What Happened With Hydrogen Fuel Cell Technology?

The vehicles on our roads come in all shapes and sizes. Regardless of the physical variety, most have one thing in common – they burn fossil fuels.

You’re probably thinking that we’re seeing more and more electric vehicles on the road. Thanks to Elon Musk and others, those battery-powered cars are starting to go further – not to mention, become sexier alternatives to their fossil fuel counterparts.

That being said, wasn’t there supposed to be another emerging technology? Isn’t there going to be a way to power your car while spitting out water instead of carbon emissions?

Whatever happened to Hydrogen Fuel Cells? 

What Is a Hydrogen Fuel Cell?

As you know, hydrogen is the most abundant element in the known universe. It’s everywhere. That, in itself, makes it a good candidate for a fuel – right?

The short answer seems to be yes. After all, you won’t have to drill for the remains of long-dead creatures – only to burn the refined liquid to produce combustion. That method dates back to the Victorian era.

Still, you’ll want to understand what a fuel cell is – and how it compares to other approaches.

Hydrogen Fuel Cell Versus Hydrogen Combustion

Hydrogen combustion is exactly what it sounds like – a combustion engine that burns hydrogen (similar to gasoline engines). While arguably cleaner than fossil fuels, they’re about as inefficient as any other such engine (roughly only 30% efficiency).

Hydrogen fuel cells, on the other hand, are cleaner than combustion – including the hydrogen versions. Like the battery-powered vehicles, they rely on electricity. Compared to combustion engines, they’re also more efficient and produce better performance.

Fuel Cell Versus Battery

As indicated, Fuel cells are similar to battery cars. They both use electricity to produce traction. The real difference between the two is their different approach to power sources.

Fuel Cells produce electricity by basically ripping apart a hydrogen atom’s proton and electron. While somewhat similar to a battery, the main difference being that batteries store energy while fuel cells create it.

In general, hydrogen fuel cells have superior mileage and fuel refill times than their battery-powered competitors. Batteries may someday close the gap further, but fuel cells currently hold an advantage.

You can read more details here.

Current State of Fuel Cells

Fuel cells sound great, so what’s the catch? Why are there more battery-electric vehicles (or hybrids) rolling off the assembly line than the hydrogen fuel cell versions? 

There’s likely not a single (or simple) reason.

Battery-electric vehicles certainly get more press (hello, Elon Musk). Those hulking battery packs that can only get you so far down the road are all the rage.

And yet, hydrogen tends to make people nervous – and for good reason. It’s quite flammable. You only need to look back in history – remember the Hindenburg’s fate? There are more recent accidentsto consider as well.

Still, society is used to flammable stuff. It’s not like fossil fuels aren’t dangerous themselves. Even batteries are known to flare up, if not explode. 

Perhaps the cost of gearing society toward hydrogen fueling stations might play a factor. It’s likely quicker (and easier) to throw a few battery-charging stations up versus having to build highly pressurized tanks to (safely) store hydrogen.

This is being done already to a small degree in states on the left coast. Will it continue?

The Future of Hydrogen Fuel Cells

It’s hard to say just what the future holds for fuel cells. They certainly hold promise. There are clear advantages over other forms of energy. That said, will the masses embrace this technology?

There are those who believe battery-electric vehicles are the future. But can batteries meet every demand? Not any more likely than solar or wind. Obviously, we don’t expect to see battery-powered rockets lifting payloads into orbit.

As with anything, time will tell what role hydrogen fuel cells will play in transportation. It’s hard to believe the technology won’t have some impact – even if personal vehicles end up being ruled (and run) by batteries.

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