The Future May Belong to

HYDROGEN FUEL CELLS

The future may belong to hydrogen fuel cells

At first glance, it makes a lot of sense to design a car that uses hydrogen as fuel. After all, hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe. Technological imitations of cost and size, however, have kept the technology out of the automotive market until recently. Now that plug-in hybrids and battery-powered cars with electric powertrains are becoming more widely accepted, fuel-cell vehicles could be the next generation of electric car.

Like battery-electric vehicles, they burn no fossil fuels when driving and emit no greenhouse gases or pollutants. In addition, fuel-cell vehicles have ranges of about 250 to 300 miles and can be refueled in five to 10 minutes. Factors working against fuel-cell vehicles include their current high manufacturing cost and the lack of a widespread refueling infrastructure to support them.

How do fuel cells work?

Hydrogen gas stored in a fuel tank is fed to the vehicle’s fuel-cell stack, where it’s combined with oxygen from the air. A chemical reaction takes place, generating electricity as the two elements
H and O—combine to form water—H2O. That electricity runs a motor that powers the vehicle; the only "exhaust" is the water.

Hydrogen + Oxygen

react, creating

Water + Electricity

Fuel cells aren’t new. The first crude cells came out of Europe in the 1800s. NASA has used them since the 1960s, providing power and water to the Apollo moon lander and the Space Shuttles.

In its natural state, hydrogen gas readily reacts with other elements, and can combust when mixed with air. The California Air Resources Board, however, states that “fuel cell electric vehicles have essential safety systems designed to protect passengers and first responders in case of an accident.” For example, vehicles’ fuel-cell stacks and high-voltage battery packs are sealed separately in metal cases that are insulated from the vehicle’s metal body. Other safety measures include color-coded high-voltage circuits and durable fuel tanks.

Is anyone building hydrogen cars yet?

Yes, and some of them are already here in the U.S.! One is the Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell, a hydrogen version of the compact Tucson SUV. The first Tucson Fuel Cell was delivered in June 2014 to a customer in Southern California, and it’s currently only available from three dealers in the Los Angeles and Orange County area. The Tucson Fuel Cell is available only for lease. Payments include all maintenance, unlimited fuel, and concierge service for scheduled maintenance. 

Toyota’s new hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle, a four-passenger sedan, is called the Mirai, Japanese for “future.” The Mirai went on sale in Japan in December 2014, and U.S. sales are slated to begin in mid-to-late 2015. Toyota plans to send just 200 to the U.S., all to California. Though it will have a retail price of $57,700, Toyota expects 90 percent of buyers to lease the car.

For more on these and other fuel cell vehicles, such as the Mercedes-Benz F-Cell, check out the AAA Green Car Guide.

 

Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell

Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell

Toyota Mirai

Toyota Mirai

Year released in U.S.

2014

2015 (planned)

Price

Lease only: $499/month with
$2,999 down

Lease terms: $499/month with $3,649 down. MSRP: $57,700

Horsepower

134 hp

153 hp

Fuel cell power

100 kilowatts

114 kilowatts

Range

265 miles

300 miles

Availability

Three dealerships in the
Los Angeles and Orange County area; deliveries began in 2014.

Planned delivery of 200 cars to California in mid-to-late 2015.

Free fuel

Yes

Yes (first three years)

Where can I get hydrogen fuel?

Most existing hydrogen refueling stations are located in California, but Toyota is partnering with Air Liquide, an experienced hydrogen supplier, to develop and supply a network of hydrogen stations in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island. Toyota is also looking at establishing hydrogen infrastructure in Maryland and Washington, D.C.

Toyota says it’s committed to hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles and has ceased making pure battery-electrics. The automaker is attempting to jump-start the hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle industry by releasing more than 5,600 hydrogen fuel cell and Mirai patents to the auto industry, as well as 70 hydrogen station-related patents.

The question remains: Are hydrogen cars the future of electric automobiles? Battery-electric vehicles are becoming more popular with drivers as the technology matures, but their limited range, temperature sensitivity, and difficulty scaling up to larger vehicles are all roadblocks to going mainstream. Hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles overcome these issues. If economies of scale and further tech innovation bring prices down substantially in the future, as they did with hybrids and battery-electrics, it's not inconceivable that hydrogen vehicles could become the new automotive gold standard.