Hydrogen is the most abundant element on the planet. It is also an alternative fuel that has the potential for near-zero greenhouse gas emissions. Fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) are powered by hydrogen, which generate power in a fuel cell. They are more efficient than conventional internal combustion engine vehicles and emit only water vapor and warm air. Below, we explore what this new technology is, how it works, what the categories are, as well as the pros-and-cons.
Hydrogen fuel-cell cars are those vehicles that uses the natural element of hydrogen gas (Symbol: H) as their main fuel source. The main component of a hydrogen powered car is its fuel cell. Simply put, fuel cells convert stored hydrogen-gas into electricity, which powers an electric motor to propel the vehicle with virtually no tailpipe emissions.
Hydrogen powered cars, sometimes referred to as a Fuel Cell Vehicle (FCV) or Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle (FCEV) use a completely different propulsion system than conventional vehicles.
High pressure hydrogen gas is stored in tanks, similar the same way gasoline or diesel is stored in combustion powered vehicles.
This hydrogen gas is later converted to energy by the fuel cell, to power the electric motor and propel the vehicle.
Because the vehicles run on pure hydrogen gas (the most abundant element on planet earth), they are significantly more efficient than a gasoline powered vehicles.
The fuel cell is the most important component to a hydrogen car. So much, that hydrogen cars are sometimes referred to as “Fuel Cell Vehicles” (E.g. Toyota Mirai Fuel Cell Vehicle). Fuel cells are easier to understand if thought of as a rechargeable battery. They pull fuel from a tank of stored hydrogen (similar to how electricity is pulled from batteries) to generate onboard electricity and power an electric motor to drive the car.
Fuel cells are not a modern development. Although iterations of what may technically be considered to be a fuel cell existed before, the term fuel cell first emerged in 1889 from two chemists named Ludwig Mond and Charles Langer when they attempted to build the first practical ‘gas battery’ device using air and industrial coal gas.
Advancements in fuel cell technology continued well into the next century, with commercial applications in manned spaceflight and aerospace. It wasn’t until the 1960’s and 1970’s that consumer automotive applications of fuel cell technologies were seriously considered for the mass-market. The United States Oil Crisis of 1970’s accelerated this interest, causing auto giants such as General Motors (GM) to begin seriously putting forth efforts to produce engines that were hydrogen-fueled. By the time the 1980’s came around, almost all automobile manufacturers had at least a demonstration model of hydrogen-fueled fuel cell vehicle. Technical breakthroughs continued throughout the decade, leading up to the development of the first marketable fuel cell-powered vehicle in 1993 by the Canadian company, Ballard Power Systems.
Driven by growing global pressure to meet increasingly rigorous environmental requirements and reduce oil dependency, the effort to develop fuel cell technologies for cars has only continued. As consumers and government agencies continued to express more concern over carbon dioxide emissions, researchers turned their attention to cars that can make use of fuel cell technologies to reduce the way the auto industry depends on fossil fuels.
Recent years has seen increased government funding for research into hydrogen fuel cell technology and steps have been taken to reduce the cost of using hydrogen fuel cells down to a more competitive level with other technologies for vehicles, such as fully electric or clean diesel. Today, hydrogen fuel cells can be found in public buses, government utility vehicles, and a growing number of consumer cars.
Hydrogen powered cars and battery powered fully electric cars have a lot in common. They both have electric motors and similar drivetrains.
The core component, fuel cells, are like a cross between an internal-combustion engine and battery power.
Similar to internal-combustion engines, fuel cells generate their power by using fuel from a tank, in the form of pressurized hydrogen.
The key difference is that the fuel is not burned, instead, fuel cells chemically fuse the tank-fed hydrogen with oxygen to make water.
In the process, which resembles what happens in a battery, electricity is created and harnessed to power the electric motor (or motors) that drive the vehicle.
The following technologies are core components to hydrogen powered cars: