Why the automotive future will be dominated by fuel cells

Why the automotive future will be dominated by fuel cells

SamO | December 6, 2016

Ha ha ha ha

"Despite the very public posturing of Musk and other hydrogen naysayers, most automobile manufacturers are readying themselves for a time when FCEVs dominate. These companies realize that the size and costs involved generally preclude the use of battery storage for large passenger vehicles as well as medium- and heavy-duty trucks, whereas FCEVs are well positioned to serve all these segments. Mainstream carmakers are also acutely aware that, for many people, BEV charging is just really inconvenient." - Scott Samuelsen, a professor emeritus of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of California, Irvine, is director of the National Fuel Cell Research Center, located at UC Irvine.

2012 called. They want their thesis statement back.

EcLectric | December 6, 2016

That argument has a small hole in it. The word 'compressed'. If you take that word out, all the usefulness of the fool cell vehicle leaks out. Unless you want to drag around behind your car - a giant gas bag that holds enough gaseous hydrogen for a reasonable trip. Forget about the energy required to isolate the hydrogen from its usual containers. Forget about what's left over after such isolation (typically carbon dioxide). Even if there were giant underground wells of gaseous hydrogen. Lets just focus on the energy it takes to 'compress' hydrogen gas into a container that fits into a car. The typical required pressure is about 10,000 pounds per square inch. According to an article I found online (, this takes 1.36 kWh to produce a kg of pressurized hydrogen. According to another article: A hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle's tank is sized in kilograms. A 4-kilogram hydrogen tank (8.8 pounds) holds the energy equivalent of 4 gallons of gasoline. So if you want the equivalent of a typical car (say 12 gallons), this is 12Kg of hydrogen required, which is 16.3 kWh just to compress one tank of the existing hydrogen to get it into the car. How much carbon is released just to produce the energy to compress the hydrogen?

Talk about moving the tailpipe emissions! Fool cells are just a parlor trick to take an inherently polluting process and hide the pollution. Look! Only water comes out of the exhaust! Except that to produce, compress, store, truck, etc. that non-polluting hydrogen - pollutes more than gasoline!

And where to they get this hydrogen? Pick it off a hydrogen tree? There is one plentiful source of hydrogen: hydrocarbons. This is hydrogen and carbon chemically combined. These are also known as gasoline, oil, kerosene, benzene, etc.. And how do you get the hydrogen out? Expend more energy by heating it up to high temperatures to 'crack' off the hydrogen. What does that leave behind? Carbon. You know, the stuff that oxidizes at high temperatures to produce: carbon dioxide.

Pay no attention to the fumes and smoke coming from behind the curtain - this is clean hydrogen fuel! | December 6, 2016

Let's see how well it's working in California. With about 25 fueling stations in the USA (actually all in California), that cost between $2-5 million each for a single stall fueling station. The state of California is paying for these fueling stations as no business in their right mind would do it. About 700 hydrogen cars have been sold in the last 5 years. So the fueling infrastructure has already cost at least $50 million or $71K per car! Boy, I love being taxed for these kinds of boondoggles.

carlk | December 6, 2016

Check the author's bio. His research grant and livelihood depends on fuel cells. I feel sorry for him. But then again he says it will take decades to happen. He's long gone from the research center to enjoy California sunshine on nice beaches.

NKYTA | December 6, 2016

SamO, mic drop moment there. LOL!

Jens Nolte | December 7, 2016

Fuel cells are may be a option for big trucks like the Nikola One where you need many energy for your travels.
For norma cars i think the future will be supercapacitors or a mix of them with batterys.

finman100 | December 7, 2016

but, but, but...where will these trucks fill with H2? outside of Cali? You still have to utilize (ie WASTE) a lot of energy just to get hydrogen away from its' neighboring elemental bonds, then compress, then distribute, then...then...then. The list gets pretty long and H2 has been shown to be (Elon quote), "incredibly dumb". I don't see the upside once the math is said and done. I really don't. Even for "large trucks". Delusional. wasteful. hiding the pollution. It's a triple threat.

joemar10 | December 7, 2016

The article mentions charger rage, so I am not completely off topic. I am an early Model 3 reservation holder (#10 in line at Vienna Va. on mar. 31st.) I do not currently own a Tesla, so I have absolutely no experience with charging or the hopefully infrequent, "charger rage". I expect that with the production of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Model 3's it will be much more frequent.

If my idea is completely stupid, I'm sure there will be an abundance of forum members that will let me know. If it has merits, hopefully someone with real world experience in the subject will chime in and improve on it if needed.

Here goes: What if, as part of the app used to summon your car, you and the owner of the car that is fully charged sitting in the charger spot, could coordinate the movement of his/her car into your parking spot and your car into the charging spot. I think that I have seen where the charger connection is locked while charging, so maybe the other owner could remotely unlock it, the person waiting for the spot could remove it, and the car could drive to a parking spot designated as being vacated by your car without the other owner having to stop shopping or dining, to move the car. Ideas?

Another subject, but more on topic:

I'm not an engineer, and I don't have a bunch of letters after my name, but common sense tells me that that fuel cell vehicles are just making a simple solution more complicated

What could be more simple than: Sun shines/wind blows, electricity made, car charged. Charging times, which seems to be the main issue that the writer references, are on the verge of being drastically lowered according to many articles that I have read recently, so that should not be an issue for much longer.

Dramsey | December 7, 2016


"but, but, but...where will these trucks fill with H2? outside of Cali? You still have to utilize (ie WASTE) a lot of energy just to get hydrogen away from its' neighboring elemental bonds, then compress, then distribute, then...then...then."

Well, according to this article:

...Nikola plans to generate all their hydrogen with massive solar farms. That said, I can't find any such claims in their press release or on their web site, so who knows? Electrolysis isn't terribly efficient but if you're going to build solar farms just for that purpose, I suppose it doesn't matter as the sunlight wasn't being used for anything else anyway.

You're right, though, about distribution, which is the real Achilles' heel of hydrogen. It takes a LOT of energy to compress and/or cool H2, and the H2 molecule is, well...those of us with scientific training call it "really, really small." It migrates right through many metals, weakening them as it does so.

Still, I'm willing to let Nikola make their case. BEV semis just aren't in the cards with current technology (or, possibly, ever), and even an inefficient hydrogen system would be way better than all those smoky Diesel big rigs.

RedShift | December 7, 2016


"suppose it doesn't matter as the sunlight wasn't being used for anything else anyway."

It could have been used to store up the electricity generated into batteries, or another storage medium 6molten salt, anyone?), or to generate electricity in a solar power plant. I don't know how much more or less efficient that would be compared to Hydrogen, but I can't imagine it being less efficient than electrolysis, then the added inefficiencies exposed in the whole Hydrogen cycle.

Dramsey | December 7, 2016

Well, there's a reason there are no BEV big rigs, so putting the energy into batteries wouldn't help Nikola. If the point is to get a zero-emissions _practical_ big rig on the road, I don't see a better solution with current technology. We'll see if Nikola can pull it off-- the odds seem stacked against them.

RedShift | December 7, 2016


I see your point. However, I had read somewhere that it is more efficient to burn Hydrogen (or Natural Gas, as Volvo conversion kits sellers will tell you) in an ICE than go through all the trouble of FCV cycle.
I tend to believe Natural Gas when burned is probably a pretty good candidate for trucks.

SamO | December 7, 2016

What happens when Tesla builds their big rig, as announced?

Guess that theory will be dead.

Dramsey | December 8, 2016


"However, I had read somewhere that it is more efficient to burn Hydrogen (or Natural Gas, as Volvo conversion kits sellers will tell you) in an ICE than go through all the trouble of FCV cycle."

I've read similar things; however, as far as I know, there are no ICE H2 vehicles on the road other than some prototypes BMW showed a few years ago. Of course such engines would still need some petroleum-based lubricants, but that's not much compared to the fuel.

Also, I don't know if the characteristics of an H2 ICE are suitable for big rigs, which need a LOT of low-end torque to get things moving-- this is why existing trucks are all Diesels and why electric motors are a good fit. Same for natural gas: it's a very mature technology for ICE, and it's been available in cars for decades; so I'd guess the reason you don't see it in commercial trucks is that it's more like a gasoline engine than a Diesel.


