Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles: Strong Points & Criticism

There has been a lot of heated debate on the topic of fuel cell cars vs. electric cars, and many people are wondering which will be the one to drive us into the future. A while ago Toyota made a bold announcement: they are close to unveiling their new hydrogen fuel cell car, the “ultimate environmentally friendly car”, they say. But are our streets ready to embrace this type of technology?

After a rough start, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are finally starting to make a comeback, but they are facing stern opposition.  According to entrepreneur Tony Seba, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles could never compete with electric vehicles.

Toyota Mirai Fuel Cell Vehicle

“The hydrogen economy would be a massively wasteful economy that would at best use three to six times more energy than an electric vehicle and solar/wind infrastructure and many times more water than even gasoline uses.” Source: EnergyPost

To better understand the concept of fuel cell technology, and formulate an educated opinion, we would like to take a closer look at its strong points and drawbacks. But before we do, here is some basic information.

What is a Full Cell (Electric) Vehicle?

An FCV or FCEV uses fuel cell to power its on-board electric motor. In order to produce electricity for the motor, the zero-emission fuel cell vehicle will use compressed hydrogen or oxygen from the air. At present, fuel cells are being developed for personal vehicles, motorcycles, bicycles, and buses. Nevertheless, the hydrogen infrastructure is very limited – in 2014, only 10 hydrogen fueling stations were available in the United States and critics believe that fuel cell technology will never catch up to other sustainable technologies.

How does a Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle Work?

How fuel cell vehicles work

All fuel cell electric vehicles are powered by hydrogen. Unlike conventional vehicles, which run on diesel or gasoline, fuel cell cars combine oxygen and hydrogen to generate electricity. Because they are powered by electricity, they are considered EVs, but their refueling process is similar to that of conventional cars and trucks.

The biggest selling point of fuel cell cars is the fact that they are environmentally friendly. Converting hydrogen gas to electricity only produces heat and water as byproducts, even for the dirtiest hydrogen. According to a recent study, early fuel cell cars and trucks could cut emissions by 30%.

Despite the fact that there are various types of hydrogen fuel cell technology, the most common one used in the automotive industry is the Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) type. A PEM fuel cell consists of a very thin membrane with flow channels on both sides (one for air and one for hydrogen) that uses a catalyst – typically platinum- to strip hydrogen’s protons and generate electric current.

How Proton Exchange works in fuel cell vehicles

What you Should Know About Fuel Cell Vehicles

Fuel Cell vehicles combine the best of both worlds: the recreational benefits of driving on electricity and the comfortable refueling solutions of traditional cars. A fuel cell vehicle can be refilled simply by adding pressurized hydrogen at a station – this takes around 10 minutes. Here are some other facts and strong points you should be aware of:

  • Hydrogen is not an energy source. Many critics believe that hydrogen is an energy source, like natural gas, but it isn’t. Hydrogen is an energy carrier, and in order to extract its power, you must use primary energy sources like coal, uranium, natural gas, etc.
  • Electric Vehicles may be more efficient than Hydrogen cars, but the technology is still developing. As you can see from the chart below, electric vehicles are three to six times more energy efficient than fuel cell vehicles. However, the technology for the latter is still in infant stages, and it seems that it has more chances to evolve.
  • Fuel Cell Vehicles are comfortable and spacious. Because they do not require complicated architecture, these types of vehicles can comfortably fit four-to-five passengers and cargo.
  • The technology is already out there. As you are reading this article, hundreds of people are driving their fuel cell electric vehicles. Several auto makers are offering FCEVs for lease, and starting with 2015 they have been put on sale.

Hydrogen Car Performance

Fuel Cell Vehicle Critics

The critics of hydrogen fuel cell cars are quite vocal. Many auto-makers, like General Motors and Ford, have voiced their disapproval towards fuel-cell tech. And they have a point. The first problem with fuel cell technology is that hydrogen is difficult to produce, manage and store with current technology. In comparison, the technology used in other electric cars is more advanced, making them a worthy competitor to internal combustion.

