H2O Molecule - Rendering

                H2O Molecule - Rendering

The more you know about hydrogen fueled vehicles, the more compelling they become. Many are intrigued by the fact that their only emission is water and that at least in theory, it is clean enough to drink. Others are carefully monitoring the rapidly increasing developments in the technology. We seem to be at the cusp of significant breakthroughs and large companies are positioning themselves to take advantage of them.

Here is a closer look at the history and potential of hydrogen fuel cell powered vehicles. We also take a look at the pros and cons of the technology and the factors that are standing in the way of their full development.

A Brief History of Hydrogen Fuel Cells

                                             Fuel Cell Tractor 1959 (Allis Chalmers)

The development of a practical hydrogen fuel cell has been a long and arduous one. It started in 1839 when the first fuel cell was invented. It would be 120 years later however, in 1959, that a tractor became the first "modern" fuel cell powered vehicle. Fuel cell development received a big boost when it became the power of choice for the NASA program in the 60’s. Government funded research greatly helped the progress of the technology. In 1966 a General Motors engineer created a van using hydrogen fuel technology but development was held back by a number of factors. Platinum elements made it cost prohibitive, it was far too large to be practical, and the hydrogen tank was prone to explode. NASA continued working on its development and the technology was used during the Space Shuttle program. Within the past decade excitement has increased. Several major automakers have delved into hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and technologies including Hyundai, Toyota, Honda, General Motors, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, Mazda and others.

GM Hydrogen Fuel Cell Electrovan - 1960's (Promotional Video)

How Do They Work?

Hydrogen cell vehicles don’t burn hydrogen gas. While hydrogen is indeed highly combustible, it is actually an electro-chemical reaction that creates electricity to power a vehicle.

Compressed hydrogen gas is stored in high pressure tanks, and this gas is passed through fuel stacks. These fuel stacks blend the hydrogen with oxygen, generating the electricity to run one or more motors to power the wheels of the vehicle.

Hydrogen powered cars do make use of a battery pack, but generally just for acceleration. Because of this, the batteries can be significantly smaller in a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. The batteries are recharged through excess power produced by the fuel cell and through the kinetic energy of braking.

What is impressive is that while conventional engines convert less than 25% of their fuels energy, hydrogen fuel cells convert up to 60%.

Hydrogen Fuel Production

Currently, the vast majority of hydrogen produced in the U.S. and the world is created from using fossil fuels like the steam reforming of natural gas. This use of natural gas and fossil fuels obviously has a negative impact on the environment and is utilizing a finite resource. It is also expensive and the process has a lot of critics. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) however, research continues on more economical processes from sustainable resources.

  • Biological Water Splitting: There are photosynthetic microbes that use the energy from light to produce hydrogen as they metabolize. However, oxygen is also produced in the process. Researchers are working on screening for organisms that are tolerant of oxygen and that will sustain hydrogen production with oxygen present.

  • Fermentation: This process of producing hydrogen has few detractors as it converts biomass to not only produce hydrogen, but also ethanol and other valuable chemicals.

  • Converting Waste and Biomass: Research continues on how to efficiently produce hydrogen using agricultural and consumer waste products like peanut shells, waste grease and plastics.

  • Water Splitting Using Photoelectrochemicals: This process uses sunlight to directly divide water into both hydrogen and oxygen. It is considered the cleanest way to produce hydrogen and efforts are underway in reducing costs associated with this process.

  • Water Splitting Using a Solar Thermal Process: Using a high-flux solar furnace to concentrate solar energy, NREL researchers generate temperatures between 1000 degrees Celsius and 2000 degrees Celsius. This is proving to be a fast, efficient, and effective way to produce hydrogen with little or no effect on the environment.

The production of mass-produced hydrogen fuel cell vehicles is firmly attached to the ability to produce the gas less expensively and with less impact on the environment. It is also tied to delivery system infrastructures of the gas that are economical and efficient. Like with the vehicles themselves, research and experimentation continues.

