Understanding Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles

Toyota Mirai
Toyota Mirai. Credit: Toyota.
We had a Los Angeles listener call the Car Pro Radio show last Saturday, inquiring about hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV) and I had to admit, my knowledge was very limited. Only about 8,000 were sold in the U.S. last year, mostly in the Los Angeles area. Luckily, our friends at AAA have done research to explain. Click here for a link to the article.

Electric cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells are now on American roads, albeit in limited markets. This is 50 years after the technology was used to power the Gemini/Apollo space missions, and more than two decades since automakers first showed modern fuel cell electric vehicle prototypes.

Hyundai is out front in the FCEV race; it began leasing hydrogen-powered Tucson crossover utility vehicles through select Los Angeles dealers in 2014. Toyota’s Mirai FCEV and Clarity FCEV debuted in 2015, and Honda’s second-generation Clarity FCEV debuted near the close of the same year. Several other automakers say they will introduce FCEVs soon.

As Green as It Gets

FCEVs generate electricity from a polymer electrolyte membrane fuel cell stack. Inside the assembly, pressurized hydrogen from a storage tank and oxygen from compressed air are directed across the PEM, creating a chemical reaction that generates electricity to power the vehicle’s motor.

One major benefit of fuel cells is that their only emissions are water vapor and heat. If FCEVs become common, they will reduce greenhouse gases and support American energy independence. FCEVs are also efficient, quiet and can typically be refueled in less than five minutes rather than the hours needed to recharge a battery-powered electric vehicle. Finally, most FCEVs store enough hydrogen to provide up to 300 miles of driving range, comparable to that of many gasoline-powered cars.

Remaining Challenges

Despite their advantages, fuel cell electric vehicles still have challenges to overcome. Low production and limited distribution mean FCEVs will be rare for some time. Fuel cells are also very expensive, even though costs have fallen significantly over the last decade.

Most FCEV’s can only be leased and available only in limited markets (initially the greater Los Angeles area). The Tucson lease costs $2,999 up front and $499 for 36 months, which includes fuel and maintenance. Unlike traditional electric cars, fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) can travel approximately 300 miles on a tank of hydrogen which takes only minutes to refill.

Toyota has also joined the party and offers a fuel-cell-powered model called the Mirai which can be purchased outright for $57,500, or leased for $349 a month for 36 months with $2,499 due at signing. Honda will begin delivering its second-generation Clarity fuel-cell vehicle with a lease deal that costs $369 per month with $2,499 due at signing.

Another issue is an absence of hydrogen fueling stations, something states and industry partners are working to correct. Some critics also worry about using volatile hydrogen gas as an automotive fuel source, and how safe it will be to transport the gas between suppliers and fuel stations.

Today, government agencies, industry groups and automakers are collaborating on fuel-cell research to improve the technology, drive down costs and ensure safety. They are also promoting the vehicles through public-private partnerships such as H2USA (H2 is the chemical formula for hydrogen), and by offering tax credits to consumers who buy green cars.

If the current pace of change continues, your next car may be powered by gas – hydrogen gas.

Source: AAA Exchange.

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