Fuel Cell Vehicle FAQ

1. Will fuel cell electric vehicles have limited range like battery electric vehicles?

2. I understand that current fuel cell vehicles are very expensive; will they ever be cost competitive with conventional cars?

3. Are fuel cells durable enough to last the life of the car?

4. Can fuel cell vehicles operate in cold weather?

5. How long before I can buy a fuel cell vehicle?

6. When will there be enough hydrogen stations in my city so that I can refuel a fuel cell vehicle conveniently?

7. Will a “breakthrough” in hydrogen storage technology be required?

8. Is there enough platinum in the world to support fuel cell vehicles?

9.If hydrogen-powered fuel cell electric vehicles are so good for the environment and so good at reducing oil consumption, why is the US Obama administration not enthusiastically supporting the development of hydrogen and FCEVs?

1. Will fuel cell vehicles have limited range like battery electric vehicles?

Short answer: No, fuel cell electric vehicles already have ranges similar to regular gasoline-powered cars (300 to 400 miles or more) and much greater than battery EVs. 

Long answer: The U.S. Department of Energy has certified that fuel cell version of the Toyota Highlander SUV can travel 431 miles on one fill-up of hydrogen. This was achieved with actual on-road driving in Southern California certified by engineers from the Savannah River National Laboratory and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in the summer of 2009.

Battery electric vehicles become very heavy to achieve long range between battery charges, which limits their range for a practical, full-function passenger vehicle to less than 100 to 200 miles. Fuel cell electric vehicles are powered by hydrogen, which is the lightest element in the universe.  Increasing the range of a FCEV does not add significant weight to the vehicle, so ranges of 350 to 400 miles are already demonstrated.

2. I understand that current fuel cell vehicles are very expensive; will they ever be cost competitive with conventional cars?

Short answer: yes, the fuel cell electric vehicle in mass production should be no more than a few thousand dollars more expensive than a regular gasoline car, and, with 90% fewer moving parts, should be much less expensive to operate and maintain in the long run.

Long answer:MIT has analyzed the likely costs of various alternative vehicles in great detail when they are mass produced.  They concluded that a hydrogen-powered fuel cell electric vehicle with 350 miles range based on current technology would cost approximately $3,600 more than an advanced gasoline passenger vehicle once the car companies begin mass production.

For comparison, they estimate that a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle with 30 miles all-electric range would cost $4,000 more, a PHEV with 60 miles all-electric range would cost $6,000 more, and a battery electric vehicle with 200 miles range would cost $10,200 more than a conventional car.

So the fuel cell electric vehicle should be the least expensive alternative, and will certainly be much less expensive than a battery EV with reasonable range above 200 miles.

In fact, fuel cell electric vehicles could even cost less than conventional gasoline cars.  GM notes that the powertrain of a FCEV has 60% fewer parts and 90% fewer moving parts than a gasoline engine powertrain. This could eventually lead to lower cost and also lower maintenance cost since there are so few moving parts in a FCEV.

3. Are fuel cells durable enough to last the life of the car?

Short answer: Not yet, but progress is very encouraging.

Long answer: Fuel cell durability has been improving steadily over the ten years, with 2,000 hours of stack life demonstrated, compared to the 5,000 hours life goal for motor vehicles. Individual cells have been tested for over 20,000 hours in steady state operation.  The National Research Council in 2008 concluded that “Lower-cost, durable fuel cell systems for light-duty vehicles are likely to be increasingly available over the next 5-10 years, and, if supported by strong government policies, commercialization and growth of HFCVs could get underway by 2015, even though all DOE targets for HFCVs may not be fully realized.

4. Can fuel cell vehicles operate in cold weather?

Short answer: Yes, several car companies have already tested FCEVs in very cold climates.

Long answer: Since water is produced when hydrogen is combined with oxygen from the air in a fuel cell, care has to be taken to prevent any damage or degradation to the stack due to freezing.