We shall see. Tesla's big rig design will have to work with existing physical standards for things like trailers, so they'll be more constrained in what they can do. As far as I can find, Tesla has so far released only their intention to build such a vehicle, while Nikola has shown a prototype and given detailed plans about an infrastructure to support them. Personally I'd prefer to see Tesla concentrate on passenger vehicles...

brando | December 8, 2016

Tesla Semi should easily compete with Nikola truck. Great to see competition as two companies looking for customers expands the market. Hopefully will also be able to fight for some of this business.

Just as a side note about the dangers of hydrogen. Take a look at these numbers and the
actual 1937 film of this disaster which burned up in about 30 seconds.

So you might ponder how did so many survive? 62 survive and 36 die

Date: May 6, 1937
Passenger count: 36
Operator: Deutsche Zeppelin Reederei
Survivor: 62
Fatalities: 36 (13 passengers, 22 aircrewmen, one ground crewman)
Crew count: 61
Flight origins: Frankfurt, Germany

Also note how the skin is so very flammable. H2 goes straight up and creates water/steam as it oxidizes [burns].
H2O is of course water.

I'm going to guess that Hydrogen Fuel Cell cars, IF they are not crushed or all sent to Museums may end up in Iceland. The only place I know has been working on a hydrogen economy since the 1970s. Icelanders might buy IF they are sold/imported cheap enough. Will the hose connectors fit?
http://www.treehugger com/cars/in-iceland-hydrogen-powered-buses-are-step-toward-oil-free-economy.html

RedShift | December 8, 2016

Wrightspeed will do lower range and with jet engine range extender as those tend to very efficient at high speeds. Longer range will require a bigger battery and likely huge transformers at truck stop superchargers.
A truck would probably have more flexibility in placement of the battery pack too. Floor of the trailer is a pretty good place combined with the cab itself.

Rocky_H | December 8, 2016

Gah, why do people keep suggesting this?

@RedShift, Quote: "A truck would probably have more flexibility in placement of the battery pack too. Floor of the trailer is a pretty good place combined with the cab itself."

It definitely will not have that flexibility. The whole point of the trucking industry is that the trailers are all interchangeable for any semi rig to hook up to it and tow it away. There are already tens of thousands of those trailers out there. That would kill any potential market for the truck to say:
"Oh, but it has to use this special, expensive, proprietary trailer and can't tow any other kinds."

RedShift | December 8, 2016

Then make the battery removable. Trailers that can carry extra capacity batteries can be made.

Or put a giant battery on the back of the cab.

brando | December 11, 2016

RedShift - you need to actually visit the site and read and try to understand what they are selling. It is NOT a jet engine range extender. It is a gas turbine generator set.

Trains have also evolved over time.
Main Alternator. The diesel engine drives the main alternator which provides the power to move the train. The alternator generates AC electricity which is used to provide power for the traction motors mounted on the trucks (bogies). In older locomotives, the alternator was a DC machine, called a generator.

bish | December 11, 2016

I thought that the Nikola Trucks were going to be BEV. But a friend just sent me this link saying that the trucks will be fuel cell. And that they plan on installing 364 hydrogen fueling stations in the US.

RedShift | December 11, 2016


"you need to actually visit the site and read and try to understand what they are selling. It is NOT a jet engine range extender. It is a gas turbine generator set."

And I did. From their website:


I originally listened to the CEO talk to a radio show host about how a 'jet engine' is used in a hybrid power train.

Maybe you need to read up thoroughly before picking on other posters.

brando | December 12, 2016


I was wrong. I wrongly thought jet engine always turbofans or turbojets and didn't realize even a rocket engine is considered a jet engine. As usual, wikipedia explains in detail all of the different type of jet engines.

brando | December 15, 2016

Hydrogen Fuel Cells may be too costly if the catalyst is Platinum. It has six naturally occurring isotopes. It is one of the rarer elements in Earth's crust with an average abundance of approximately 5 μg/kg. It occurs in some nickel and copper ores along with some native deposits, mostly in South Africa, which accounts for 80% of the world production. Because of its scarcity in Earth's crust, only a few hundred tonnes are produced annually, and given its important uses, it is highly valuable and is a major precious metal commodity.

