The Present And Future Of Hydrogen Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles (Part 1)

Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell vehicle
The Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle will give you the range and convenience of a gasoline-powered car with zero emissions.

Mention zero-emission vehicles and most people think of battery electric cars. But there is another option: Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles – FCEVs – powered by hydrogen. Why don’t we see more of them on the road? What are the hurdles hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles need to overcome before we’ll be able to find them at a local dealership?

Hydrogen fuel cells have already proven to be a viable technology for a variety of applications. Large stationary fuel cells are providing both primary and backup power at some facilities for Apple, Google, Walmart, and others. Many telecommunications providers use fuel cells to power cell phone towers. When Hurricane Sandy struck the Northeastern U.S. in 2012, some hospitals, emergency shelters, and other buildings were able to keep the lights on and services operating because local utility companies had the foresight to install backup and standby power systems based on fuel cells. Increasingly, hydrogen fuel cells are powering forklifts and other material handling equipment for Walmart, IKEA, and Fed-EX. Some municipalities already operate fleets of fuel cell buses.

But what about automobiles? How long will it be before we have the option of buying a car powered by a hydrogen fuel cell?

In fact, some drivers are already behind the wheel of fuel cell electric cars. Hyundai has released a fuel cell-powered Tucson. Toyota will soon offer the Mirai, which it optimistically calls “the world’s first fuel cell vehicle for the mass market.” Honda has plans to release its fuel cell vehicle within the next year. Expect European and American manufacturers to follow suit.

However, in all cases, the initial release of these vehicles is – or will be – rather limited. Hyundai’s Tucson Fuel Cell, for example, is currently only available in certain zip codes of Southern California, and then only on lease with no option to buy. The average consumer isn’t likely to see one in their local showroom any time soon. But they are coming.

The fuel cell was invented way back in the early 19th century and auto manufacturers have been tinkering with them since the 1960s. So why the delay in getting hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles on the road? It can not be because the technology doesn’t make sense in an automotive context.

Fuel Cell Basics

Fuel cells produce electricity through a chemical reaction. While there are many types of fuel cells, utilizing different components and even different fuels, they all consist primarily of four components:

  • Two electrodes, a negative anode and a positive cathode
  • An electrolyte that separates the two electrodes
  • A fuel that supplies the electrons and protons for the reaction
  • A catalyst that drives the reaction

The type most commonly used in vehicles – PEM fuel cells – use a proton exchange membrane or a polymer electrolyte membrane as the electrolyte and hydrogen as the fuel. In this type of system, hydrogen, made of up 1 proton and 1 electron, enters the cell and meets a catalyst, typically platinum, which splits the protons and electrons. The electrons travel through the anode to an external circuit, and back to the cell through the cathode. The protons, meanwhile, travel through the electrolyte – the proton exchange membrane – toward the cathode, where they meet another catalyst, such as nickel, and recombine with the electrons and with oxygen to form water vapor.

Since each cell produces only a slight current, many cells are combined into a fuel cell stack.

The process can be written as:

Hydrogen + Oxygen = Electricity + Heat + Water Vapor

In fuel cell vehicles, the hydrogen would come from compressed tanks, while the oxygen is taken from the air. The result is a clean, quiet, and efficient production of electricity.

Consider the growing popularity of battery-powered electric cars. According to Germany’s Centre for Solar Energy and Hydrogen Research (ZSW), there were 320,000 new registrations of electric cars globally in 2014, bringing the total to more than 740,000 electric cars on the road this year. By far, the vast majority of these are battery-powered. In contrast, a report by Navigant Research predicts that fewer than 60,000 fuel cell electric vehicles will be sold worldwide in 2015. Clearly, hydrogen-powered vehicles have some catching up to do.

Yet, while battery-powered electric cars satisfy the zero-emission criteria, they still suffer from limited range – typically less than 100 miles – and long recharge times – 30 minutes or more with the fastest level 3 chargers. Here, fuel cell electric vehicles have a clear advantage. Morry Markowitz, President of the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association in the U.S., comments, “Fuel cell electric vehicles have great potential. They’re the only zero-emission vehicle available right now and for the foreseeable future that totally replicates the current driver’s experience of being able to drive 300 to 400 miles on a tank and then refuel in 3 to 5 minutes.”

Admittedly, several factors put hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles behind the alternatives – conventional gasoline powered cars and battery electric cars. But are those factors genuine obstacles? And if they are, how can they be overcome?

The Hydrogen Fear Factor

One obstacle for many is the hydrogen fear factor, the belief that hydrogen as a fuel is inherently dangerous. Part of this likely stems from the Hindenburg disaster of 1937. Although most drivers today don’t remember the incident directly, it still casts a pall over the hydrogen fuel industry, much as the sinking of the Titanic does over the cruise industry.

While attempting to dock in New Jersey after an uneventful trans-Atlantic flight, the 2-year-old hydrogen-filled German airship burst into flames and collapsed to the ground, killing 36 people. Theories as to what caused the accident are still being debated, but the shocking headlines made many people wary of hydrogen’s use in consumer products. A number of similar passenger airships were in operation at the time, built in Germany, the UK, the US, and France. Unfortunately, several of those also met an untimely end when their hydrogen ignited.

So, perhaps hydrogen wasn’t the best choice of fuel for an airship, but should that limit its use in autos? Not according to Markowitz. “I would say that the vehicles will be as safe or safer than current gasoline powered vehicles,” he says. There are at least two factors contributing to this safety.

“The robustness of the tanks are incredible today,” explains Markowitz. “That’s thanks to new materials such as carbon fiber and other engineering techniques. In addition to that, hydrogen does not pool like gasoline, but in fact dissipates in the air because it’s lighter than air.”

Aren’t compressed hydrogen tanks likely to explode in the event of a collision? “Actually, I would not even take odds that the tank would rupture as a possibility,” Markowitz states. “It could be very, very slight, but if that’s the case, the hydrogen itself would dissipate. But the tanks are being built to such high tolerances that you’d be surprised at the tests they’re going through.”

The tests Markowitz mentioned include standard automobile collision tests, as well as extreme stress tests such as burning the compressed hydrogen tanks in bonfires, dropping them from heights, crushing them, and shooting them with rifles.

Solution: Education. Consumers need to be shown that they can entrust their family’s safety to hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles.

Part 2   |   Part 3

Jules Smith is the principal of LightningStrike Studios, a professional communications firm specializing in renewable energy and information technology.