Whatever Happened to Fuel Cell Vehicles

May 8, 2016 •

What Ever Happened to Fuel Cell VehiclesRemember fuel cell vehicles (FCV’s)? They were going to solve all the problems of battery-powered electric cars, once the development was done. What happened instead was Tesla. Musk, and some of his competitors, got serious about making practical electric vehicles (EV’s) and today there’s hardly any mention of FVCs.

Battery Barriers

The Nissan Leaf, one of the first practical and (somewhat) affordable EV’s, illustrates the problems facing battery-power. Its range is no more than 107 miles, after which plan on five to six hours recharging. That, and the dearth of charging stations, gave rise to the phrase, “range anxiety.” Then there’s the environmental question. If the juice comes from a coal-burning power plant, is an EV really any better for the planet than gasoline?

The Fuel Cell Promise

Hydrogen and oxygen are separated by a thin membrane. Hydrogen ions pass through this, where they combine with oxygen. That movement encourages hydrogen electrons to flow, creating an electric current. Stack enough of these fuel cells together and the electricity produced can turn a sizable motor. (There’s a more detailed explanation on the Department of Energy website.)

An FCV therefore carries around a tank of hydrogen. In theory that overcomes the problems of batteries. Recharging is faster, there are no emissions, and “range anxiety” goes away.

Reality Dawns

Hydrogen isn’t the easiest stuff to handle. (Remember the Hindenburg?) Plus, if you think EV charging stations are thin on the ground, try finding a hydrogen fuel pump! And on the environmental front, while hydrogen can be produced using sunlight, most comes from the reforming process, which is most definitely not “green!”

Meanwhile, EV makers are chipping away at battery problems. Tesla is rolling out its network of Supercharger stations that deliver a (relatively) rapid boost of power, and general-purpose charging points are proliferating. BMW is selling the i3, an EV with a range of up to 150 miles, and in January, GM unveiled their 200 mile range Chevy Bolt.

Work Continues

Despite improvements in EV performance, not every auto maker has given up on FCVs. Toyota in particular continues developing their Mirai, Hyundai has a fuel cell Tucson and Honda the Clarity. Will these eventually supplant battery-powered EVs? The jury is out, but one thing is clear: electric cars seem here to stay.