#1Thing: Are Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles Environmentally Friendly?

October 3, 2018

By Lori Melton

Tapping into hydrogen fuel cell technology could be a key part of the automotive industry’s ongoing quest to produce reliable, eco-friendly vehicles. Fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) are electric vehicles that use fuel cells instead of a battery to power a car. Hydrogen burns clean, with water and air being its only by-products. This is great in terms of reducing greenhouse gases emissions produced by traditional, gasoline-fueled cars. The jury is still out, however, on the practicality of FCVs and whether or not they are truly environmentally friendly. Some pros and cons of these vehicles are listed below.

Eco-friendly Emissions

The biggest advantage to a hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicle is that it only produces water and air, which are not harmful to the environment. By contrast, traditional gasoline and diesel-powered vehicles generate nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons, and particulate matter, all of which increase air pollution and negatively impact the environment. Per the U.S. Department of Energy, about one-third of carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. are generated by the transportation sector. Driving hydrogen fuel-cell powered cars would eliminate greenhouse gases and help reduce air pollution.

Renewable Energy Sources Can Generate Hydrogen

An important consideration in an FCV’s environmental impact is how hydrogen is produced. Using a power grid to produce it via hydro electrolysis would produce CO2, which would not be environmentally friendly. Therefore, hydrogen produced by renewable energy sources like solar, wind and hydropower would be the most eco-friendly method. Hydrogen can also be produced from natural gas, which reportedly reduces greenhouse emissions by 50 percent. By comparison, hydrogen produced from wind reduces harmful gases by 90 percent.

Hydrogen Storage and Infrastructure Challenges

One of the major challenges in ramping up hydrogen fuel cell vehicles for mass use in the automotive marketplace is hydrogen storage. Per the Fuel Cells Technology Office within the U.S. Department of Energy, hydrogen has the highest energy per mass of any fuel but its low ambient temperature density culminates in low energy per unit volume and dictates a need to develop advanced storage methods that potentially yield higher energy density.

Ultimately, the goal is to provide enough hydrogen fuel cell power for a 300-mile drive range, with the ability to easily and quickly refuel. Sufficient onboard systems are still being developed, though limited numbers of light-duty FCVs are already in the marketplace. California already hosts a few dozen hydrogen refueling stations. However, there is currently an obvious lack of abundant refueling stations to support a nationwide FCV roll-out.

High Cost of Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles

Making hydrogen fuel cell vehicles affordable for the average driver is another potential stumbling block automakers face. Manufacturing costs must be low enough to produce a fuel cell vehicle consumers can afford to buy. One report suggests early prototypes cost $1 million per vehicle to build. As of 2015, Toyota’s Mirai sold for around $60,000 in the U.S. Some household budgets can’t support this kind of price tag, no matter how strongly a person feels about helping the environment. Still, hydrogen fuel cell technology is an eco-conscious initiative the government is pursuing for the future. If cost, infrastructure, and hydrogen storage challenges can be overcome, then FCVs can potentially make a substantial positive impact on the environment and the air we breathe.