Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles

A renewable and zero-emission fuel, hydrogen has the potential to power our vehicles with water as the only by-producti. We look at some of the challenges of bringing this technology to the world of motoring.

In simplest terms, hydrogen fuel cells generate electricity efficiently by reacting hydrogen and oxygen together to form waterii. As long as hydrogen and oxygen gases continuously flow into the fuel cell, electricity will continue to be produced. The only by-product of the reaction is waterii.

Toyota's first fuel cell car fleet, planned for release from 2015, is expected to be based on the FCV-R concept. Source: Attributed to Mariordo - Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Toyota_FCV-R_Concept_WAS_2012_0629.JPG

Potential benefits and issues

Hydrogen fuel cells could be a green alternative to fossil fuels. They could reduce our dependence on non-renewable and difficult-to-mine fossil fuels, while simultaneously eliminating the harmful emissions and pollution that petrol or diesel-fuelled motor vehicles produceii. The widespread adoption of such technology could have far-reaching environmental benefits and significant impacts on how we driveii.

The main barrier to the adoption of fuel cells is that they are very expensive. In order to be price competitive with petrol-based vehicles, the systems must cost, at most, US$30 per kilowatt of poweriii. Yet the projected production price is US$49 per kilowattiv. Indeed Volkswagen's CEO, Martin Winterkorn, has been quoted as saying, 'I do not see the infrastructure for fuel cell vehicles, and I do not see how hydrogen can be produced on a large scale at reasonable cost'v.

Durability, reliability, system size and weight are other issues facing hydrogen fuel cell adoptioniii. The Durability Working Group of the U.S. Department of Energy highlight durability issues related to impurities, starting and stopping, freezing, thawing, humidity and load cycles. While they claim significant progress has been made in this area, further research and development is requiredvi.

Despite these concerns, several car companies are committed to developing hydrogen fuel cells to production levels. By investing in this technology, they believe they will encourage demand for this latest trend in vehicles to a point that they will become mass-produced and affordableviii.

Hydrogen fuel cells have the potential to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, with water being the only by-product.

BMW and Toyota

BMW and Toyota signed a technology sharing deal this year, signalling their intention to work together to achieve a number of technological advancements including fuel cell-based vehicles on the market by 2020 (although both companies are pushing to release car models by 2014)vii. They also wish to develop codes and standards for the industry to promote quality hydrogen infrastructure, which is expected to contribute a great deal to the growth of the fuel cell vehicle marketvii. Furthermore, the days of fuel cell prototypes costing almost US$1 million are gone, according to Toyotai. BMW and Toyota plan to release production cars in 2015 that will cost approximately AU$97,500i.

Daimler, Renault-Nissan, and Ford

In the wake of the BMW and Toyota deal, these three companies announced a joint project to develop fuel cell-based vehicles ready for the market by 2017viii. Their intention is to create 'the world's first affordable, mass-market FCEVs [fuel cell electric vehicles]' to solve the conflict faced by many car-makers between mass production and environmental sustainabilityviii.

i Zalstein, D. 2013, 'Toyota hydrogen fuel cell cars to cost under $100K', CarAdvice, viewed 25 July 2013,

ii Sustainable Energy Fuel Cells Australia (SEFCA), Why Fuel Cells, viewed 25 July 2013,

iii U.S. Department of Energy 2013, Fuel Cell Technology Challenges, viewed 25 July 2013,

iv Breakthrough Technologies Institute 2012, 2011 Fuel cell technologies market report, viewed 25 July 2013,

v Bass, J. 2013, 'Volkswagen cool on hydrogen power', Motoring, viewed 25 July 2013,

vi U.S. Department of Energy 2013, Durability Working Group, viewed 25 July 2013,

vii Bass, J. 2013, 'BMW and Toyota extend multi-tech deal', Motoring, viewed 25 July 2013,

viii Bass, J. 2013, 'Ford joins Euro fuel cell consortium', Motoring, viewed 25 July 2013,