The Great Fuel Cell Debate: A New Kind of Vehicle Electrification
Updated: Apr 8
Electric vehicles are a rapidly growing segment of the transportation industry. In recent years, EV technology has become cheaper, simpler to develop, and easier to maintain. Given these recent advancements, you may wonder why EVs aren’t even more widespread. Unfortunately, there are quite a few complications holding back vehicle electrification. One of the main barriers to automotive electrification is the limited driving range that a battery-powered vehicle can cover before having to recharge. Beyond that, recharging a battery-powered electric vehicle to full capacity can take hours, a heavy time commitment compared to the few minutes that it takes to refuel a gas-powered vehicle.
But what if an EV could be refueled like an ICE?
While electricity obviously cannot be poured into a vehicle’s engine like gasoline, an electric vehicle can use a tank filled with liquid hydrogen to generate its energy. Electric vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells can run for much longer without ever having to be plugged in, avoiding a significant amount of recharging downtime.
The benefits of fuel cells are clear, yet fuel cells remain a hotly debated topic among advanced vehicle technology experts. Tesla CEO Elon Musk has been a particularly harsh and vocal critic of fuel cells, having referred to the technology throughout the years as “staggeringly dumb”, “mind-bogglingly stupid”, “simply not possible”, and (perhaps most creative of all) “fool sells”.
Why the animosity? Despite the theoretical benefits that fuel cells could provide electric vehicles, the technology is currently very difficult to put into practice. Fuel cell critics such as Musk cite numerous impracticalities and drawbacks to the use of fuel cells, including:
The extraction of pure hydrogen is, in and of itself, an expensive and energy-intensive process, sometimes expending more energy than the extracted hydrogen can generate. Furthermore, the process often requires the use of fossil fuels, putting the environmental benefits of fuel cells in question.
Lack of Supporting Infrastructure
There is currently no widespread infrastructure in place for storing and distributing hydrogen fuel. Whereas fossil fuel supplies are readily accessible, having been used for years as the standard for powering vehicles, hydrogen resources are much more difficult to come by. The creation of a working hydrogen infrastructure will require an enormous investment from both government agencies and privately-owned companies.
Fuel cell EVs are much less commonly produced than battery-powered alternatives. A lack of research and development investment has historically held fuel cell technology back from enjoying the same success as BEVs. Fuel cells are often highly expensive to develop and equip, and many industry experts question whether the benefits are worth the investment.
Despite these concerns, however, fuel cells have a promising future. Recently, several major automotive manufacturers – including Toyota, Kenworth Trucks, and HYZON – have started to lead the charge on fuel cell production. With such companies’ endorsement, we may soon witness a significant upsurge in fuel cell research and development. An increase in fuel cell R&D investments would automatically do away with many of the technology’s current limitations, allowing manufacturers and customers alike to enjoy the many benefits of fuel cell electric vehicles:
Capacity to store energy for later use
Long driving range (especially beneficial to heavy-duty vehicles, whose operation often expends enormous amounts of energy)
Quick refueling ability
Zero emissions energy source
While the current barriers to widespread fuel cell implementation cannot be ignored, fuel cells are anything but a lost cause. As more and more major industry players are expressing their support for fuel cell development, fuel cell R&D limitations should soon become a thing of the past. With the proper infrastructure in place, highly developed fuel cell technology could eliminate many of the current limitations of battery electric vehicles. Blending the easy refueling process of an ICE-powered vehicle with the zero-emissions clean energy of a BEV, fuel cells are a worthwhile investment.