Fuel Cell Car Technology, History and Future

Fuel Cell Vehicle and Its Viability in Future

fuel cell vehicle

A fuel cell vehicle (FCV) or fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV) is a type of electric vehicle whose electric drive system draws energy from a fuel cell, instead of or in combination with a battery to power up its onboard electric motor. In other words, The heart of the FCV is the fuel cell stack.

Structure of a Fuel Cell Car

Let’s have a better understanding of what basically it is made up of and how it works.

Fuel cells generally use oxygen from the air and hydrogen compressed state to generate electricity and this electricity helps in powering up the vehicle. Moreover, these fuel cell vehicles are very low polluting as they emit only water and heat and hence, are often classified as zero-emissions vehicles.

In simple terms, a Fuel Cell Vehicle (or FCV), is a vehicle that is driven by an electric motor powered by the electricity generated by the chemical reaction between onboard hydrogen and oxygen pulled in from outside. The only byproduct of this reaction is water vapor, released through tailpipes.

fuel cell car info

What is fuel cell

fuel cell is an electrochemical cell that converts the chemical energy from a fuel into electricity through an electrochemical reaction. This reaction takes place between Hydrogen fuel and Oxygen (or another oxidizing agent).

In a typical battery where the chemical energy comes from chemicals already present in the battery, Fuel cells are capable of producing electricity continuously, as long as there are fuel and oxygen in supply.

The first fuel cells were invented in 1838  and it was initially used commercially by NASA space programs to generate power for their satellites and space capsules more than a century later. Since then, fuel cells have been used as primary and backup power for commercial, industrial, residential buildings, in remote or inaccessible areas and various other for applications. Now due to advancements in electric technology and Fuel Cell technology is finding its way into automobiles.

A fuel cell is basically made up of an anode, a cathode, and an electrolyte that allows positively charged hydrogen ions (protons) to move between the two sides of the fuel cell.

Image result for fuel cell

At the anode a catalyst causes the fuel to undergo oxidation reactions that generate protons (positively charged hydrogen ions) and electrons. The protons flow from the anode to the cathode through the electrolyte after the reaction. At the same time, electrons are drawn from the anode to the cathode through an external circuit, producing direct current electricity. At the cathode, another catalyst causes hydrogen ions, electrons, and oxygen to react, forming water.

The most basic design features in a fuel cell are:

  • The electrolyte substance: On the basis of which type of fuel cell is defined
  • The fuel used: Most commonly, hydrogen.
  • The anode catalyst: Breaks down the fuel into electrons and ions.
  • The cathode catalyst: Turns the ions into the products like water or carbon dioxide.

A typical fuel cell produces a voltage from 0.6 V to 0.7 V at full rated load.

Voltage decreases as current increases, due to several factors:

  • Activation loss
  • Ohmic loss (voltage drops due to resistance of the cell components and interconnections)
  • Mass transport loss (depletion of reactants at catalyst sites under high loads, causing rapid loss of voltage).

As of 2015, two splendid fuel cell vehicles have been brought into the market for commercial use ie.., lease and for sale. They are

 Toyota Mirai

Launched in Japan In 2014, the first fuel cell vehicle by Toyota, the Mirai, had a price tag of less than US$100,000.

Hyundai ix35 FCEV

Hyundai introduced the limited production Hyundai ix35 FCEV


Other models include the Honda FCX Clarity and Mercedes-Benz F-Cell but for the time being, just for demonstration purposes. Other manufacturers that announced intentions to sell fuel cell electric vehicles commercially by 2016 included General Motors, Honda, Mercedes-Benz, and Nissan, but by 2017, most of the automobile companies developing hydrogen cars had switched their focus to battery electric vehicles.


Differences between fuel cell cars and other EVs

Battery electric vehicles run off an electric motor and battery. This offers them increased efficiency and, like fuel cell vehicles, allows them to drive emissions-free when the electricity comes from renewable sources. Unlike fuel cell cars and trucks, battery electric vehicles can use existing infrastructure to recharge but must be plugged in for extended periods of time.

 Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles are similar to battery electric vehicles but also have a conventional gasoline or diesel engine. This allows them to drive short distances on electricity-only, switching to liquid fuel for longer trips. Although not as clean as battery electric or fuel cell vehicles, plug-in hybrids produce significantly less pollution than their conventional counterparts.

 Conventional hybrids also have conventional engines and an electric motor and battery, but can’t be plugged-in. Though cleaner than conventional cars and trucks, non-plug-in hybrids derive all their power from gasoline and diesel and aren’t considered electric vehicles.



Portable power systems

Portable power systems can be used as a Power generator for isolated places. Some of the manufacturer are: SFC Energy is a German manufacturer of direct methanol fuel cells for a variety of portable power systems.Ensol Systems Inc. is an integrator of portable power systems, using the SFC Energy DMFC.

Other applications

  • Providing power for base stations or cell sites

Portable power systems that use fuel cells can be used in the leisure sector (i.e. RVs, cabins, marine), the industrial sector (i.e. power for remote locations including gas/oil well sites, communication towers, security, weather stations), and in the military sector etc

  • Distributed generation

It is an approach that employs small-scale technologies to produce electricity close to the end users of power. DG technologies often consist of modular (and sometimes renewable-energy) generators, and they offer a number of potential benefits.

  • Emergency power systems: They are a type of fuel cell system, which may include lighting, generators and other apparatus, to provide backup resources in a crisis or when regular systems fail,
  • Uses in a wide variety of settings from residential homes to hospitals, scientific laboratories, data centers,
  • Telecommunication equipment and modern naval ships.
  • An uninterrupted power supply (UPS) Etc.

Use in Automobiles


As of August 2011, there were a total of approximately 100 fuel cell buses deployed around the world. These all were produced by UTC Power, which was a fuel cell company based in South Windsor, Connecticut, but was purchased by ClearEdge Power in February 2013.

Other Notable projects include:

  • 12 fuel cell buses are being deployed in the Oakland and San Francisco Bay area of California.
  • Daimler AG, with 36 experimental buses powered by Ballard Power Systems fuel cells, completed a successful three-year trial in eleven cities, in January 2007.
  • A fleet of Thor buses with UTC Power fuel cells was deployed in California, operated by SunLine Transit Agency.



A fuel cell forklift (or a fuel cell lift truck) is a fuel cell-powered industrial forklift truck used to lift and transport materials. Over 4,000 fuel cell forklifts were used in handling the material. Since 2013 in the US, though, of which only 500 received funding from DOE (2012). The global average market for forklifts is 1 million forklifts per year. Fuel cell-powered forklifts can provide benefits over battery-powered forklifts as they can work for a full 8-hour shift on a single tank of hydrogen and can be refueled in 3 minutes.


Motorcycles and bicycles

In 2004 Honda developed a fuel-cell motorcycle that utilized the Honda FC Stack. Following the lead, Intelligent Energy (a British manufacturer of hydrogen-powered fuel cells), In 2005, developed the ENV (Emission Neutral Vehicle) which was their very first working hydrogen running motorcycle. Its millage was estimated to be 160km(100 mi) in City and had a top speed of 80 km/h (50 mph).


Other examples of motorbikes and bicycles that use hydrogen fuel cells include

  • The Taiwanese company APFCT’s scooter using the fueling system from Italy’s Acta SpA
  • The Suzuki Burgman scooter with an IE fuel cell that received EU Whole Vehicle Type Approval in 2011.

Suzuki Motor Corp. and  Intelligent Energy have announced a joint venture to accelerate the commercialization of zero-emission vehicles.


It all started when the Russian manufacturer Tupolev built a prototype hydrogen-powered version of the Tu-154 airliner, named the Tu-155, which made its first flight in 1989. This was the first experimental aircraft in the world operating on liquid hydrogen.

