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Cars and Hydrogen Fuel Cells - Alternatives to Fuel - A Clean Energy Future for More than Just Automobiles

Updated on April 22, 2012

Hydrogen Fuel Cells and How They Work

What are hydrogen fuel cells?

Fuel Cells are a form of energy that can be used in many ways to power a variety of things that require electricity, batteries and gasoline. The fuel cell is an energy conversion unit that that uses hydrogen to create energy.

A fuel cell uses a process to produce electricity through a chemical reaction of oxygen from the air and hydrogen from a tank that forms water vapor and electrical power. Hydrogen fuel can power a car or portable electronic device, even though it is a complicated process. A fuel cell stack converts these chemicals into electricity. Fuel cells are very promising for the environment, and can help reduce our need for foreign oil and our dependency on OPEC.

Stationary fuel-cells are used as a means of backup power, energy for remote locations, as a form of distributed generated power and as co-generation for other applications from the excess heat that is released during the electricity generation.

There are many challenges to meet before these vehicles can used as conventional vehicles. Hydrogen fuel cells have great design flexibility. Fuel cells can take on all sorts of shapes which allows them to be set up inside a vehicle in many different ways. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles use an electric motor.

Fuel Cells Can Make Us Less Dependent on Foreign Oil

The U.S. Army is hoping to be able to use hydrogen fuel cell vehicles on the battlefield and in other military aspects. Because of the varied design flexibility of these fuel cells, the transport vehicles can be used and specifically designed for different purposes. As an example, some can carry people, some for cargo, and for other purposes, making the design of these vehicles individually suited for their specific purpose.

Currently the United States government is testing 16 GM fuel cell vehicles in Hawaii. They use compressed hydrogen gas which is combined in a fuel cell with oxygen from the air to generate electricity. Water vapor is the only product expelled from the vehicle. The military is looking to utilize these vehicles to also power lights in an area, as a command center and other applications in combat zones.

The Army, Air Force, and Navy are testing these 16 vehicles right now by moving military personnel. It is costing the U.S. government $3.6 million a year lease these vehicles. Fuel cells are better than electrics cars because it takes less time to pump the hydrogen into a tank. It can take much longer to charge the battery. Technology that uses hydrogen fuel cells is very expensive. In time the costs will go down and technology will improve so that our dependency on oil and gas will become less.

BioFuels and Electric Vehicles

Biofuels and electric, battery powered cars have gotten most of the attention.
Biofuels are energy produced from organic matter made from material from plants and animal waste.

Electric vehicles have had a slow selling start. Less than 0.1% of car and light truck sales were sold in 2011. That is only about 17, 435 electric vehicle sales. Hybrid cars are very fuel efficient and only burn gas when the battery is not in use. They use a combination of an electric motor and gas.

Advantages and Challenges of Fuel Cell Technology

The positives of hydrogen fuel cells:

  • pollution free - only gives off water, electricity, and heat and runs on pure hydrogen
  • changes chemical energy in hydrogen to electricity
  • more than twice the efficiency of traditional combustion technology
  • fuel cell systems generate electricy at nearly 60% or higher if cogeneration is used. A standard combustion based power plant generates at 33% to 35%hy
  • fuel cells operate very quietly
  • fuel cells have less moving parts
  • fuel cells can fit into many applications
  • fuel cells have no combustion and is converted into electricity more efficiently
  • fuel cell reactions don’t need to be disposed of the way batteries do
  • fuel cell power plants do not need to be as large as tradtitional power plants
  • fuel cell power plants can be located anywhere, even in urban areas because they do not affect the air quality
  • fuel cells offer an alternative to needing power lines
  • fuel cells will reduce our dependence on imported oil
  • reliable source of energy
  • can be set up relatively quickly
  • it can be produced domestically


