Fuel Cell Cars: Overview

Hydrogen fuel cell cars are electric cars. (Or are they?)

There's an electric motor, controller, all the usual electric car bits and bobs under the hood, plus a battery pack...

...and a fuel cell.


The electric motor moves the car, not much different than a LEAF or Kia Soul EV. At low speeds, the battery is powering the motor, exactly like the battery electric cars we know and love; then at cruising speed the fuel cell takes over and powers both the wheels and recharges the battery. Toyota uses their hybrid synergy drive system to manage this in their Mirai, and by all accounts they do it really well.

The biggest advantage of fuel cell cars over battery electric cars is the range: 300 miles on a fill-up. Another big advantage is that you can “recharge” your hydrogen tank in the same amount of time it takes to fill up a car with gas – five minutes or so.

If you've grown up on gas-guzzlers, you won't have to learn anything new to drive a fuel cell car.

How does this fuel cell thing work?

Well, nothing's burning. Compressed hydrogen (H2) from your FCV's tank is oxidized in the car's fuel cell stacks so that the individual hydrogen ions pop free...

...and are captured to deliver the charge to the motor (or to the battery, which delivers the charge to the motor) which moves your wheels.

Charge? Like a battery?

Yes. It's the same principle. Both take advantage of hydrogen ions (H+) chemical properties in order to power your car's electric motor. With a fuel cell car, the charge is restored by filling the tanks with compressed hydrogen from a filling station; with a battery, the charge is restored by plugging in and applying electricity.

So Lynne, if they're electric cars, and we like electric cars, why are smart people calling them Fool Cells?

Yeah, not gonna lie...there are some problems.

Elon Musk on Hydrogen Fuel Cells


Problems with Fuel Cell Cars

These are not insurmountable obstacles, in my view. Just some issues for us as citizens to be aware of, and challenges for scientists and politicians to solve.

In short:

  • The Hindenburg factor. (That's what I call it, anyway...) Hydrogen and oxygen having a tendency to get into trouble together if they can, making hydrogen a safety challenge;
  • The Houdini factor. Hydrogen gas is difficult to contain and notorious for escaping from where we want it to be, and getting into where we don't want it to be, making it an inherent challenge to transport and store;
  • Infrastructure. Our current lack of hydrogen infrastructure in the United States (there are less than 50 hydrogen stations in this country, most of them in California), with new hydrogen stations costing $6M each (pdf);
  • Methane. I thought we were trying to get away from dependence on fossil fuels? But at present, hydrogen is most cheaply produced from methane (natural gas), which comes with its own set of problems... Natural gas is transported in pipelines, and they leak. When they leak, the methane goes into the atmosphere and is an even more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2; New pipelines have to be built to transport the natural gas, and they are being built on land that belongs to indigenous tribes that do not want to host the pipeline; Hydrogen produced at the reforming plant from methane also produces, as a side product, CO2, which has to go somewhere; As long as hydrogen is most cheaply produced from methane, fuel cell cars only increase the demand for natural gas by creating a market that didn't previously exist;
  • Platinum. Fuel cell cars require 30-60 grams of platinum each, which comes mainly from South Africa and is similar to gold mining in terms of social and environmental costs;
  • Diversion. R&D dollars are being spent on fuel cell research that some have argued might be better spent on battery research instead; and
  • Cost. Hydrogen fuel is still pretty expensive! More expensive per gallon equivalent than gasoline and diesel, in fact. Who's gonna want to do that?

I could go on...and I did.

Are There Any Advantages to Fuel Cell Cars?

Yes, because fuel cell cars are electric cars. An electric motor moves the car, with all that implies. (Remember your first EV grin? Yeah, me too. It doesn't even take a Tesla to put that smile on your face. What, never had an EV grin?? Come to a National Drive Electric Week event and get yours on.)

Electric cars are very persuasive sellers of electric transportation. Tesla doesn't even need to advertise.

Heck, I didn't even want to try an electric car the first time I got my EV grin. The motor pool was out of other options one day, and the front desk guy handed me the keys and said, “most people don't want to drive anything else after they drive it.” Plus, the wait for my usual Ford Focus was maybe hours.

In other words, I was forced by circumstances to try an electric car the first time; but it was just like the motor pool guy said. After that day I didn't want to drive anything else.

Maybe I'm not the only one? : )


Another plus is that fuel cell cars have a familiar routine - you don't have to learn anything new to drive them.

Familiarity

  • Drive the same distance as your regular gas-guzzler.
  • Fill up at a hydrogen station in the same time as a gas station.
  • Turn around and drive another 300 miles if needed.
  • Enjoy all the fun (mostly) and quiet (mostly) of a battery electric. (Fuel cells are a little noisier and a little more Prius-y in their acceleration.)

Then: discover that electric drive is awesome.

(Then: choose a car that you can refuel overnight in your garage next time, with free juice from your solar panels.)

In the meantime, are you doing better for the environment with a fuel cell car than with a gas-guzzler or diesel?

Yes, absolutely.

Even on its worst day, emissions-wise (“worst day” meaning all the hydrogen is being made from methane at a plant somewhere), a hydrogen fuel cell car emits NO tailpipe soot or carbon dioxide. That means driving through the city will make life better for your fellow humans and animals.

Consider the carbon savings alone:

Carbon Emission Savings

  • A gas guzzler, according to the EPA, emits about 410 grams of CO2 per mile. A diesel car emits about 15% more CO2 per mile, plus smog-creating soot.
  • How about one of those battery electric cars, Lynne? 67 to 175 grams of CO2 per mile, well to wheels (manufacturing and electricity generation). Clearly this is even MORE of an improvement!

The bottom line for me? I don't hate fuel cell cars, and I can't quite agree that they are nothing but a scam cooked up by the oil producers to keep you hooked (though that might be a factor). I think fuel cell cars have a role to play if the world's countries are going to meet their carbon emission targets.

But: I also think we can do better than fuel cell cars, most of the time, by driving a battery electric car - and that's certainly my choice; but I also recognize that not everybody is me (I'm already a LEAF girl!), not everywhere is here (I live in urban Oregon), and not everything is simple.