Could Clean Fuel Cells Replace Gas Engines?

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As they say, more than one road leads to Rome. In the race to zero-emissions vehicles hydrogen offers another alternative to power electric cars.

  • Hydrogen fuel cells offer a zero-emissions alternative to battery-powered electric cars, but are expensive.
  • Researchers have developed a more efficient and economical fuel cell in hopes to accelerate adoption of the technology.
  • Though water is the only emission, hydrogen fuel cells aren’t as clean as they seem.

Researchers at the University of Waterloo have developed a zero-emissions fuel cell that lasts 10 times longer than those available now. This advancement could make them financially feasible if produced at scale to replace combustion engines.

“With our design approach, the cost could be comparable or even cheaper than gasoline engines,” said Xianguo Li, director of the Fuel Cell and Green Energy Lab at Waterloo. “The future is very bright. This is clean energy that could boom.”

2019 Honda Clarity Fuel Cell Arrives at Select Dealerships


Hydrogen fuel cells produce electricity from compressed hydrogen fed into a fuel cell “stack”. Designed to hold enough cells to power the car, the stack produces energy as long as fuel is available. That fuel is (obviously) hydrogen, which is stored in a tank on the vehicle.  A chemical reaction to create power comes from splitting the hydrogen into an electron and proton. While the electron delivers current to the electric motor, the proton recombines with oxygen from the air to form water. Yep, good ol’ H2O is the only emission.

The study used hybrid vehicles because theoretically fuel cells could replace gas engines that power the generators recharging hybrid batteries. You might be wondering why this clean technology hasn’t already been adopted. It’s because right now fuel cells are too expensive to produce. This redesign of the fuel cells to deliver a constant, rather than fluctuating amount of electricity, makes them more durable. In addition, the chemical reaction from hydrogen and oxygen combining to make water is simpler and thus less expensive.

“We have found a way to lower costs and still satisfy durability and performance expectations,” said Li. “We’re meeting economic targets while providing zero emissions for a transportation application.”

Toyota Mirai powered by hydrogen fuel cell.


From a paper appearing in the journal Applied Energy, researchers hope to encourage the conversion in hybrid vehicles, leading to mass production and lowered costs. If successful, the hydrogen fuel cells could potentially replace both batteries and gas engines.

“This is a good first step, a transition to what could be the answer to the internal combustion engine and the enormous environmental harm it does,” said Li.

However, and there’s a big however. We don’t have any hydrogen infrastructure in place. It’s challenging enough to get electric charging stations up and running for battery-powered electric vehicles. And, for the time, scale and expense of putting infrastructure in place, it seems we have to pick which technology we’re hitching our wagon to. Batteries already have a huge lead.

Using hydrogen as a fuel also begs the question of how we get the hydrogen. Currently, hydrogen is extracted from natural gas, which is a fossil fuel. So, if we’re still reliant on a fossil fuel to create a clean fuel source, then it makes the solution less appealing – and less clean. I would think that you’d have to count the emissions from extracting the hydrogen into the equation. Therefore, a hydrogen fuel cell isn’t exactly zero emissions, it it?

Do all roads lead to Rome then? While this research shows promise, hydrogen-powered cars aren’t a more attractive alternative to those powered by batteries just yet. Even though manufacturers are toying with the technology. Until hydrogen can be cleanly sourced, it won’t be competitive. And, by that time, it will probably be too late.

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