Then In 2003, the world’s first propeller-driven airplane to be powered entirely by a fuel cell was flown.

In 2009 the Naval Research Laboratory’s (NRL’s) Ion Tiger utilized a hydrogen-powered fuel cell and flew for 23 hours and 17 minutes.

Then In 2010 Rapid 200-FC, the first airplane in Europe and in the World fueled by gaseous hydrogen, successfully concluded six flight tests.

In 2011, an AeroVironment Global Observer which was fitted with a hydrogen-fueled propulsion system

In January 2016 a Raptor E1 drone made a successful test flight using a fuel cell that was lighter than the lithium-ion battery it replaced.




HYDRA, The world’s first fuel-cell boat, used an AFC system with 6.5 kW net output. Iceland has committed to converting its vast fishing fleet to use fuel cells to provide auxiliary power by 2015 and, eventually, to provide primary power in its boats.

Amsterdam too recently introduced its first fuel cell-powered boat that ferries people around the city’s canals.



German and Italian navies use fuel cells to remain submerged for weeks without the need to surface.An example of the same would be the Type 212 submarines.

The U212A is a non-nuclear submarine developed by German naval shipyard Howaldtswerke Deutsche Werft. The system consists of nine PEM fuel cells, providing between 30 kW and 50 kW each. The ship is silent, giving it an advantage in the detection of other submarines. A naval paper has theorized about the possibility of a nuclear-fuel cell hybrid whereby the fuel cell is used when silent operations are required and then replenished from the Nuclear reactor (and water).


Well, every coin has two sides and, according to many, so does Fuel cell powered vehicles. Some experts believe that hydrogen fuel cell cars will never become economically competitive with other technologies or that it will take decades for them to become profitable.

Business tycoon Elon Musk in 2015 said that “fuel cells for use in cars will never be commercially viable because of the inefficiency of producing, transporting and storing hydrogen and the flammability of the gas, among other reasons”.

Professor Jeremy P. Meyers in 2008 went on to state that “cost reductions over a production ramp-up period will take about 20 years after fuel-cell cars are introduced before they will be able to compete commercially with current market technologies, including gasoline internal combustion engines”.

In 2011, on the issue of the cost of hydrogen fuel cell cars the chairman and CEO of General Motors, Daniel Akerson, said that: “The car is still too expensive and probably won’t be practical until the 2020-plus period, I don’t know.”

In 2012, a report issued by Lux Research Inc. wrote that: “The dream of a hydrogen economy … is no nearer”. It concluded that “Capital cost … will limit adoption to a mere 5.9 GW” by 2030, providing “a nearly insurmountable barrier to adoption, except in niche applications”.


In 2006, a study for the IEEE showed that “Only about 25% of the power generated from wind, water, or the sun is converted to practical use and Electricity obtained from hydrogen fuel cells appears to be four times as expensive as electricity drawn from the electrical transmission grid.”

Moreover, the study found: that “The large amount of energy required to isolate hydrogen from natural compounds (water, natural gas, biomass), package the light gas by compression or liquefaction, transfer the energy carrier to the user, plus the energy lost when it is converted to useful electricity with fuel cells, leaves around 25% for practical use.

Joseph Romm, the author of The Hype About Hydrogen (2005), in 2014 stated in two of his articles that FCVs still had not overcome the following issues like:

  • High cost of the vehicles,
  • High fueling cost, and
  • a lack of fuel-delivery infrastructure.

“It would take several miracles to overcome all of those problems simultaneously in the coming decades,” he said.And most importantly highlighted the fact that  “FCVs aren’t green” because of escaping methane during natural gas extraction and when hydrogen is produced, as 95% of it is, using the steam reforming process. He concluded that renewable energy cannot economically be used to make hydrogen for an FCV fleet either now or in the future.”

So, it can be concluded that although there are a handful of problems that are there and the scope of the fuel cell vehicles does look bleak but it’s just a matter of time and right efforts when, perhaps distant but, they will be the future.



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