Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle (FCEV) use a fuel cell, sometimes in combination with a small battery or supercapacitor, to power its onboard electric motor. Fuel cells in vehicles generate electricity generally using oxygen from the air and compressed hydrogen. Most fuel cell vehicles are classified as zero-emissions vehicles that emit only water and heat. As compared with internal combustion vehicles, hydrogen vehicles centralize pollutants at the site of the hydrogen production, where hydrogen is typically derived from reformed natural gas. Transporting and storing hydrogen may also create pollutants.
Fuel cells have been used in various kinds of vehicles including forklifts, especially in indoor applications where their clean emissions are important to air quality, and in space applications. The first commercially produced hydrogen fuel cell automobile, the Hyundai ix35 FCEV, was introduced in 2013, Toyota Mirai followed in 2015 and then Honda entered the market. Fuel cells are being developed and tested in trucks, buses, boats, motorcycles and bicycles, among other kinds of vehicles.
As of December 2020, 31,225 passenger FCEVs powered with hydrogen had been sold worldwide. As of 2021, there were only two models of fuel cell cars publicly available in select markets: the Toyota Mirai (2014–) and the Hyundai Nexo (2018–). The Honda Clarity was produced from 2016 to 2021, when it was discontinued. As of 2020, there was limited hydrogen infrastructure, with fewer than fifty hydrogen fueling stations for automobiles publicly available in the U.S. Critics doubt whether hydrogen will be efficient or cost-effective for automobiles, as compared with other zero emission technologies, and in 2019, The Motley Fool opined “what is tough to dispute is that the hydrogen fuel cell dream is all but dead for the passenger vehicle market.”
All fuel cells are made up of three parts: an electrolyte, an anode and a cathode. In principle, a hydrogen fuel cell functions like a battery, producing electricity, which can run an electric motor. Instead of requiring recharging, however, the fuel cell can be refilled with hydrogen. Different types of fuel cells include polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) Fuel Cells, direct methanol fuel cells, phosphoric acid fuel cells, molten carbonate fuel cells, solid oxide fuel cells, reformed methanol fuel cell and Regenerative Fuel Cells.
The concept of the fuel cell was first demonstrated by Humphry Davy in 1801, but the invention of the first working fuel cell is credited to William Grove, a chemist, lawyer, and physicist. Grove’s experiments with what he called a “gas voltaic battery” proved in 1842 that an electric current could be produced by an electrochemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen over a platinum catalyst. English engineer Francis Thomas Bacon expanded on Grove’s work, creating and demonstrating various Alkaline fuel cells from 1939 to 1959.
The first modern fuel cell vehicle was a modified Allis-Chalmers farm tractor, fitted with a 15 kilowatt fuel cell, around 1959. The Cold War Space Race drove further development of fuel cell technology. Project Gemini tested fuel cells to provide electrical power during manned space missions. Fuel cell development continued with the Apollo Program. The electrical power systems in the Apollo capsules and lunar modules used alkali fuel cells. In 1966, General Motors developed the first fuel cell road vehicle, the Chevrolet Electrovan. It had a PEM fuel cell, a range of 120 miles and a top speed of 70 mph. There were only two seats, as the fuel cell stack and large tanks of hydrogen and oxygen took up the rear portion of the van. Only one was built, as the project was deemed cost-prohibitive.
General Electric and others continued working on PEM fuel cells in the 1970s. Fuel cell stacks were still limited principally to space applications in the 1980s, including the Space Shuttle. However, the closure of the Apollo Program sent many industry experts to private companies. By the 1990s, automobile manufacturers were interested in fuel cell applications, and demonstration vehicles were readied. In 2001, the first 700 Bar (10000 PSI) hydrogen tanks were demonstrated, reducing the size of the fuel tanks that could be used in vehicles and extending the range.
Applications: There are fuel cell vehicles for all modes of transport. The most prevalent fuel cell vehicles are cars, buses, forklifts and material handling vehicles.
The Honda FCX Clarity concept car was introduced in 2008 for leasing by customers in Japan and Southern California and discontinued by 2015. From 2008 to 2014, Honda leased a total of 45 FCX units in the US. Over 20 other FCEV prototypes and demonstration cars were released in that time period, including the GM HydroGen4, and Mercedes-Benz F-Cell.
