With battery electric vehicles gaining in popularity in recent years, there’s a question that keeps coming up: where are all of the hydrogen fuel cell cars? Fuel cells have long been promised as the ultimate clean energy to power pretty much … everything. Companies like Toyota, Hyundai, and Honda are all making them, but where are they? And with the popularity of cars like the Tesla Model 3, and even more BEVs on the way, are fuel cells even needed anymore?
Let’s kick things off by taking a quick look at what a fuel cell even is and how we got here.
The fuel cell was invented by Sir William Grove in 1839. He knew you could use electricity to split the hydrogen and oxygen in water, which is a process called electrolysis. His theory was that if you reverse that process you can generate electricity by recombining hydrogen and oxygen, which he proved 50 years later with something he called a gas voltaic battery.1 While he proved the theory, it wasn’t until later that we were able to do this is a more efficient manner.
In the years that followed, companies like Pratt & Whitney developed fuel cell power in the 1960’s for the Apollo lunar missions.2 Companies like Apple are using fuel cells from Bloom energy to generate power for parts of their campus and data centers.3
So how does it actually work? A hydrogen fuel cell is very similar in principle to a battery design. You have a positive and negative side to the fuel cell. The anode is the negative side, which conducts electrons that are freed from hydrogen molecules for use in an electrical circuit. It also disperses the hydrogen gas over the surface of a catalyst. The positive side is the cathode, which distributes oxygen to the surface of the catalyst.
The anode and cathode are separated by an electrolyte membrane, which looks a lot like plastic wrap, and only conducts positively charged ions through the surface. This blocks the freed electrons on the anode side from passing through directly to the cathode side. Instead the electrons follow an an alternate electrical circuit to power something like an electric motor. Once those electrons reach the other side, they’re recombined with the protons and oxygen on the catalyst, which produces water.4
So where are the cars?
Being able to generate electricity with water as the byproduct sounds good, doesn’t it? So where are the cars? Hyundai was the first car company to make a mass produced fuel cell car in 2013.5 And it was rated to have a range of about 300 miles with a top speed of 100 mph. Some of the other production cars are the Hyundai Tucson, Honda FCX Clarity, Toyota Mirai, and Hyundai Nexo.6 GM and Ford have also been experimenting with fuel cell vehicles, and BMW has said they’re looking at releasing a hydrogen-powered X5 sometime in the next few years.7 Even with that interest and investment from some car companies into fuel cell technology, they’re incredibly rare to see on the road … why?
Hydrogen is the most common element in the universe, but it has to be produced because it doesn’t exist naturally on earth.8 Today we have to use traditional power plants, like natural gas, to generate the electricity needed to produce the hydrogen, which somewhat blunts the benefits of fuel cells as clean energy. It’s still much cleaner than a gasoline powered car, but obviously not the ideal.
Then there’s the lack of infrastructure in place to distribute hydrogen for customers to fuel up their cars. In the U.S. today, you’re only real option is if you live in California. And even then it’s only 40 stations around Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area.9 Compare that to the 8,500 gas stations and 17,000 charging stations in the state.
Add to that the cost of ownership. The upfront sticker price of a battery electric vehicle is one of the things that’s still holding back EV adoption today, but the cost of ownership improves due to lower maintenance and charging costs. That’s not the case with fuel cell cars. Most of the cars usually start around $60,000 for the base model, like the 2019 Hyundai Nexo.10 Compare that to a Tesla Model 3, Hyundai Kona, or Chevy Bolt that all start under $40,000.
The cost to fill your Hydrogen tank in California will run you between $12.85 and $16 per kilogram. At the most common price of $13.99 per kilogram it’s the equivalent of $5.60 per gallon of gasoline, or about $0.21 per mile.11 A conventional gasoline car comes in around $0.13 per mile. Something like a Tesla Model 3 comes in around $0.06 per mile.
No matter how you look at a hydrogen fuel cell car today, it’s a losing proposition. More expensive upfront than both gasoline and battery electric. Extremely limited refueling stations compared to gasoline stations on every corner. EV charging stations are still getting built out, but there are thousands of them around. And while not as fast, you can technically charge a battery electric vehicle anywhere you can find an accessible outlet.
Is there a future for fuel cells?
Even with all of those negatives around fuel cells today, there is a reason to be excited about the future of fuel cell technology. While it’s not looking to take over smaller passenger sized vehicles anytime soon, there’s a strong case to be made that fuel cells will take over larger form transportation like trucks, busses, ships, and planes.
Royal Caribbean has been testing fuel cell technology in its ships, and recently ordered it’s third Icon Class ship for delivery in 2025.12 These ships will be using hydrogen fuel cell power systems from Ballard, the same company providing power generators for Apple’s data centers.
Cities around the world are already buying fuel cell buses. Holland just ordered 20 busses from a Belgian company, along with an order of a hydrogen fuel station.13 In Scotland, the city of Aberdeen is buying 15 more fuel cell buses.14 And Tokyo is deploying 100 fuel cell buses for the 2020 Olympics.15
And we’re starting to see fuel cell planes taking shape too. Battery powered planes are a big challenge because of the battery weight required to get the plane off the ground. Hydrogen fuel cells have also had a challenge with flight because hydrogen’s energy density is four times lower by volume than traditional fossil fuels, which means the tanks are very large.
There have been recent advancements around fuel cells and electric motors that have given some startups what they need to achieve flight. They’re using techniques to cool the hydrogen into its denser liquid form at high pressure. This reduces the volume by about three times, but introduces new challenges around safely storing the fuel.
Right here in Massachusetts, Alaka’i Technologies is trying to test fly their five-seat aircraft, that looks a lot like a giant drone, sometime later this year. It’s going to have a range up to 300 miles. The company, ZeroAvia in California, has already flown their retrofitted Piper Matrix multiple times, which has a range of about 500 miles. It’s goal is to offer it’s system to aircraft manufactures to offer as a buyer’s option.16
One of the benefits around focusing hydrogen fuel cells on larger form transportation is the infrastructure. It’s easier to build out fueling stations at airports, truck depots, and shipping ports, than to build out a new network covering millions of individual drivers. It also has the advantage of faster refueling than charging large scale batteries. Refilling a hydrogen tank isn’t that different from refilling a gasoline tank today. You can refill a passenger size car’s tank in a few minutes.
I really don’t think fuel cells are going to be the future of smaller passenger vehicles any time soon. Battery electric vehicles have a massive lead in adoption, an infrastructure that’s quicker and easier to roll out, and cheaper cost to run day to day. But fuel cell technology isn’t going to go away. It has its place and could end up going the same path as gasoline vs. diesel. Typical passenger vehicles will be battery driven, while larger trucks and buses are running on hydrogen. To continue to mix my metaphors, it’s also like VHS vs. Betamax. In the consumer market VHS became the defacto standard for years, but for professional broadcasters Betacam SP was the industry standard. There’s room for multiple clean energy systems to exist and I’m really interested to see where fuel cells grow and thrive. At the end of the day, they’re all electric vehicles, but what’s generating that power is the only difference.