Below we’ve put together a list of the pros and cons of hydrogen fuel cell cars.
It could be useful for comparing hydrogen fuel cell cars to traditional gasoline cars, and other types of cars like electric cars, and hybrid cars.
Summary – Hydrogen Fuel Cell Car Pros & Cons
We go into each of these pros and cons in more detail in the guide below:
Hydrogen fuel can be eco friendly in some ways during the car’s operation
HVs might be more efficient than conventional cars
Good driving experience
Longer driving range and driving distance than EVs
Re-fuelling HVs is relatively quick
There’s an increasing number of stations being built over time
Hydrogen is abundant
Hydrogen can be renewable
Hydrogen can help build economic independence of some countries
Hydrogen fuel cells used in cars can be more efficient than internal combustion engines
There’s still room for more improvement
HFCVs might be less efficient than full electric cars
Fuel cells are currently expensive
Hydrogen is the most expensive fuel right now
Hydrogen fuel right now is not renewable or eco friendly
Differing reports on wheel to wheel eco advantage of HFCVs
The current number of hydrogen fill up stations is currently limited
Hydrogen fill up stations are expensive to build and set up
Cost of cars and materials is expensive comparatively to other vehicle types
First buyers of HFCVs may lose out (in terms of re-sale price)
There are some potential risks/hazards in terms of the safety of hydrogen fuel
Hydrogen storage can be complex and challenging
HVs aren’t good in all conditions and climates
There’s currently limited HV models and choice
Supply, infrastructure and technology is still years away from being perfect
Overall, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles provide a different set of potential pros and cons to other types of vehicles.
One of the major pros might be the ability to provide cleaner fuel (in terms of the level of air pollutants and carbon emissions) if the hydrogen production process can become cleaner and more sustainable (and can be scaled)
However, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are currently not used in the numbers on the road that conventional vehicles, hybrid vehicles, and full electric battery vehicles are.
Some of the major challenges and barriers to greater production and use of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are (according to eia.gov, autoevolution.com, fuelcellcars.com, thoughtco.com and rac.co.uk) – the high cost of fuel cells (and also the cost of hydrogen fuel, materials used in hydrogen fuel cell cars, and new hydrogen infrastructure), the limited availability of hydrogen fueling stations (this has a two fold effect in that people won’t buy vehicles that don’t have fueling stations available and companies won’t build fueling stations without customers for them), and extracting hydrogen gas from methane has an environmental impact as it generates CO2 and carbon monoxide.
These challenges and barriers also mean there isn’t large scale manufacturing/production of hydrogen gas at the moment.
There’s also question of the fuel energy efficiency of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles compared to full electric vehicles.
These issues could start being addressed with higher volumes of new customers for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, along with government subsidies and support (which could stimulate demand and development).
Like the development of electric cars, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will get more advanced over time (as technology gets better and other developments are made).
But, it’s unclear how many years developments and improvements in hydrogen fuel cell technology will take to help scale up use.
*Note – these are very general pros and cons of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.
Each brand and model of hydrogen fuel cell vehicle is obviously going to offer it’s own pros and cons, and each driver is going to have different requirements.
This is only going to continue to change as technology changes and society changes.
Different countries and cities also have different energy mixes, and policies and regulations in places which may change the pros and cons of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles in different places.
So, pros and cons can be vehicle, driver and location specific.
What Is A Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicle?
In general, a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle makes use of hydrogen energy as it’s main fuel source
This is in comparison to say conventional cars that directly use petroleum based fuels and products
For hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, hydrogen is separated from another energy source – usually from methane or natural gas. Hydrogen can also be extracted from water via electrolysis, although this process isn’t used anywhere near as much at scale
Pressurized hydrogen is then fed into a tank in the vehicle
The vehicle’s hydrogen gas tank feeds a fuel cell, where hydrogen and oxygen undergo an electrochemical reaction to produce electricity to power an electric motor (for this reason, they are often referred to as one of the types of electric vehicles)
This electrochemical reaction is in comparison to the combustion/burning of petroleum based fuel in a conventional internal combustion engine vehicle
The by-products of this chemical reaction apart from electricity are water vapor and heat
So, hydrogen fuel cells combine elements of conventional petroleum fuel cars (with a tank), and electric cars (with the electricity and electric motor)
Examples of HFCEV’s (hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles) on the road right now might be the Toyota Mirai, Honda Clarity and Hyundai ix35
Read more about how a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle electrochemical reaction powers an electric motor in the popularmechanics.com resource in the sources list
Potential Pros Of Hydrogen Fuel Cell Cars
Hydrogen Fuel Can Be Eco Friendly In Some Ways During The Car’s Operation
The only by-products created from hydrogen cars are heat and water vapor (steam)
Compare this to conventional cars that may have carbon emissions and air pollutants resulting from the combustion of petroleum based products, which ar emitted through the car’s tailpipe
This makes hydrogen fuel cell vehicles a more sustainable form of transport in some ways
HVs Might Be More Fuel Efficient Than Conventional Cars
A document by californiahydrogen.org indicates that hydrogen fuel cell vehicles might lead to a ‘ 50% reduction in fuel consumption, compared to a conventional vehicle with a gasoline internal combustion engine’
This is when taking into account the amount of energy from gasoline and hydrogen gas each type of vehicle is able to convert into propelling the vehicles.
