Is hydrogen still the fuel of the future?

Hydrogen-fuelled Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles were once considered the logical successor to gasoline-fuelled vehicles

Twenty years ago, hydrogen was widely hailed as the fuel of the future. And hydrogen fuel cells were touted as the ideal powerplants for our future cars.

Canada’s Ballard Power Systems, a pioneer in fuel-cell technology, was then a hot stock tip, soon to get even hotter. Mercedes-Benz was already heavily invested in developing fuel cells for vehicular use and General Motors would soon follow suit, as would most other major automakers, to varying degrees.

It was GM, in fact, that popularized the fuel cell dream with its groundbreaking AUTOnomy concept car — a conceptual blueprint for a bevy of fuel-cell-powered concepts and prototypes that would follow.

Just a little more development work and we would begin to see fuel-cell vehicles in production, we were told, not just by GM but by multiple players in the fuel-cell game.

Just a little more development work and we would begin to see fuel-cell vehicles in production, we were told, not just by GM but by multiple players in the fuel-cell game.

But here we are, two decades on, with less than a handful of FCEVs (Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles) on the market — and those only “sort of.”

There are the Honda Clarity, the Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell and the Toyota Mirai. All three are thoroughly-engineered production cars but their numbers are very small and they are available to customers only in very limited markets and circumstances.

Does this mean the fuel cell dream is dead? That hydrogen is not the fuel of the future after all? Let’s consider some of the factors involved.


In hydrogen’s favour as a fuel, it is the most abundant element in the universe, so there’s no shortage of supply. The problem with that abundance is that it doesn’t exist on its own. It’s always part of a compound substance, such as water (H2O) or various hydrocarbon materials (e.g. C3H8 = propane).

To separate the hydrogen from one of those compounds requires energy. In some cases, a lot of energy. It can be extracted from water by means of electrolysis — in simple terms, passing an electric current through the water. If the electricity used is generated by some renewable means — and that’s a big if — it makes sound environmental sense.

Almost all the commercial hydrogen now produced, however, results from reacting natural gas with high-temperature steam. So, not only is energy required to generate the steam, the raw material consumed in the process is a fossil fuel.

On the positive side, hydrogen can store more energy than a battery of equivalent weight. But it does have to be stored at high-pressure, which requires the use of specialized fuel tanks, typically made of expensive carbon-fibre.

Perhaps hydrogen’s greatest attribute is that it would require virtually no disruption of drivers’ established habits. FCEVs would be refueled in the same way as gasoline-fueled vehicles, and in about the same time.

Fuel Cell

The other part of the equation in an FCEV is the fuel cell itself. In concept, a fuel cell acts like a battery that is “recharged” by feeding it hydrogen. In fact, rather than storing electricity like a battery, it generates electricity by chemically reacting hydrogen with oxygen.

Individual fuel cells are very small, with low electrical output, so they are stacked together — typically 300 to 400 in an automotive fuel cell — to create a complete “fuel cell” as we know it.

In addition to electricity, a fuel cell’s only output is water, which is what makes it an ideal “zero-emissions” powerplant, in principle.

Its biggest problem is cost. It’s a very sophisticated device to manufacture and its chemical reaction requires the use of expensive materials including platinum and titanium.

The Future

In many ways, FCEVs would seem to offer the optimal compromise between gasoline-fuelled vehicles and battery electric vehicles (BEVs). They make use of the same electric motors and drivetrains as BEVs, with all the attributes they offer. But they can be refueled in a similar manner — and most importantly, a similar time — to that of conventional gasoline-fuelled vehicles. Plus, they offer driving ranges between fill-ups that exceed those of BEV recharges, if not yet equal to the best gasoline models.

But two big issues remain: cost and lack of infrastructure.

Neither are death knells for the technology but, somewhere around a decade ago, battery development began to take precedence over fuel cells, shifting attention and funding in that direction. As a result, BEVs and their supporting infrastructure have advanced at a much faster rate.

Some automakers, Toyota in particular, have expressed renewed interest in FCEVs, with potential plans for more production models in the pipeline. Realistically, however, it may be too late to overtake what is becoming a BEV juggernaut.

About Gerry Malloy

Gerry Malloy is one of Canada's best known, award-winning automotive journalists.

Related Articles
Share via
Copy link