Fuel Cell Vehicles

The benefits and challenges of these zero-emission vehicles


Hydrogen fuel cell technology has been available for decades. The concept of a fuel cell was developed in England in the 1800s. However, the first workable fuels cells were not produced until the 1950s. Fuel cell technology is being used to power spacecraft, emergency power generators, cell phones, laptops and more. The technology has only been viewed as a viable alternative power source for vehicles over the past few years.

A number of vehicle manufacturers and component suppliers are pursuing hydrogen-powered fuel cell propulsion instead of a standard internal combustion engine alongside other alternative technologies. Among them are Daimler, General Motors, Honda, Hyundai, Nissan and Toyota.

KEY BENEFITS

One of the reasons for this interest is that fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) have a significant potential to reduce emissions from the transportation sector. Unlike gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles, they do not discharge any greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions during vehicle operation.

In a fuel cell, the chemical energy bound in the hydrogen is directly transformed into electrical energy. Power is generated onboard the vehicle through a chemical process using hydrogen fuel and oxygen in the air to yield electricity, heat and water.

What’s more, extracting hydrogen from fossil fuels creates only a tiny amount of pollution.

FCVs could reduce the nation’s petroleum dependence since hydrogen can be derived from domestic sources, such as natural gas, coal and biomass. That would make the U.S. economy less dependent on other countries and less vulnerable to oil price shocks from an increasingly volatile oil market.

Fuel cells are inherently efficient. Fuel cell drivetrains use about 40 to 60 percent of the energy available from hydrogen, compared to internal combustion engines which use only about 20 percent of the energy from gasoline, although this is expected to improve over the long term.

Similar to an electric vehicle (EV), an FCV has quick starts due to high torque from the electric motor and low operating noise.

NUMBER OF CHALLENGES

There are a number of challenges that must be overcome before fuel cell vehicles can be a successful, competitive alternative to traditionally powered vehicles. These challenges include:

Onboard hydrogen storage

Some FCVs can store enough hydrogen to travel as far as gasoline vehicles between fill-ups - about 300 miles - but this must be achievable across different vehicle makes and models, and without compromising customer expectations of space, performance, safety or cost.

FCVs are more energy efficient than conventional cars. Hydrogen contains three times more energy per weight than gasoline does.

However, hydrogen is a very light gas that contains only a third of the energy per volume gasoline does, making it difficult to store enough hydrogen to go as far as a gasoline vehicle on a full tank – at least within size, weight and cost constraints.

Getting hydrogen to consumers

There is currently no national system to deliver hydrogen from production facilities to filling stations like there is for diesel or gasoline. Nor can this extensive system be used to deliver hydrogen.

Consequently, a completely new distribution infrastructure for producing, transporting and dispensing hydrogen will be required to allow mass market penetration of FCVs.

Additionally, more development of low-cost and low-GHG hydrogen production methods will are needed.

Vehicle cost

FCVs are currently more expensive than conventional vehicles and hybrids. Manufacturers will need to bring down production costs, especially the costs of the fuel cells and hydrogen storage, to compete with conventional technologies.

Fuel cell durability and reliability

Fuel cell systems are not yet as durable or robust as internal combustion engines, especially in some temperature and humidity ranges.

Fuel cell durability in real-world environments is currently about half of what is needed for commercialization. Durability has increased substantially over the past few years from 29,000 miles to 75,000 miles, but experts believe a 150,000-mile expected lifetime is necessary for FCVs to compete with gasoline vehicles.

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