Note that all FCEVs have an onboard battery system, much like current gasoline hybrids.  The FCEV can start up and run for many minutes on battery power alone, just as existing gasoline HEVs start up and operate on batteries, and only switch on their gasoline engines when higher power is required.

Car companies have already demonstrated fuel cell stacks that can reach 50% of their rated power in 20 seconds at -20oC or -4o Fahrenheit, which is more than adequate for FCEV operation in the battery mode.  Fuel cell stacks must also survive -40o temperatures without damage.

5. How long before I can buy a fuel cell vehicle?

Short answer:That depends on where you live and how soon society and governments get serious about curbing global warming and our addiction to oil.

Long answer: Honda began leasing their FCX Clarity fuel cell electric vehicle to a limited number of customers in California in 2008. Widespread sales or leases of FCEVs will depend on how soon society decides to aggressively address greenhouse gas pollution, urban air pollution and oil dependence. We estimate that affordable FCEVs could be available in the 2014 to 2018 time frame once governments or private investors make a long-term, sustainable commitment to achieving our energy security and climate change goals.

The National Research Council stated in their 2008 report that “a significant market transition to HFCVs could start around 2015 if supported by strong government policies to drive early growth, even if DOE technology targets are not fully realized.”

Automobile companies could ramp up to high scale production in five to six years, and energy companies could begin installing large numbers of hydrogen fueling equipment in a similar time period. But these companies may not make a reasonable return on their investments initially, since there will not be enough FCEVs in any local area for the fueling station owners to make a profit. Similarly, with only a few hydrogen stations initially, car companies would have limited sales opportunities.

This is where governments come in.   One major responsibility of any worthy government is to “provide for the common good” of all citizens. The major motivation for hydrogen-powered FCEVs is to cut pollution and dependence on fossil fuels. No single company can be expected to invest the necessary resources to jump-start the hydrogen and FCEV economy. Our analyses show both car companies and energy companies will be very profitable without government incentives once the initial investments are made.

6. When will there be enough hydrogen stations in my city so that I can refuel a fuel cell vehicle conveniently?

Short answer: Same as FCEV availability: it depends on where you live and how quickly governments get serious about implementing all the options to stop global warming and oil addiction.

Long answer: Hydrogen fueling systems are being added in clusters around the US to support regional introductions of FCEVs. If you live in one of these pilot cities such as Los Angeles, Sacramento, New York, Columbia, S.C., Honolulu, or Washington DC, then chances are you could fuel a FCEV today. The plan is to expand these clusters of fueling stations over time, adding hydrogen fueling stations on interstate highways until the entire country is covered with hydrogen pumps.

Other countries have similar plans to add networks of hydrogen fueling stations, with Germany and Japan taking the lead. In September of 2009, eight major organizations announced their intent to build a hydrogen fueling network in Germany sufficient to support the “few hundred thousand” FCEVs planned by the auto companies by the 2015 time period.

7. Will a “break-through” in hydrogen storage technology be required?

Short answer: No, reduced storage volume and cost would be welcomed, but a “break-through” in hydrogen storage is certainly not necessary to proceed full steam ahead on hydrogen and FCEVs.

Long answer: all car companies making FCEVs are now storing hydrogen as a compressed gas in carbon fiber-re-enforced composite tanks. This is the same technology used to store compressed natural gas on hundreds of thousands of natural gas vehicles around the world.

These compressed gas tanks do take up more space on the vehicle than gasoline tanks, so we would welcome new hydrogen storage technology if it cut down on space in the vehicle at an affordable price, but a “break-through” is not required to proceed with FCEVs. The car companies have been able to accommodate compressed gas tanks and still achieve up to 430 miles range (See Question #1 above) without sacrificing passenger or trunk space.

8. Is there enough platinum in the world to support fuel cell vehicles?

Short answer: Yes, there is enough platinum in the world (primarily in South Africa and Russia) so that mining companies can gradually increase their annual platinum production to support a ramp-up in fuel cell electric vehicles over the next few decades.