So why can't I go out and buy a fuel cell?

The basic workings of a fuel cell may not be difficult to illustrate. But building inexpensive, efficient, reliable fuel cells is a far more complicated business.

Scientists and inventors have designed many different types and sizes of fuel cells in the search for greater efficiency, and the technical details of each kind vary. Many of the choices facing fuel cell developers are constrained by the choice of electrolyte. The design of electrodes, for example, and the materials used to make them depend on the electrolyte. Today, the main electrolyte types are alkali, molten carbonate, phosphoric acid, proton exchange membrane (PEM) and solid oxide. The first three are liquid electrolytes; the last two are solids.

The type of fuel also depends on the electrolyte. Some cells need pure hydrogen, and therefore demand extra equipment such as a "reformer" to purify the fuel. Other cells can tolerate some impurities, but might need higher temperatures to run efficiently. Liquid electrolytes circulate in some cells, which requires pumps. The type of electrolyte also dictates a cell's operating temperature–"molten" carbonate cells run hot, just as the name implies.

Each type of fuel cell has advantages and drawbacks compared to the others, and none is yet cheap and efficient enough to widely replace traditional ways of generating power, such coal-fired, hydroelectric, or even nuclear power plants.

The following list describes the five main types of fuel cells. More detailed information can be found in those specific areas of this site.

sosmerc | December 15, 2016

Wow. Interesting stuff! It ain't going to be your father's Oldsmobile anymore.

Dramsey | December 18, 2016


"Hydrogen Fuel Cells may be too costly if the catalyst is Platinum."

Considering that every single ICE on the road made in the 40 years has had a catalytic converter containing platinum-- several grams per converter-- I don't think it would be an issue for fuel cells unless they need a LOT more platinum.

According to this article:

...the amount of platinum needed for a fuel cell has dropped about 80% in the last decade.

SamO | December 18, 2016

“Hydrogen is an energy storage mechanism. It is not a source of energy. So you have to get that hydrogen from somewhere. if you get that hydrogen from water, so you’re splitting H20, electrolysis is extremely inefficient as an energy process…. if you say took a solar panel and use the energy from that to just charge a battery pack directly, compared to try to split water, take the hydrogen, dump the oxygen, compress the hydrogen to an extremely high pressure (or liquefy it) and then put it in a car and run a fuel-cell, it is about half the efficiency, it’s terrible. Why would you do that? It makes no sense.” -Elon Musk | December 18, 2016

One recent article shows a car's fuel cell needing about 34 grams of Platinum - quite a bit more than in a catalytic converter, which has 3-7 grams. Improvements may happen to lower this, but it appears it will always be a lot more than a catalytic converter.

SamO | December 18, 2016

The math simply doesn't work.


You above all people (I assumed) would be able to do the math.

Not about platinum, but just the overall optimal efficiency of fuel cells.

Watt fun | December 18, 2016

To understand all the various type of fuel cells, their fuels, usages, strong points and drawbacks in a quite easy to understand form, I suggest:

The hype about hydrogen : fact and fiction in the race to save the climate Romm, Joseph J. Publisher:Island Press,Pub date:2006, c2005. ISBN:1559637048

Joe Romm is now known for his climate commentary role, but back some years ago he was in charge of the US government effort to explore and popularize fuel cells. With this, you can shoot down in understandable terms any errant Hydrogen Fuel Cell nonsense that pops up

Dramsey | December 18, 2016


I was only responding to the assertion that the cost of platinum would be a limiting factor, not about the overall efficiency of fuel cells. If you look way, way back at the OP, you'll note my first statement was "Not buying it myself..."

That said, I still think there may be applications for fuel cells where energy density is a primary concern. I will be interested oif see if the Nicola trucks prove feasible.