The Hyundai ix35 FCEV Fuel Cell vehicle was available for lease from 2014 to 2018, when 54 units were leased. In 2018, Hyundai introduced the Nexo.
Sales of the Toyota Mirai to government and corporate customers began in Japan in December 2014. Pricing started at ¥6,700,000 (~US$57,400) before taxes and a government incentive of ¥2,000,000 (~US$19,600). Former European Parliament President Pat Cox estimated that Toyota initially would lose about $100,000 on each Mirai sold. As of December 2017, global sales totaled 5,300 Mirais. The top selling markets were the U.S. with 2,900 units, Japan with 2,100 and Europe with 200.
The Honda Clarity Fuel Cell was produced from 2016 to 2021. The 2017 Clarity had the highest combined and city fuel economy ratings among all hydrogen fuel cell cars rated by the EPA that year, with a combined city/highway rating of 67 miles per gallon gasoline equivalent (MPGe), and 68 MPGe in city driving. In 2019, Katsushi Inoue, the president of Honda Europe, stated, “Our focus is on hybrid and electric vehicles now. Maybe hydrogen fuel cell cars will come, but that’s a technology for the next era.”
By 2017, Daimler phased out its FCEV development, citing declining battery costs and increasing range of EVs, and most of the automobile companies developing hydrogen cars had switched their focus to battery electric vehicles. By 2020, only three car makers were still manufacturing, or had active manufacturing programs for hydrogen cars.
Fuel cell bus projects have included:
12 Fuel cell buses were deployed in the Oakland and San Francisco Bay area of California in 2007.
Daimler AG, with thirty-six experimental buses powered by Ballard Power Systems fuel cells, completed a successful three-year trial, in eleven cities, in 2007.
A fleet of Thor buses with UTC Power fuel cells was deployed in California, operated by SunLine Transit Agency, in 2011.
The first hydrogen fuel cell bus prototype in Brazil was deployed in São Paulo in 2009. The bus was manufactured in Caxias do Sul, and the hydrogen fuel was to be produced in São Bernardo do Campo from water through electrolysis. The program, called “Ônibus Brasileiro a Hidrogênio” (Brazilian Hydrogen Autobus), included three buses.
Three Hydrogen fuel cell buses were introduced in Vienna, Austria, in 2022. Manufactured by Hyundai Motor Company and called Elec-city FCEV, the units were supplied as part of the Austrian government’s HyBus Project. Further units are planned to be sent to Grats and Salzburg.
Forklifts: A fuel cell forklift (also called a fuel cell lift truck or a fuel cell forklift) is a fuel cell-powered industrial forklift truck used to lift and transport materials. Most fuel cells used in forklifts are powered by PEM fuel cells.
In 2013, there were over 4,000 fuel cell forklifts used in material handling in the US from which only 500 received funding from DOE (2012). Fuel cell fleets are operated by a large number of companies, including Sysco Foods, FedEx Freight, GENCO (at Wegmans, Coca-Cola, Kimberly Clark, and Whole Foods), and H-E-B Grocers. Europe demonstrated 30 fuel cell forklifts with Hylift and extended it with HyLIFT-EUROPE to 200 units, with other projects in France and Austria. Pike Research stated in 2011 that fuel-cell-powered forklifts will be the largest driver of hydrogen fuel demand by 2020.
PEM fuel-cell-powered forklifts provide significant benefits over petroleum powered forklifts as they produce no local emissions. Fuel-cell forklifts can work for a full 8-hour shift on a single tank of hydrogen, can be refueled in 3 minutes and have a lifetime of 8–10 years. Fuel cell-powered forklifts are often used in refrigerated warehouses as their performance is not degraded by lower temperatures. In design the FC units are often made as drop-in replacements.
Motorcycles and bicycles
In 2005, the British firm Intelligent Energy produced the first ever working hydrogen run motorcycle called the ENV (Emission Neutral Vehicle). The motorcycle holds enough fuel to run for four hours, and to travel 160 km (100 mi) in an urban area, at a top speed of 80 km/h (50 mph). In 2004, Honda developed a fuel-cell motorcycle which utilized the Honda FC Stack. There are other examples of bikes and bicycles with a hydrogen fuel cell engine. The Suzuki Burgman received “whole vehicle type” approval in the EU. The Taiwanese company APFCT conducts a live street test with 80 fuel cell scooters for Taiwans Bureau of Energy using the fueling system from Italy’s Acta SpA.
