Over the past decade, the automobile industry has seen a massive shift from internal combustion engines to alternative methods such as battery-powered vehicles. As the world searches for answers to mitigate the climate crisis, one solution has the potential to completely reshape sustainable transportation—hydrogen-electric cars. Although still in its early stages, hydrogen-electric vehicles, also known as fuel-cell electric vehicles (FCEVs), offer possibilities that even the recently popular battery electric cars cannot provide for a greener future. While the market is experiencing a shift to battery-powered vehicles, carbon emissions from the production of these batteries are still a major concern as the industry attempts to lessen air pollution. This is where the truly zero-emission FCEVs come into the picture.
Hydrogen-Electric Vehicles: What Are They And How Do They Work
Birdseye view of the Toyota Mirai’s Fuel Cell Engine.
Hydrogen-electric cars, also referred to as Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles (FCEVs), are an exciting advancement in automotive technology. Similar to battery electric vehicles (BEVs), they use an electric motor. However, instead of storing the electricity in a large battery pack, the charge is generated onboard via a chemical reaction. The reaction takes place in what is known as a fuel cell. Using hydrogen as its main fuel source, the fuel cell is able to power the vehicle’s electric motor and all the other necessary electrical systems. The only by-products of this chemical process are heat and water, perfect for reducing carbon emissions. But, how exactly do they work?
Similar to fossil fuel engines, compressed gas (in this case hydrogen) is fed into the onboard fuel stack, but rather than burning the gas, it transforms the energy made from the chemical reaction into electrical energy. This is able to charge the electric battery on board which in turn powers the car. The design of the fuel cell is similar to that of a battery containing both an anode and a cathode. The hydrogen enters the anode, whereas oxygen gathered from outside air enters on the opposite end of the cathode side. At the anode, a catalyst promotes the separation of the hydrogen molecules into protons and electrons. While the protons pass through the electrolyte membrane, the electrons are taken along a longer route and pushed through an external circuit. Due to this separation, an electrical current is created and used to power all the vehicle’s necessary functions. Once completed, the electrons rejoin the protons and oxygen on the cathode side and combine to form water, the only by-product emitted besides heat in FCEVs.
A Look At Hydrogen Fuel Cells In The Automotive Industry
Front 3/4 shot of the 2023 Toyota Mirai powered by hydrogen fuel.
Despite popular belief, the concept of using hydrogen fuel in automobiles has actually been around for quite some time. Hydrogen fuel cells were first invented in the early 19th century, and Swiss inventor Francois Isaac de Rivaz created the first vehicle to be powered by hydrogen and oxygen back in 1807. However, it never gained much traction until the late ’60s and ’70s during the oil crisis. Many companies began to invest much of their time and money into clean, renewable sources of energy to power their vehicles. General Motor Company was the first to implement a fuel cell in a modern-day road vehicle. In 1966, GMC unveiled the Chevrolet Electrovan powered solely by hydrogen and air, which had a range of 120 miles and a top speed of 70 mph. Unfortunately, only one was built, and the project was terminated due to expenses. This early prototype fueled a technological revolution in many countries around the world. In 2003, U.S. President George Bush proposed the Hydrogen Fuel Initiative (HFI) leading to further developments in fuel cell and infrastructure technology.
With new research, fuel cell costs had fallen by 80-percent since 2002 due to advancements in hydrogen technology. This led to major car companies like Honda, Hyundai, and Toyota releasing commercially produced hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. As of 2023, 56,000 FCEVs are out on the open road in three different models. The first generation Toyota Mirai, released in 2014, was one of the global forerunners in commercial FCEVs on the market. Its latest 2023 model starts at $49,500 and has a range of up to 402 miles. The Honda Clarity was also unveiled shortly after Toyota’s back in 2016 and offered a range of about 360 miles, similar to current conventional gasoline vehicles. South Korea’s government made a commitment to a “Hydrogen Economy” during this rise in hydrogen technology and pledged to have around 1 million FCEVs on its roads by 2030. The South Korean automaker company Hyundai has led the way with this commitment by launching the Hyundai Nexo back in 2018. With a range of 380 miles, the Nexo comes with advanced features like lane assist and adaptive cruise control in its newer models.
Hurdles Hydrogen-Electric Vehicles Face
Front 3/4 shot of the 2016 Toyota Mirai Fuel Cell Sedan.
Although Hydrogen-Electric cars offer possibilities for a more sustainable future, there are many obstacles that need to be overcome if FCEVs want to be practical in today’s world. The lack of hydrogen refueling stations is among the most prominent issues with less than 60 stations in the United States alone. Concentrated mostly in metropolitan regions in California, building fueling infrastructures across the country can be a daunting task. Consumers have already seen the significant time and investment necessary for current electric charging stations to be built across the country to adhere to the growing demands of BEVs. If FCEVs are going to be adopted by the mass public, the same steps will be necessary for hydrogen stations which could take years. On the other hand, hydrogen is a complicated substance to store and transport.
While it is technically the most abundant element on Earth, it is rarely found alone and needs to be extracted from various compounds. Separation processes can often negate the environmental benefits of FCEVs as a large amount of energy is usually required for the procedure. Once separated, hydrogen requires special containment to store and transport from one place to another. Due to its high reactivity and small molecular size, the cost of handling hydrogen can be quite expensive as it needs to be compressed or liquefied. Since it is very reactive, hydrogen’s highly flammable characteristics make it very dangerous to handle at refueling sites and when stored in vehicles. Improvements need to be made in fuel cell technology in order to ease public concerns about safety and accessibility for everyone. Lastly, the initial high costs of hydrogen-electric vehicles and infrastructure alone turn most consumers away from FCEVs. Due to the expensive material used in fuel cells and the complexity associated with its production and distribution, continued developments will be necessary to reduce the higher up-front costs compared to traditional vehicles.
The Future Of Fuel-Cell Electric Vehicles
Hydrogen-electric vehicles have the potential to be the only solution to truly zero-emission modes of transportation. With similar refueling times and driving ranges to traditional ICE vehicles, the transition to an FCEV could not be easier. Even with the massive shift to battery-powered cars, the carbon footprint from charging and powering these vehicles is still detrimental to the environment and can only be reversed with a different approach. While advancements in fuel cell technology are still necessary, hydrogen-powered engines provide new opportunities not only in the automotive industry but with all forms of transportation. Hydrogen-electric fuel cells have the potential to revolutionize the aviation, maritime, and trucking industry leading to a more eco-friendly future. Companies like Toyota and Honda are leading the charge for the future of transportation, and it is very likely the rest of the automotive world will follow in the foreseeable future.