Watt fun | December 18, 2016

Various fuel cells work, and are extremely useful and even extremely reliable. Mostly for factories, data centres and other large buildings, which don't move, and which also might require or find useful an awful lot of by-product heat. 100,000 pound load transport trucks? a possibility under some exceptional circumstances. Trains? A less remote possibility. As for smallish vehicles, no, just no. Chrysler's 1963 Turbine cars are -almost- as likely as HFC.

radami2 | December 18, 2016

I wonder what is wrong with old technology for trucks. San Francisco still operates its electric buses on electric wires. These are heavyweight vehicles and the network of wires runs throughout the city. This technology is early 20th century and I am sure there are plenty of improvements that could be made to make it safer and capable of supporting higher speeds. Why is no one considering putting a network of wires on the interstate system that could support trucks, buses and even cars. It could be supported by networks of wind turbines, solar panels, and stationary batteries. Trucks could carry enough battery power to get them to their local destination from the highway. Anyone have any plausible reason this would not work?

RedShift | December 18, 2016


Infrastructure to make electric overhead traction happen for the interstate system is probably going to be very expensive. It also limits movement to a few areas whereas a truck might need to reach deep into hinterlands often.

brando | December 19, 2016

Sweden debuts the world's first 'electric highway' just as radami2 imagines.

https://www.engadget . com/2016/06/24/sweden-electric-highway/

bp | December 19, 2016

A major advantage of long range EVs is that most owners can inexpensively install a charging station at home - and for most driving, overnight charging is enough to handle almost all driving, with the exception of a few road trips each year.

This means that long range EVs primarily need charging for road trips - which means a significantly smaller number of "fueling" locations than other technologies.

Fuel cells are great technology - with the clean advantages of a long range EV and the short fueling time of an ICE.

BUT... Refueling will be similar to ICEs, requiring many more fueling locations than long range EVs. If all cars shifted to fuel cells, current gas stations would have to be replaced with hydrogen stations - and, as noted, the cost per charging "station" is considerably higher than either ICE or EV - so the cost for building out enough of a fuel cell charging network to provide coverage - both local and road trips - would be enormous.

With Tesla's plans for expanding the Supercharger network next year, the continuing expansion of the Destination Charging network, and lower costs for home chargers (I paid $1200 for my HPWC 4 years ago - it's now $500/550!), Tesla will have pretty good coverage for the areas where they are selling cars, with the only major issue being the longer refueling times during road trips (after the initial charge is exhausted).

Now, if we can get an EV fueled by a "Mr. Fusion"...

RedShift | December 19, 2016


That's an experimental 1.2 mile stretch and they openly wonder if it can be scaled. ('Unless there are more efficient ways to scale" line in the article)

BEV trucks might have more of a chance as well as conversions to natural gas burning engines. Reportedly the last one requires very little modification to an existing truck engine.

brando | December 26, 2016

@redshift "...if it can be scaled."

Ever been to europe and seen/riden the train system?

Have you heard about the high speed rail system - 100% electric, right?

TGV is France's intercity high-speed rail service, operated by SNCF, the national rail operator. It was developed in the 1970s by GEC-Alsthom and SNCF. Originally designed as turbotrains to be powered by gas turbines, the prototypes evolved into electric trains with .... A Eurostar (TGV) train broke the record for the longest non-stop high-speed ...

https://en.wikipedia. org/wiki/Railway_electrification_system

bp | December 27, 2016

If Supercharger V3 can reduce typical road trip charging to 5-10 minutes, that eliminates the primary benefit of fuel cell technology, shorter refueling times.

Fuel cells can still have longer range, though on a road trip, we've found stopping every 2 to 3 hours for a few minutes is better than trying to drive 4 to 5 hours between stops in our previous cars.

And long range EVs will continue to have a huge advantage for local charging - since most charging can be done overnight at home, while fuel cells will require the equivalent of gas stations for periodic refueling. So Tesla has a huge advantage for refueling, requiring much fewer charging locations than would be required for fuel cells - plus the charging stations use the electric grid and don't require tankers making frequent stops for refueling the stations.

SO | December 27, 2016

Plus the benefit of a much simpler drivetrain for EVs.

Tiebreaker | December 27, 2016

Nikola takes a page from Tesla's book and plans on building a charging infrastructure.

In their FAQ, they describe "an onboard range extending fuel cell that will automatically charge the battery pack when needed."