Boeing researchers and industry partners throughout Europe conducted experimental flight tests in February 2008 of a manned airplane powered only by a fuel cell and lightweight batteries. The Fuel Cell Demonstrator Airplane, as it was called, used a Proton-Exchange Membrane (PEM) fuel cell/lithium-ion battery hybrid system to power an electric motor, which was coupled to a conventional propeller. In 2003, the world’s first propeller driven airplane to be powered entirely by a fuel cell was flown. The fuel cell was a unique FlatStack stack design which allowed the fuel cell to be integrated with the aerodynamic surfaces of the plane.
There have been several fuel cell powered unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). A Horizon fuel cell UAV set the record distance flown by a small UAV in 2007. The military is especially interested in this application because of the low noise, low thermal signature and ability to attain high altitude. 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. Boeing is completing tests on the Phantom Eye, a high-altitude, long endurance (HALE) to be used to conduct research and surveillance flying at 20,000 m (65,000 ft) for up to four days at a time.Fuel cells are also being used to provide auxiliary power for aircraft, replacing fossil fuel generators that were previously used to start the engines and power on board electrical needs. Fuel cells can help airplanes reduce CO2 and other pollutant emissions and noise.
The world’s first Fuel Cell Boat HYDRA used an AFC system with 6.5 kW net output. For each liter of fuel consumed, the average outboard motor produces 140 times less the hydrocarbons produced by the average modern car. Fuel cell engines have higher energy efficiencies than combustion engines, and therefore offer better range and significantly reduced emissions. 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 recently introduced its first fuel cell powered boat that ferries people around the city’s canals.
The first submersible application of fuel cells is the German Type 212 submarine. Each Type 212 contains nine PEM fuel cells, spread throughout the ship, providing between 30 kW and 50 kW each of electrical power. This allows the Type 212 to remain submerged longer and makes them more difficult to detect. Fuel cell powered submarines are also easier to design, manufacture, and maintain than nuclear-powered submarines.
In March 2015, China South Rail Corporation (CSR) demonstrated the world’s first hydrogen fuel cell-powered tramcar at an assembly facility in Qingdao. 83 miles of tracks for the new vehicle were built in seven Chinese cities. China had plans to spend 200 billion yuan ($32 billion) over the next five years to increase tram tracks to more than 1,200 miles.
In 2016, Alstom debuted the Coradia iLint, a regional train powered by hydrogen fuel cells. It was designed to reach 140 kilometres per hour (87 mph) and travel 600–800 kilometres (370–500 mi) on a full tank of hydrogen. The train entered service in Germany in 2018 and is expected to be tested in the Netherlands beginning in 2019.
Swiss manufacturer Stadler Rail signed a contract in California to supply a hydrogen fuel cell train in the US, the FLIRT H2 train, in 2024 as part of the Arrow rail project.
In 2020, Hyundai started to manufacture hydrogen powered 34-ton cargo trucks under the model name XCIENT, making an initial shipment of 10 of the vehicles to Switzerland. They are able to travel 400 kilometres (250 mi) on a full tank and they take 8 to 20 minutes to fill up.
In 2020, Daimler announced the Mercedes-Benz GenH2 liquid hydrogen concept expected to be produced beginning in 2023. Freiburg operates a garbage truck with 200 km range.
Hydrogen infrastructure, Hydrogen highway, and Hydrogen station
Eberle and Rittmar von Helmolt stated in 2010 that challenges remain before fuel cell cars can become competitive with other technologies and cite the lack of an extensive hydrogen infrastructure in the U.S.: As of July 2020, there were 43 publicly accessible hydrogen refueling stations in the US, 41 of which were located in California. In 2013, Governor Jerry Brown signed AB 8, a bill to fund $20 million a year for 10 years to build up to 100 stations. In 2014, the California Energy Commission funded $46.6 million to build 28 stations.
Japan got its first commercial hydrogen fueling station in 2014. By March 2016, Japan had 80 hydrogen fueling stations, and the Japanese government aims to double this number to 160 by 2020. In May 2017, there were 91 hydrogen fueling stations in Japan. Germany had 18 public hydrogen fueling stations in July 2015. The German government hoped to increase this number to 50 by end of 2016, but only 30 were open in June 2017.