What Is a Fuel Cell Vehicle?

Learn all about fuel cell vehicles, including their history, how they work, and why they aren't more common today.

What Is a Fuel Cell Vehicle?

As we head closer and closer to another oil crisis, manufacturers around the world are experimenting with new methods of powering our vehicles. Hybrid and electric cars are starting to gain a considerable amount of popularity, but we're also seeing the rise of other automotive developments like the fuel cell vehicle.

If you're not already aware, a fuel cell vehicle is essentially just a type of electric vehicle. The difference is that instead of using batteries to store electric power, a fuel cell vehicle uses a chemical reaction produced by hydrogen, oxygen, and a catalyst to produce electricity.

In this article, we're going to be talking all about fuel cell vehicles, including how they work, who invented them, and why you don't see more fuel cell vehicles on the road today.

How Does a Fuel Cell Vehicle Work?

As we've mentioned, a fuel cell vehicle is a type of electric vehicle. What differentiates the two, however, is that ordinary electric vehicles can't actually produce their own electricity; they can only store electricity that they get from somewhere else like a charging station.

A fuel cell vehicle, on the other hand, is an electric vehicle that can actually generate its own electricity. In effect, a fuel cell vehicle is kind of like the middle ground between a gas or diesel-powered vehicle and an electric car.

As for what a fuel cell actually is, it's basically just a device that generates electricity through a chemical reaction instead of fuel combustion. A fuel cell vehicle actually has hundreds of fuel cells, as an individual fuel cell isn't capable of producing very much power.

In a fuel cell vehicle, each fuel cell consists of an electrolyte membrane, a negative electrode (an anode) and a positive electrode (a cathode), with the membrane in between the cathode and the anode. Hydrogen passes through the anode, while oxygen passes through the cathode.

When the hydrogen passes through the anode and meets the oxygen, it breaks the hydrogen atoms down into protons and electrons. The membrane forces the electrons into an electrical circuit, while the protons pass straight through.

Since a fuel cell vehicle combines hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity, this means that the only byproduct caused by hydrogen power generation is water.

What Lead to the Invention of the Fuel Cell Vehicle?

We like to think of alternative fuels as being a modern invention, but in truth, engineers and inventors have been experimenting with alternatives to gasoline for basically the entire time since the internal combustion engine was invented.

It's not very common knowledge these days, but electric cars have existed for basically as long as gasoline cars have. While these early electric cars suffered from a lot of the same issues that modern electric cars do (namely low ranges, long recharge times, and a lack of infrastructure for recharging), they also offered several advantages over gas and steam cars of the time.

In particular, the first electric cars were quieter and smoother than their gasoline and steam counterparts and were also a lot easier to get running. However, as we've said, the low range was the biggest factor limiting the popularity of electric cars.

Put simply, the creation of the fuel cell vehicle was just part of a larger effort to find the best possible way to power a moving vehicle.

Who Invented the Fuel Cell Vehicle?

This sort of depends on how far you want to look back. The first actual fuel cell vehicle was invented in 1959 by Harry Karl Ihrig, an American engineer, who fitted a 15-kilowatt fuel cell to a farm tractor. However, the creation of the fuel cell itself happened way before this.

The concept of the fuel cell was created all the way back in 1801 by Humphry Davy, an English chemist. The actual first fuel cell was invented by William Grove, also an English chemist. Grove dubbed his first fuel cell a "gas voltaic battery", and it worked by passing hydrogen and oxygen over a platinum catalyst to create electricity.

The first road vehicle to use a fuel cell was the Chevrolet Electrovan, a one-off vehicle built in 1966 mainly as a proof of concept. Despite it being based on a cargo van, the Electrovan only had space for two seats; the rest of the interior room was taken up by the fuel cells and the tanks of hydrogen and oxygen.

The first actual production car to use a fuel cell was the Honda FCX Clarity. It was released as a leasable vehicle in 2008 for Japan, Europe, and California. While not a huge success, it did prove that the idea of a fuel cell vehicle for the mass market was at least somewhat feasible.

What Are the Advantages and Disadvantages of Fuel Cell Vehicles?

Fuel cell vehicles certainly have their share of advantages over gasoline and electric vehicles, but they also have their share of drawbacks that have prevented them from breaking into the mainstream sooner.

The advantages of fuel cell vehicles include the fact that they're a kind of electric vehicle, so they don't produce any emissions while running. Fuel cells are also lighter and more compact than the battery systems in electric cars, which makes it easier to design cars around them.

However, fuel cell cars and hydrogen fuel are both very expensive to produce, and there's also the fact that hydrogen refuelling infrastructure is basically nonexistent at this time. Plus, there's the fact that most of the fuel cell technology we have today is in the prototype stage and just isn't really fit for the mass market in general right now.

Why Are Fuel Cell Vehicles Not More Widespread?

Probably the biggest reason why fuel cell cars haven't managed to catch on quite yet is the aforementioned lack of infrastructure to support them. Fuel cell cars have generally proven to work just fine; the problem is that there are basically no places to refuel a fuel cell car in most areas.

Thus, it creates kind of a catch-22 situation; without the infrastructure in place to support fuel cell cars, people are going to be less likely to buy them to begin with, and if people aren't buying fuel cell cars, then governments aren't really going to have a reason to set up infrastructure for them.

However, with the growing realization that we aren't going to be able to burn fossil fuels forever, it seems more likely than ever that we'll start seeing fuel cell cars on all of our streets before too long.