vehicles are likely to be more expensive over their lifetime. The objective of the present study is to conduct a life cycle assessment of PEM fuel cell automobile which includes not only operation of the vehicle on the road but also the manufacture and distribution of both the vehicle and the fuel during the vehicle’s entire lifetime and to compare it with the conventional gasoline internal combustion engine (ICE) powered automobile. The paper also aims to provide sufficient information on the economic and environmental benefits of PEM fuel cell powered automobiles to support further research to the use of PEM fuel cell powered automobiles as an energy and environmental alternative to ICE automobiles.

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