What Is a Fuel-Cell Electric Vehicle, and How Does It Work?

  • Christian Wardlaw has 25 years of experience serving in automotive editorial leadership roles with Autobytel, Edmunds, J.D. Power, and Tribune Publishing. A married father of four, Chris is based in the Los Angeles suburbs and believes fuel cell electric vehicles will power the future.

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You don’t need to plug-in all types of electric vehicles (EVs) to recharge them.

If you live in certain parts of California or Hawaii, you can obtain a fuel-cell electric vehicle (FCEV) that runs on hydrogen gas rather than drawing power from a battery pack. Similar to how gasoline is stored in a tank and is converted by an internal combustion engine into energy, the hydrogen gas is stored in a tank and is converted by a fuel cell into electricity that powers the car.

Likewise, refueling an FCEV is akin to refueling a traditional car. You pull into a hydrogen fueling station, use a pump with a special nozzle, attach the nozzle to the car, and re-fill the tank with hydrogen in about five minutes. You then drive as far as another 380 miles or so and refill the tank again, just like you would a gas-powered vehicle.

Best of all, an FCEV emits nothing but water vapor and warm air. Compare that to traditional cars burning gasoline or diesel, each emitting 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

That’s right. The average car puts 4.6 metric tons of greenhouse gases into the Earth’s atmosphere every single year.

At the start of 2019, FCEVs are available solely in California and Hawaii, where the only public hydrogen fueling stations in the U.S. are located. New England is expected to be the next large regional market to open, French company Air Liquide partnering with Toyota to open hydrogen stations in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New York.

Currently, the Honda Clarity Fuel Cell, Hyundai Nexo, and Toyota Mirai are the only FCEV models available to U.S. consumers interested in driving this type of vehicle. All three are on sale only in certain parts of California, and Toyota offers the Mirai in Honolulu, Hawaii.

How Does a Fuel Cell Convert Hydrogen Into Electricity?

2019 Honda Clarity Fuel Cell transparent see-through photo
In this cutaway view of the 2019 Honda Clarity Fuel Cell, the fuel cell stack is visible up front, the hydrogen tank can be seen behind the rear seat, and the battery that transfers the electric current to the drive wheels is located beneath the vehicle. (Honda)

Basically, a fuel cell causes a chemical reaction that transforms compressed hydrogen gas into electricity and water. The fuel cell is comprised of a Polymer Electrolyte Membrane (PEM) sandwiched between a negative electrode (called an anode) and a positive electrode (called a cathode).

The hydrogen streams from its tank through a flow plate into the anode, where a platinum catalyst splits the hydrogen molecules into positive-charge ions and negative-charge electrons.

These ions and electrons encounter the PEM, which only allows the positive-charge ions to pass through. This forces the negative-charge electrons to take a different route, which in an FCEV is a circuit that uses them to create the electric current that powers the car.

Oxygen is pumped into the fuel cell, where it mixes in the cathode with the negative-charge electrons and the positive-charge ions, creating water. Remember, water is H20, or two hydrogen molecules added to one oxygen molecule. The water exits the fuel cell and is emitted from the car as water vapor.

That Sounds Awesome! Why Doesn’t Everyone Drive an FCEV?

White 2019 Toyota Mirai fuel cell electric vehicle
Toyota introduced the Mirai sedan for the 2016 model year and has put thousands of them on the road. Toyota claims that the Mirai provides 312 miles of driving range on a single tank of hydrogen. (Toyota)

Personally, I think FCEVs are the future. Until you can charge a battery electric vehicle (BEV) in five minutes or less, and until high-powered charging stations are more widely available, for many people a BEV simply isn’t a feasible alternative to a gasoline-fueled car with an internal combustion engine.

Unfortunately, it is harder and more expensive to build a hydrogen fueling station than it is an electric car charging station.

Electricity is also far more readily available than renewably produced hydrogen gas, making BEV charging stations more compatible with existing infrastructure, and more reliable as a source of energy. Even in Los Angeles and San Francisco some FCEV drivers encounter unexpectedly closed stations or hydrogen pumps that are offline for some reason, making it difficult to count on the availability of the fuel.

Additionally, BEV owners can install a 240-volt home charging station to make “refueling” quick and convenient, while it simply isn’t practical to home-brew your own hydrogen gas for an FCEV.

These challenges, and others, ensure that in the short term FCEVs will remain even less viable than BEVs as a replacement for a car that burns fossil fuels.

But the winds of change are blowing.

According to the California Fuel Cell Partnership, there are 36 hydrogen fueling stations operating in the Golden State, with another 28 in development. Most are clustered around Los Angeles and San Francisco, with one in Santa Barbara and one on Interstate 5 between L.A. and S.F. This means that if you live in or near either of these cities, an FCEV is a legitimately viable mode of transportation.

Another 12 stations are planned for a corridor running between Boston and New York City, which will open another large market to FCEVs. Also, in addition to its hydrogen refueling station in Honolulu, Hawaii has plans for eight more on Oahu and the Big Island.

Despite these efforts, the International Energy Agency predicts that it will be decades before consumers choose FCEVs at the same rate as BEVs, according to a report by Reuters. Even though the technology exists and is available today, the infrastructure to support FCEVs is clearly in its infancy.

But if you live in California, and you are able to plan well ahead in order to ensure availability of the fuel, maybe you can help to move the needle toward a hydrogen-powered future.

About the Author

  • Christian Wardlaw has 25 years of experience serving in automotive editorial leadership roles with Autobytel, Edmunds, J.D. Power, and Tribune Publishing. A married father of four, Chris is based in the Los Angeles suburbs and believes fuel cell electric vehicles will power the future.

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