Long answer:   Some analysts have pointed out that if we suddenly converted all passenger vehicles to FCEVs overnight with today’s catalyst loading, then the auto industry would require the world’s entire platinum production capacity, implying that there is not enough platinum

But all cars could not be converted to fuel cell operation overnight; any major technology innovation takes many years if not several decades to achieve significant market penetration. The mining industry would have many years to ramp up production to meet new platinum demand, just as they did when automobile catalytic converters began using significant quantities of platinum (and palladium).  So the key question is how much platinum is available around the world, not how much is currently mined each year.

Based on the FCEV ramp up used in this model, the platinum mining industry would have to increase their production by less than 1% per year to cover the US FCEV market. The DOE analysis firm Tiax has conducted a detailed analysis of platinum demand to support a global FCEV deployment, and their data show that a 3%/year growth rate in platinum production should be enough. This is approximately the same growth rate that the platinum industry achieved in the 1960 to 2000 time period when catalytic converters were being deployed. Johnson Matthey, a major precious metal supplier, has suggested that up to 4%/year platinum growth rate should be feasible.

The Tiax report concluded that a robust global FCEV deployment would consume between 22% and 26% of currently known platinum resources by 2050. Presumably by that time (if not long before), fuel cells running on non-precious metal catalysts will have been developed.

9. If hydrogen-powered fuel cell electric vehicles are so good for the environment and so good at reducing oil consumption, why is the US Obama administration not enthusiastically supporting the development of hydrogen and FCEVs?

Short answer: We do not know; the administration has never written a white paper, let alone a peer-reviewed article explaining why they are enthusiastically supporting BEVs and PHEVs while trying to kill the DOE’s hydrogen & fuel cell program.

Longer answer: We can only speculate, since the administration has never explained their fixation on BEVs and PHEVs and the exclusion of FCEV.  One possibility is that the enthusiastic support of hydrogen-powered FCEVs by former President George W. Bush caused the Obama political operatives to label the FCEV as a Republican project, and hence it must be rejected by the new Democratic administration.  [This knee-jerk political reaction is erroneous, however;  the DOE’s FCEV program began under the Clinton Democratic administration’s future vehicle program called a Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles (PNGV).]  President Bush did enthusiastically support this program, promoting it in most of his State of the Union addresses to Congress, but it has Democratic roots. The curtailing of an aggressive push to deploy hydrogen infrastructure and FCEVs poses the risk that the US fuel cell and hydrogen industries will fall behind their foreign competitors as other nations continue to push for a 2015 commercial launch of FCEVs.  In addition, future US car owners may have higher costs of of owning and operating their cars, since several studies have concluded that FCEVs will cost less to own and operate than either BEVs or PHEVs.

Another possibility is that the political operatives in the White House were not familiar with the ease and relative low cost of deploying a hydrogen infrastructure, and relied exclusively on their gut feeling that relying on the existing electrical grid system would lead to a faster reduction in oil consumption. Ironically, the authoritative McKinsey & Company report on alternative vehicles in the EU concluded that installing sufficient electrical charging outlets for BEVs and PHEVs would cost FIVE times as much as building an adequate hydrogen infrastructure for FCEVs in Europe.  This report also concluded that the short range and long refueling times for BEVs would limit market penetration in the EU, and that FCEVs with longer ranges and shorter fueling times would be essential to significantly cutting greenhouse gas emissions and reducing oil consumption.


[Alternative Vehicles Compared] [Societal Threats] [Alternative Vehicle Choices] [Simulation Assumptions] [Simulation Results] [Batteries or Fuel Cells?] [Hydrogen Safety] [FAQ] [Hydrogen FAQ] [Fuel Cell Vehicle FAQ] [Natural Gas Vehicles] [Links] [About Us] [Contact Us]

© C. E. Thomas 2009-2013