Although battery electric vehicles continue to lead the way in clean transportation, discussions over fuel cells pop up every once in a while. The idea of a fuel-cell electric vehicle offers some tantalizing prospects for the future of transportation since their input fuel (hydrogen and oxygen) is renewable and they emit very few pollutants. However, uptake of fuel cells in the mainstream automobile market has been virtually non-existent and it is unclear whether this innovative technology will gain traction anytime soon.
In this article, I’ll take a look at the main barriers to fuel-cell adoption and why it is likely battery-electric vehicles will continue to be the logical clean transportation choice long into the future.
Despite the renewability of the individual elements of oxygen and hydrogen, the biggest expense with fuel cells is that processing these inputs into a usable power source is prohibitively expensive and inefficient. The technology required to convert hydrogen and oxygen into electricity would make cars so expensive that they would be out of reach for the majority of American consumers.
Furthermore, there is practically no infrastructure in place to deliver hydrogen to vehicles should fuel-cells actually make advances in the automobile market. It would require a massive build-up of “fill up” locations around the country, which would require a huge investment of time and money, not to mention an effective way to deliver hydrogen to all these stations in a cost-effective manner.
Finally, the sustainability of hydrogen has been called into question due to its emissions-intensive production process. Producing hydrogen requires the combustion of natural gas, which emits a sizeable amount of greenhouse gases into the air. In fact, the US Department of Energy found that when analyzing fuel cell vehicles from “wells to wheels” the emissions savings is only 45% when compared to conventional gas-powered vehicles, and 25% for hybrids.
Meanwhile, lithium-ion battery powered vehicles have advanced at a steady rate over the past five years, and have now achieved some momentum in the automobile market. The cost associated with EVs is fast approaching parity with conventional vehicles (in fact, many life-cycle analyses show EVs can be cheaper), and studies show EV owners are some of the happiest automobile drivers.
Furthermore, the electrical infrastructure is pretty much already in place, it just requires the installation of charging stations to tap into the power source. Many retailers have already jumped on the opportunity to provide charging stations to their customers (and potential customers), thus solidifying EVs as the logical way forward in clean transportation.
In conclusion, while fuel cells do offer some potential benefits for the future of clean transportation, there are some major hurdles to overcome if they are to achieve some viability. Even if fuel cells do miraculously overcome these barriers 10 or 20 years from now, the battery-electric vehicle market will be well underway by then and so entrenched as a clean transportation option that consumers would be hard-pressed to make the switch to yet another power source for their vehicle.