wikipedia.org clarifies though that the type of hydrogen vehicle matters (fuel cell vs combustion engine) – ‘Using a fuel cell to power an electrified powertrain including a battery and an electric motor is two to three times more efficient than using a combustion engine, although some of this benefit is related to the electrified powertrain (i.e. Including regenerative braking). This means that much greater fuel economy is available using hydrogen in a fuel cell, compared to that of a hydrogen combustion engine’
May Require Less Maintenance
A hydrogen fuel cell vehicle may have less internal moving parts when compared to combustion engines, which may lead to lower maintenance related costs.
Additionally, if a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle is lighter in weight than a full electric vehicle (which may have a heavy electric battery), there may be less wear and tear on the vehicle.
May Have A Good Driving Experience In Some Ways
Similar to a full electric vehicle, hydrogen powered vehicles may be quieter and smoother than some conventional cars
May Have A Longer Driving Range Than Electric Vehicles
When looking at how far a full electric vehicle can travel on one full charge compared to how far a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle can travel on one hydrogen gas fill up, a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle may be able to travel anywhere from 2 to 4 times further.
But, obviously it depends on the models being compared.
Refuelling Hydrogen Cars Is Relatively Quick
The amount of time it takes to pump hydrogen into a tank is essentially as quick as a conventional gasoline vehicle.
This is in comparison to charging a full electric vehicle’s battery, which can take hours (unless it’s quick charge technology which might take 20 to 40 minutes)
There’s More Filling Stations Being Built Over Time
Government initiatives and auto manufacturers are investing in some cities to build more refueling stations.
Hydrogen Is Abundant
Hydrogen is the most abundant element on planet earth
So, scarcity may not be as much of an issue in some ways compared to other sources of energy
But, it does depend on how the hydrogen gas is produced i.e. from what energy source
Hydrogen Gas Can Be Renewable
The more non renewable way to produce hydrogen gas is from fossil fuel like methane/natural gas
But, a more renewable way might be electrolysis of water
A few of the more renewable electrolysis methods might include – Biological water splitting (using sunlight and microorganisms); pyrolysis or gasification of biomass resources; and solar thermal water splitting
Can Help Build Economic Independence Of A Country
When using petroleum based fuels, countries that have to import a certain % of their oil become dependent on the countries they are importing from.
Hydrogen based fuel can help reduce this dependence on foreign oil.
There’s Still Room For More Improvements
Technology can still get cheaper, and various features such as the range of the vehicle can be improved.
Potential Cons Of Hydrogen Fuel Cell Cars
HVs might be less efficient than full electric cars
The theconversation.com resource in the sources list indicates that full electric cars may be more efficient than hydrogen fuel cell cars
To paraphrase, a hydrogen fuel cell car might maintain 38 of the original 100 watts of energy, once hydrogen gas production, hydrogen to electricity conversion, and the electricity use in the motor is taken into account.
Other reports say the entire process of electrolysis, transportation, pumping and fuel cell conversion leaves only about 20 to 25 percent of the original zero-carbon electricity to drive the motor.
Comparatively, a full electric car maintain 80 of the original 100 watts.
Essentially, a hydrogen fuel cell might need double the energy.
Read more about the specifics of efficiency in the theconversation.com resource in the sources list
Fuel Cells Are Currently Expensive
eia.gov outlines that the high cost of fuel cells is one of the major challenges for fuel cell vehicles
High costs mean hydrogen fuel cell vehicles cannot be as economically competitive as other types of vehicles
Hydrogen Is The Most Expensive Fuel Right Now
Hydrogen fuel at the first retail stations went for about $6 a gallon in the US, and this makes hydrogen the most expensive automotive fuel on the market.
arena.gov.au outlines that the cost of hydrogen production is similarly expensive in Australia.
