Hydrogen Fuel Cells: The Future of Transportation?

Aaron Foyer
Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles

Fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) are powered by combining hydrogen and oxygen to create electricity. The nascent technology could eventually compete with electric vehicles to replace the internal combustion engine.

The science: A catalyst separates hydrogen into protons and electrons, which split and take separate paths. The electrons go through an external circuit which creates an electric flow. The protons are recombined with electrons and mix with oxygen, which create heat and water.

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) generate electricity by converting the chemical energy stored in hydrogen fuel and oxygen into electrical energy, which then powers an electric motor to propel the vehicle. The basic working principle of an FCV involves the following steps:

  • Hydrogen fuel is stored in a high-pressure tank. When the driver presses the accelerator, hydrogen gas is released from the tank and enters the fuel cell stack.
  • The fuel cell stack contains multiple cells, each of which consists of an anode, a cathode, and an electrolyte membrane. At the anode, the hydrogen gas is split into protons and electrons through a process called electrochemical oxidation. The protons then pass through the electrolyte membrane to the cathode.
  • Meanwhile, the electrons flow through an external circuit to generate an electric current, which can be used to power the electric motor.
  • At the cathode, oxygen from the air reacts with the protons and electrons to form water vapor, which is emitted as the only byproduct of the fuel cell reaction.
  • The electric motor then uses the electrical energy generated by the fuel cell to power the vehicle, producing no harmful emissions.

Overall, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles offer a promising alternative to conventional gasoline-powered vehicles, as they offer high efficiency, low emissions, and the potential for renewable hydrogen production. However, the current infrastructure for producing, transporting, and refueling hydrogen fuel is still in development, and the cost of fuel cells remains relatively high, limiting their widespread adoption.

Fuel Cell Technologies for Transportation

Power Control UnitThe central control unit of operation, which controls the entire system and how much power and torque are created
MotorElectronically driven motor, powered by the fuel cell and battery
Fuel Cell StackSeveral stacked individual hydrogen fuel cells which use hydrogen and oxygen to create electricity
Fuel Cell Boost ConverterBoosts DC power to increase the voltage output which is higher than the input coming from the fuel cells
Hydrogen TanksTanks which store pure hydrogen gas for fuel use
BatteryStores energy generated from regenerative breaking and provides supplemental power to the motor