Nevertheless, major vehicle manufacturers like Honda and Toyota have devoted millions of dollars and innumerable hours perfecting the fuel cell vehicle. That’s because they believe that fuel cell detractors are misunderstanding the technology. According to Honda, the technology behind fuel cell vehicles is a lot simpler than that of electric cars that require electricity to be generated on-board. It’s actually brilliant, but it comes with a lot of problems.

Hydrogen may be widely spread in nature, but it is almost never found in pure state. In other words, the hydrogen that goes into the vehicle must be refined before it is pumped in the tank, and for this to happen, steam reformation of natural gas is required. This method defeats the purpose of moving away from fossil fuels.

Another method, hydrolysis of seawater, requires huge amounts of energy and time. Again, this defeats the purpose of sustainable vehicles.

Most fuel cell vehicle critics believe that it is better to simply use an electric vehicle in the first place, instead of spending so much money and energy on hydrogen fuel cell technology.

There is hope!

In an attempt to quell disapproving voices, Steve Ellis, head of fuel cell vehicle marketing at Honda, declared that hydrogen wasn’t developed as an alternative to battery powered electric vehicles. It was developed as a complement. Right now, battery-powered cars, as innovative as they may be, are subject to the unbreakable cycle of energy density. If you’ve gotten mad because you ran out of battery on your smart-phone, imagine how it would feel to have your EV’s battery depleted in the middle of nowhere.

The longer the distance you have to drive, the bigger the battery you will need. The bigger the battery is, the bigger its demand. Steve Ellis believes that fuel cell vehicles can address this problem in the future.

Furthermore, this technology has a huge advantage: production of fuel cell vehicles is not as demanding as that of EVs, due to reduced need for battery capacity. EVs may be marketed as the most ‘environmentally friendly vehicles’, but the hidden, toxic, costs of production are very problematic (lithium refining and battery production has negative impacts on the environment).

These facts may not prove that hydrogen vehicles should replace EVs, but neither do they suggest that EVs are in any way the ultimate solution for the environmental problem. As things stand, fuel cell vehicles seem more adapt for long-distance transportation than electric vehicles. They also have a simpler architecture, making it possible for auto-makers to offer hydrogen capabilities alongside hybrid drive or pure battery electric vehicles.

The 2015 Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell Car

hyundai tucson

FCV technology has always seemed miles away because, besides the prototypes like Honda FCX or Honda Clarity, not many such vehicles were released to the public. The 2015 Hyunday Tucson changed this. The car’s two hydrogen tanks, which can be filled in less than 10 minutes, claim to provide a 265-mile range. This may not sound like a lot, but for every-day needs, the Tucson shows potential, and it is the first step closer to a reality that includes fuel cell vehicles.

The Toyota Mirai

In Japanese, the word “mirai” means “future”, and Toyota is confident that his new vehicle will represent the future of motoring. The car has a range of 300 miles and fuel included for the first three years of ownership, and while it is not as comfortable to refill as traditional cars, it is more than suitable for the busy streets of the city. The Toyota Mirai can reach 60 mph in 9.4 seconds, which is decent, but it’s no Tesla.

Wrapping Up…

It’s too early to take a side. As technology advances, fuel cell vehicles will find a place in the auto market. Because hydrogen cars are powered by small battery packs and electric motors, they have the biggest chances to receive improvements in the future. As a matter of fact, Ellis acknowledged that plug-in hybrid fuel cell cars may become a reality soon.

“The next generation Honda fuel-cell vehicle will offer a fuel cell that is not only a third smaller, but also 60 percent more powerful. This will translate to better efficiency and range.” 

We believe that, the main reason for such strong opposition to fuel cell vehicles, are the hydrogen car advocates themselves because they marketed this technology as the silver bullet that will solve the problem of pollution-free transportation. As long as manufacturers like Toyota and Honda continue to acknowledge the limitations of fuel cell technology, and work on ways to make it better, hydrogen vehicles have a place in the green future we dream of. The following decades will probably determine if the technology will succeed or not.

Image Sources: 1, 2, 3

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