In a vehicle, fuel cells generate electricity to drive an electric motor that powers the wheels. A fuel cell driven electric motor offers additional benefits including very high torque for quick starts and a quiet ride. The fuel cell also replaces the alternator, providing electricity for the ever-increasing electronic controls in today’s cars.
Fuel cell cars offer full functionality enjoyed by today’s internal combustion engine vehicles including fast refueling in under three minutes, long ranges in excess of 400km, and low variation in fuel cell profile life.
When we burn carbon-based fuels in traditional combustion engines, they emit carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides, hydrocarbons, particulate matter and other potentially toxic compounds. In a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, the only emission is water vapor. The hydrogen fuel cell powertrain has a higher energy density per unit of weight or volume than batteries. In addition, hydrogen can be produced domestically from a variety of energy sources – natural gas, biomass, nuclear, and renewables – and be economically competitive with gasoline or diesel.
Hydrogen is stored in fuel cell vehicles by high pressure gas of 350 or 700 bar (5000 or 10,000 psi), allowing most fuel cell vehicles to have a range of 400 km or more before being refueled.
Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, bonding with other elements to form molecules such as water, natural gas and methanol. Hydrogen is generated by unlocking the chemical bonds in these molecules that form these substances. Hydrogen can be produced using diverse, domestic resources including fossil fuels such as natural gas and coal (with carbon sequestration); nuclear; biomass and other renewable energy technologies such as wind, solar, geothermal, and hydro-electric power.
Governments and organizations have conducted well-to-wheel studies (fuel production through end use in a vehicle) comparing various fuel pathways and vehicle types such as internal combustion engines, diesel engines, battery electrics, hybrids, plug-in hybrids and fuel cells.
While most hydrogen produced today is from natural gas, the well-to-wheel greenhouse gas emission benefits are clear. In a fuel cell engine, the emissions are at least 55% less compared to a gasoline combustion engine and about 40% less than that of gasoline hybrid engine.
When hydrogen is produced from renewable resources and used to power fuel cell vehicles, the entire chain of processes results in the lowest environmental impact of all vehicle types.
Hydrogen is used today in many industrial settings including chemicals production, petroleum refining, and metals treating. Products that use hydrogen during the production process include fertilizers, glass, vitamins, cosmetics, soaps, lubricants, margarine and peanut butter.
To succeed in the commercial marketplace, hydrogen must be cost-competitive with conventional fuels on a per-unit of energy basis. With ongoing government support, policies and incentives, companies will improve the efficiency, practicality and cost of hydrogen production.
Eventually hydrogen will be as readily available as gasoline today. Until then, hydrogen stations will be located and built in coordination with the expected availability of vehicles and expanded to more areas as commercial availability of vehicles expands. We expect fuel providers and companies currently active in hydrogen related industries would sell hydrogen.
Hydrogen is as safe if not safer than conventional fuels on the market today, including gasoline. For over 50 years, hydrogen has been produced and transported safely for industrial uses throughout North America. While hydrogen was blamed for starting the fire that engulfed the Hindenburg, NASA engineer Addison Bain concluded that the fire actually started from the airship’s outer cover which was waterproofed with chemicals similar to rocket fuel.
The following hydrogen fuel leak simulation demonstrates the severity of a fuel ignition from a gasoline fueled vehicle in comparison to a hydrogen fuelled vehicle.
Today, there are over 280 vehicles on the road powered by AFCC fuel cells however they are not yet commercially available. Most auto manufacturers are testing fuel cell cars in everyday use to optimize their technology prior to their early commercialization in the 2017 timeframe.
When fuel cell vehicles are available for sale, it is expected that they will be priced competitively with today’s hybrid vehicles.
The focus of industry activities are to:
Governments play an important role, and can help create the foundation for hydrogen commercialization so that investment by the private sector can take place. Activities such as establishing incentives, education and training, and codes and standards are critical activities that require government leadership.