Hydrogen Fuel Cell Cars: Here’s What You Need to Know

hydrogen fuel cell cars

Here’s everything you need to know about hydrogen cars, including what they are, how they operate, and how likely it is that you’ll ever drive one.

About 2.5 million EVs have been sold in the United States as of this writing. In contrast, there will only be 15,000 or fewer hydrogen-powered cars on American roads by the middle of 2022. roads. They will all be located in California, the only state with a network of retail hydrogen fueling stations needed to make the cars functional.

Hydrogen, the most plentiful element in the universe, powers fuel-cell electric vehicles. Even though fuel cell vehicles are powered by electricity, they function differently from battery-powered or plug-in hybrid vehicles. Hydrogen reacts electrochemically in a fuel cell to generate electricity that powers the vehicle.

We’ll talk about hydrogen fuel cell cars in this article. Please keep reading.

What is a Hydrogen Car?

A battery-electric car uses the same kind of electric motor to turn the wheels as a hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle (HFCV for short). However, it is powered by a fuel-cell stack instead of a big, heavy battery, in which pure hydrogen (H2) passes through a membrane to combine with airborne oxygen (O2) to create electricity that turns the wheels and water vapor.

This means that a fuel-cell car is actually a series hybrid, which explains why they are sometimes referred to as fuel-cell hybrid electric cars (FCHEV).

Hydrogen is considered by scientists to be an energy carrier rather than a fuel. Ignore that distinction, though, because HFCV drivers refill their vehicles’ carbon-fiber high-pressure tanks at “hydrogen fueling stations” very similar in concept to the old reliable gas station, with a similar five-minute refueling time.

hydrogen fuel cell cars

The most prevalent element in the universe is allegedly hydrogen. That is accurate at the atomic level, but pure hydrogen is never discovered. It always comes in combination with other things. It works well as an energy carrier due to its strong propensity to bind with anything in sight.

Creating pure hydrogen for vehicles requires using a great deal of energy to “crack” a compound like natural gas (CH4), with CO2 produced as a byproduct, into pure H2. (Nowadays, the majority of hydrogen is produced from fossil fuels like natural gas.)

When hydrogen is put through a fuel cell, the moment it combines with oxygen, it instantly returns that energy in the form of electricity. All that emerges from the exhaust pipe is water vapor (H2O).

How Do Hydrogen Fuel Cell Cars Work?

Fuel cell cars are powered by compressed hydrogen gas that feeds into an onboard fuel cell “stack” that doesn’t burn the gas, but instead transforms the fuel’s chemical energy into electrical energy.

The electric motors in the car are then propelled by this electricity. There are no emissions from the tailpipe, and the only waste generated is clear water.

The fuel cell’s design is comparable to that of a battery. When hydrogen enters the anode, it interacts with a catalyst there, which encourages the splitting of hydrogen atoms into electrons and protons.

The onboard battery and/or the motors that turn the wheels are fed with the electrons collected by the conductive current collector, which is connected to the high-voltage circuitry of the car.

hydrogen fuel cell cars

Key Components of a Hydrogen Fuel Cell Electric Car

  • Battery (auxiliary): The low-voltage auxiliary battery in an electric drive vehicle powers the vehicle’s accessories as well as starts the vehicle before the traction battery kicks in.
  • Battery pack: This high-voltage battery stores regenerative braking energy and supplements the electric traction motor’s power.
  • DC/DC converter: This component transforms higher-voltage DC power from the traction battery pack to the lower-voltage DC power required to operate vehicle accessories and recharge the auxiliary battery.
  • Electric traction motor (FCEV): This motor drives the wheels of the vehicle by drawing energy from the traction battery pack and fuel cell. Some automobiles employ motor generators that serve as both drives and regenerators.
  • Fuel cell stack: a grouping of individual membrane electrodes used to generate electricity from hydrogen and oxygen.
  • Fuel filler: To fill the tank, a nozzle from a fuel dispenser is connected to the vehicle’s tank receptacle.
  • Fuel tank (hydrogen): until the fuel cell requires it, the vehicle’s onboard hydrogen gas storage is used.
  • Power electronics controller (FCEV): By regulating the electric traction motor’s speed and torque output, this unit controls the flow of electrical energy produced by the fuel cell and the traction battery.
  • Thermal system (cooling) – (FCEV): The fuel cell, electric motor, power electronics, and other components are all kept within their ideal operating temperature range by this system.
  • Transmission (electric): The transmission uses the electric traction motor’s mechanical energy to drive the wheels.

Cost of Hydrogen Fuel

Given that hydrogen fuel is a niche good for the general public, the limited number of retail stations naturally has high prices. To quote the California Hydrogen Business Council, “Currently, a kilogram of hydrogen costs between $10 and $17 at California hydrogen stations, which equals about $5 to $8.50 per gallon of gasoline” to cover the same distance.

hydrogen fuel cell cars

Honda, Hyundai, and Toyota have all provided their tenants and customers with free hydrogen fuel for varying lengths of time to offset this drawback.

Each manufacturer has a slightly different offer: A Hyundai Nexo offers the same $15,000 over a three-year lease or up to six years of ownership, while a Toyota Mirai offers up to $15,000 of free hydrogen.

But the driver is on their own after those deals expire. In addition, it should be noted that charging an EV overnight typically equates to gasoline at just $1 to $2 per gallon, whereas hydrogen is equivalent to gasoline at $5 to $8.50 per gallon.

Are Hydrogen Cars Safe?

Since high-pressure tanks are built to survive even the fastest collisions without leaking or breaching, HFCVs are typically regarded as being as safe as any other car.

The Hindenburg explosion of 1937 is frequently brought up by opponents of hydrogen, but the hydrogen tanks and their associated hardware would probably survived even if the rest of the vehicle was totaled in an accident.

In the comparatively small number of HFCVs sold to date, no accidents or fatalities specifically related to the hydrogen components have been reported.

Benefits of Hydrogen Fuel-Cell Vehicles

  • Fun to drive
  • Instant torque and smooth, consistent power
  • High-tech
  • Low maintenance
  • Zero emissions
  • Fast refueling (3-5 minutes)
  • Access to carpool lanes and other incentives
  • Attractive lease pricing often bundled with free fuel/maintenance
hydrogen fuel cell cars

The Challenges of Fuel Cell Vehicles

The ideal green car would have quick refueling, electric power, and only water as a byproduct, right? Well, it might be, but FCEVs simply aren’t there yet compared to electric vehicles.

First off, despite having a longer range than EVs, FCEVs are more expensive to refuel due in part to the high cost of producing hydrogen. Even though it is the element that is most prevalent on Earth, it requires work to be refined into a form that can power a vehicle, and the cost per tank reflects this work.

Infrastructure for refueling FCEVs is also seriously lacking at the moment. Less than 400(Opens in a new window) FCEV fueling stations exist worldwide, but efforts are being made to add more; the US plans to have 1,000 stations operational by 2030.

However, there are significantly fewer hydrogen refueling stations than EV charging ports, which as of September 2021 in the US(Opens in a new window) numbered about 110,000 in total.

Although FCEVs may operate emission-free on their own, the facilities that produce their hydrogen fuel frequently do so by burning fossil fuels in a procedure known as steam reforming(Opens in a new window). This presents another difficulty for FCEVs. If that persists, FCEVs won’t be helping the environment as much as they could, and they can’t really be referred to as zero-emission vehicles.

Alternative methods are being investigated, such as water electrolysis, which can produce electricity from a renewable source, such as solar energy, to separate hydrogen from water.

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