The concept of the fuel cell was first invented in 1801 by Humphry Davy and William Grove. The first even fuel cell road vehicle did not come until 1966 in the form of the Chevrolet Electrovan. It had a range of 120 miles and a top speed of 70mph. It has only 2 seats, and the rest of the van contained the fuel cell stack and fuel tanks. There was only one ever made due to practicality and high cost. Since then most of the advancement came in the space industry. It wasn’t until 2001 that we were able to develop high pressure hydrogen tanks that would reduce the size of fuel tanks.
The first modern hydrogen fuel car came in the form of Honda FCX Clarity which was introduced in 2008. Honda leased a total of 45 units in the US before it was discontinued. There have been many other prototypes since then such as GM Hydrogen4 and Mercedes-Benz F-Cell, but none came into production. In 2014 the Hyundai ix35 FCEV was made available for leasing and a total of 54 cars were leased.
The only hydrogen fuel cell cars available for purchase today are the Toyota Mirai and the revamped Honda Clarity. There is electric plug-in hybrid version of the Honda Clarity due to be released. They will be joined by Hyundai Tuscon Fuel Cell. The Clarity and Mirai are similar in terms of specifications, averaging 65 mpg-e, and have a range of 320-360 miles.
So why hasn’t hydrogen fuel cell cars made it to mass marker?
There are a few things to consider here.
- Viability – this is probably the most important. Although the world is full of hydrogen, to capture this is extremely difficult and expensive. Most common way is to split water into oxygen and hydrogen. This in itself requires a lot of energy. This then needs to be pressurised and transported. Tesla founder Elon Musk derided it as being “incredibly dumb” and “extremely silly”. As he explained it “Hydrogen is an energy storage mechanism. It is not a source of energy. So you have to get that hydrogen from somewhere. If you get that hydrogen from water, so you’re splitting H20, electrolysis is extremely inefficient as an energy process…. If you took a solar panel and use the energy from that to just charge a battery pack directly, compared to trying to split water, take the hydrogen, dump the oxygen, compress the hydrogen to an extremely high pressure (or liquefy it), and then put it in a car and run a fuel cell, it is about half the efficiency. It’s terrible. Why would you do that? It makes no sense.” Tesla is not the only company to think like this. Daimler, the parent company of Mercedes-Benz, decided to reduce R&D into hydrogen fuel cell cars, and spending more on electric hybrid and all-electric car.
- Infrastructure – there are hardly any refueling stations available in the world. Even in California, where most of these cars are sold or leased, there are only a few hydrogen refueling stations. Most first-world countries have proposed to build more of these stations, but being novel means that the cost of building each point is relatively high. Investors need to be persuaded that they will be able to make profit on such ventures, which in turn means government have to subsidise a lot of these projects.
- Cost – all novel technology come with high price tag. We saw that with all-electric/hybrid cars. The more widespread they became the prices of the cars started to drop. We probably won’t see the price of fuel cell cars drop until we see plenty on the road, which means the infrastructure needs to be ready.
- Competition – primarily from electric vehicles. Electricity is easy to produce either from coal/oil or renewable energy sources, increasingly as more money is being spent on renewable energy sources. Battery technology and efficiency are also improving which means greater range with shorter recharge time. It is also helped by huge amount of government funding and rebates offered to customers. The infrastructure for electric cars is also significantly ahead of hydrogen fuel cell cars.
Hydrogen fuel cell cars are not without merit. They provide a conventional method of refueling, more convenient parking without need to charging ports. There are other methods of creating hydrogen from natural gas and biomethane. These are not readily used at present, but are being explored.
It is difficult to see both electric and hydrogen powered cars to make it to mass market. This is because creating the infrastructure for both completely differently source of energy will be very expensive, and would require a lot of space. Space, which is difficult to attain in our mega cities and metropolis.
Which do you think will be the future of the automotive, or do you think we will see both replace the traditional combustion engine?