Having said this, the cost is expected to come down in the future as investment in the fuel continues.
Hydrogen Fuel Is Not Renewable Or Eco Friendly Right Now
The most common method of hydrogen gas production right now is steam methane reforming from natural gas (some reports say about 95% of hydrogen gas production is done this way)
Fossil fuels like natural gas are classified as a scarce resource
Additionally, the production of pressurized hydrogen gas results in the emission of carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide
Some methods of producing hydrogen gas from pyrolysis could help make hydrogen gas production more renewable and eco friendly
This might especially be the case if renewable energy (like solar or wind) was used to provide the electricity for the pyrolysis process
Differing Reports On Wheel To Wheel Environmental Advantage Of Hydrogen Vehicles
Some reports say hydrogen sourced from natural gas is lower in emissions than electricity for full electric battery vehicles, and less than half of equivalent gasoline vehicle emissions.
But, other reports say emission reductions aren’t significant due to GHG emissions from the natural gas reformation process.
When you add in the amount of energy hydrogen fuel might require, and the energy conversion efficiency of hydrogen, compared to full electric vehicles, there might be more accuracy behind the hydrogen fuel production process being heavier in emissions.
The Current Number Of Hydrogen Fill Up Stations Are Limited
Compared to fuel stations for conventional cars, there’s far far fewer hydrogen fuel stations.
In some cities, there’s no hydrogen fuel stations.
There were less than 50 publicly available hydrogen refuelling stations in the United States in 2018.
eia.gov outlines that the limited availability of hydrogen fueling stations limits the number (and production) of hydrogen-fueled vehicles because people won’t buy those vehicles if hydrogen refueling stations are not easily accessible, and companies won’t build refueling stations if they don’t have customers with hydrogen-fueled vehicles.
So, there’s a two fold flow on effect of limited numbers of fill up stations.
Hydrogen Fuel Stations Are Not Cheap
Each station costs about $2 million to $3 million according to various estimates
So, there needs to be available capital if a new one is to be built, even as a basic requirement
Cost Of Cars & Materials Is Expensive Comparatively
Platinum is one of the most commonly used catalysts for fuel cells.
At almost $1,000 an ounce, platinum can be a very expensive commodity.
When considering other materials and technologies used in hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, you’re generally paying more for a hydrogen vehicle right now compared to a gasoline or electric vehicle to either buy or lease.
First Buyers May Lose Out
If hydrogen vehicle technology changes a lot of the coming years and decades, initial buyers could see their re-sale prices decrease as the technology in their car becomes outdated.
Storing pressurised hydrogen onboard your vehicle can pose several dangers such as invisible hydrogen flames in the event of a crash, and also the potential for explosions at hydrogen stations.
wikipedia.org also outlines that ‘Hydrogen fuel is hazardous because of the low ignition energy and high combustion energy of hydrogen, and because it tends to leak easily from tanks’
Hydrogen Storage Can Be Complex & Challenging
After production, hydrogen needs to be stored for transport, stored at fuel stations, and also stored in vehicle fuel tanks.
Storing hydrogen can be a challenge because it requires high pressures, low temperatures, or chemical processes to be stored compactly.
For consumer passenger cars, overcoming this challenge is a bit difficult because they often have limited size and weight capacity for fuel storage.
wikipedia.org outlines that ‘The problems of using hydrogen fuel in cars arise from the fact that hydrogen is difficult to store in either a high pressure tank or a cryogenic tank … Alternative storage media such as within complex metal hydrides are in development [to address this]’
Hydrogen Cars Aren’t Good In All Conditions & Climates
The performance of hydrogen-powered cars has limitations in different climate and weather conditions.
The water in the fuel cells can freeze when temperatures hit below freezing point.
And, the fuel cell components run the risk of overheating in hot conditions.
This is a limitation against conventional cars for example that have more flexibility in the weather/climate conditions they can be used in.
Limited Vehicle Choice
There are not as many hydrogen vehicle brands and models to choose from right now in comparison to conventional cars.
Supply, Infrastructure and Technology Perfection & Development Is Still Years Away
It’s going to take many years in order to perfect fuel cells’ conversion solutions, since developing newer fuel cell technologies are still in the transition period.
It will also take years to increase supply and infrastructure needs.
On supply, one potential issue at refuelling stations is:
Hydrogen fuelling stations generally receive deliveries of hydrogen by truck from hydrogen suppliers. An interruption at a hydrogen supply facility can shut down multiple hydrogen fuelling stations (wikipedia.org)
Comparison Of Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles vs Other Types Of Vehicles
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