  • fuel cell systems are expensive
  • fuel cells can be large
  • fuel cells companies need the investment of hundreds of millions of dollars to reduce the disadvantages and mass produce the fuel cells
  • technology needs to be in place in provide alternative delivery methods and fuel storage options.
  • hydrogen storage systems in cars don’t meet size, weight and cost for easy availability
  • fuel cell permformance needs to improve for longer distances
  • fuel cell vehicles are not widely known or accepted by the public
  • fuel cells need to be designed sturdier and more durable
  • fuel cells need to be designed with longer storage capabilities to allow longer distance traveling in vehicles.
  • the government has cut its budgetary contributions to fuel cell research, putting more money into battery operated cars and biofuels.
  • cost effective ways need to be worked out to make hydrogen from low carbon energy instead of natural gas
  • hydrogen fuel cell may prove to be an unattainable technology.
  • fuel cells are complicated and require sophisticated parts
  • there are difficulties to making the fuel cells powerful enough to power the lights of the car, the radio, air conditioning, and give the vehicle quick acceleration
  • platinum is used to split the electrons and protons from the hydrogen atoms and platinum is very expensive
  • there are no network of fueling stations in place so that vehicles can refuel
  • nozzles and pumps to refuel need to be perfected for reliable refueling

in the near future hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will be very expensive

Fuel Cells for Cars

Fuel Cell technology is making advancements step by step. Manufacturers are working to reduce the amount of platinum needed and reduce other expenses so that lower hydrogen fuel cell costs will help these vehicles be more competively priced to more buyers.

Many companies are jumping into the hydrogen fuel cell market, from large automobile manufacturers to Apple Inc, the computer giant. Apple’s vision is to use hydrogen fuel cells in laptops and other electronic devices. On a larger scale, Apple is building a fuel cell power plant in their North Carolina data center. It will be the biggest private fuel cell project in the United States. It may even be able to be put into use before the end of 2012.

Fuel cell modules are also being used by Walmart, Staples, Google, Ebay, Bank of America, FedEx, AT&T, Coca Cola and other large corporations.

Major Car Manufacturers Are Developing Hydrogen Fuel Powered Cars

Hyundai, the South Korean car manufacturer, has committed itself to producing 10,000 fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV) each year by 2015. They have issued a statement saying they will make approximately 1,000 in 2012 and have many more thousands available by the year 2014. The price of these cars will be nearly $89,000 with the hopes that by 2015, they will cost about $50,000. Back in 1998, Hyundai started to develop fuel cell vehicles.

Merecedes Benz (Daimler) has designed their F-cell and Honda’s FCX Clarity are in fuel cell development. Toyota, Ford, Kia, Renault, Nissan and GM also have a target of 2015 in hopes of being able to mass produce FCEV. Many energy companies, such as Shell, have begun to set up hydrogen fuel cell stations. Although Ford is looking more at longer term research.

Will Hydrogen Fuel Cell Be a Major Source of Energy in the Future?

Cornell University is in the process of designing a less costly way of hydrogen conversion. When this is perfected, fuel cell energy will become less costly.

The future is headed towards less gas dependent vehicles and more environmentally friendly automobiles. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles may just become the wave of the future. The potential and science is there. As more of this energy is produced, at less cost and greater efficiency, we shall see if it becomes part of our technological culture. There are many challenges to hydrogen fuel cells, but it is an exciting future as the possibility becomes more real towards its develpment and advancement.

Do You Think Hydrogen Fuel Cells Will Become an Alternative Source of Energy

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    • toknowinfo profile image

      toknowinfo 5 years ago

      Hi Tom, I am glad you found this hub informative. It is interesting to think that some things that are yet to be will become commonplace. Whatever happens with this technology there is a lot of new advancements on the horizon and one thing will surely lead to another. Thanks for the up votes. Wishing you a wonderful week too!

    • toknowinfo profile image

      toknowinfo 5 years ago

      Hi Pamela, Thanks for stopping by and commenting. It is very interesting to see what the future will bring regarding new avenues for energy production. I think there is even more that could be done, but oil companies are very powerful and probably won't let the technology develop as fast as it could until they get their piece of the pie. That is just my opinion.

    • kashmir56 profile image

      Thomas Silvia 5 years ago from Massachusetts

      Hi toknowinfo,very interesting and informative hub,this great new technology may be just yesterdays news someday. Hopefully it will help to solve the energy problem in the near future

      Vote up and more !!!

      Have a great week my friend !

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 5 years ago from United States

      It will be amazing to watch all of this new technology develop. In so many areas of life we see new types of technology continually and these new advancements in autos will be wonderful. Voted up and interesting.