Driving a Hydrogen Powered Car

Driving a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle for the first time is quite the experience. There is no engine noise or vibration from a combustion engine, so acceleration is quiet and smooth. The electric motors provide rapid acceleration that can surprise first-time drivers. Drivers soon notice wind and tire noise that was previously camouflaged by the noise of a gas engine.

The Positives of Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles

There are two significant benefits to hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. The first is that they produce no greenhouse gasses. Widespread use would create cleaner air. While some have concerns about the effects of the water vapor they produce when operated in large numbers, these negative effects are generally thought of as insignificant.

The second major benefit is a reduced dependence on foreign oil. Hydrogen can be produced by resources as abundant as waste from agriculture. This shift to a hydrogen economy would be seismic, and is the stated goal of some large corporations like Toyota.


Some of the challenges that hydrogen fuel cell vehicles face are related to the fact that production is still extremely limited and economies of scale can’t be applied as easily. This makes them very expensive, especially when compared to internal combustion vehicles. The infrastructure is also not currently in place for fuel production, nor are there easily available fueling stations. This too, would assumedly be resolved with greater acceptance and production. Education is also a factor. Hydrogen, like gasoline can be dangerous. We have become accustomed to filling our own gasoline powered vehicles and we would need to become knowledgeable with handling hydrogen gas.

There are other challenges that need to be addressed as well. When measured by weight, hydrogen provides triple the energy that gasoline does. The problem is, by volume, hydrogen only has a third of the energy of gasoline. This makes it very bulky to carry amounts of hydrogen that would provide similar travel distances of a standard gasoline tank.

Indirect competition is also a challenge for those promoting hydrogen fuel cell cars. These vehicles are not being developed in a vacuum and other green car technologies are improving as well. Improvements in batteries and increases in production have made all-electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles more attractive. Some critics claim that a diversion of resources to hydrogen will slow other, more accessible alternatively fueled vehicles.

What We Can Expect

As mentioned earlier, we seem to be at a point in history when widespread development and use of hydrogen fuel cell technology could rapidly advance. This is being fueled, so to speak, by several major factors:

  • The Changing Automotive Market: Younger car buyers are open to wider options when it comes to automobiles. Some are embracing car sharing services and others have a desire to reduce their carbon footprint. This is providing the impetus for manufacturers to make significant changes in their approaches and their products, including the use of alternative fuels.

  • More Auto Manufacturers are Getting Involved: Due largely to the changing car buyer market, additional manufacturers are developing their hydrogen fuel cell programs. The 3 major players that have so far progressed the most are – Hyundai, Honda and Toyota. Of course, others are right behind – Mercedes, Audi, GM, Nissan, Mazda and even Aston Martin. This list will likely expand rapidly in the next 2-4 years.

  • Introduction of the Next Generation Production Hydrogen Fuel Cell Powered Vehicles: For the 2016 model year, Toyota is introducing its first mass production hydrogen vehicle, the Mirai. The Toyota Mirai will bring more attention to hydrogen fuel cell powered vehicles since the company has a stated goal of embracing the technology. Of course, we need not forget the Hyundai Tucson, which was introduced as a fuel cell vehicle in spring of 2014. While the Tucson continues to strive towards acceptance and faces infrastructure challenges, we sincerely hope that Toyota's and Honda’s efforts will take things to the next level by 2018.

  • The Free Use of Toyota Patents Involving the Technology: In early 2015, Toyota announced it is making available access to over 5,600 of its hydrogen fuel-based patents. This is millions of dollars-worth of research that the company is willing to share with other auto manufacturers and hydrogen producers. The company is wagering this move will propel hydrogen fuel cell use to the next level.  

It has been a long road for hydrogen fuel cell technology, one that started with a small step in 1839. Like the last few miles in a marathon, the coming years may yet be the most challenging. It will be intriguing to see how, and if, the technology finally crosses the finish line. We will be watching.