Hydrogen Fuel Cells: Future or Fool Cells

Charlie Hopkins
December 10, 2014

Submitted as coursework for PH240, Stanford University, Fall 2014


Fig. 1: The Toyota Mirai. Expected to release in 2015. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

A fuel cell vehicle is a type of vehicle, which uses a fuel cell to power its electric motor, using oxygen and hydrogen to create electricity. While the fuel cell was created in the late 1800's, fuel cells have recently become a viable option for cars in 2014. Fuel cells currently appear in industrial settings, as back-up power sources for hospitals and financial operations, where a continuous source of electricity is imperative. The fuel cell is similar to a battery in the output of power, and internal make up. But as a battery chemical source becomes depleted over time, fuel cells only need an ongoing source, such as hydrogen, to produce power. [1] This convenience of clean emissions and a readily available fuel in hydrogen, it would seem to be a no brainer to convert all cars to fuel cells. Yet there has been much controversy surrounding fuel cells on whether they can or cannot break through the extremely difficult vehicle market.

Fuel Cell

Typically electricity generation needs four conversion steps:

  1. The combustion of a fuel converts to heat.

  2. Heat boils water and generates steam.

  3. Steam then runs a turbine changing the thermal energy into mechanical energy.

  4. Mechanical energy runs a generator creating electricity.

A fuel cell is able to bypass these procedures and create electricity in a single process without any moving parts. Fuels cells are able to convert the chemicals hydrogen and oxygen into water, and through this process creating electricity. This simplicity is what has been drawing so much interest into the development of fuel cells in everyday use. One of the reasons fuel cells are so expensive is the fact they are not being mass-produced, and they not being mass-produced because of the limited market due to the price. [2] The beginning stages of the fuel cell is the stereotypical story for the "chicken and the egg" problem, which plagues so many new technologies.

Use In Cars

While companies such as Audi and BMW have come out with concept fuel cell cars, Toyota has been the first company that plans to commercially produce a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle (FCV). Toyota announced their new FCV, the Mirai, in November of 2014 at the Los Angeles Auto Show, and plans to produce around 700 vehicles to sell in 2015. [3] Currently in Japan there are ten demonstration hydrogen fueling stations, and Toyota along with the Japanese government plan to build 100 fueling station by the end of March 2015. California currently has nine fueling stations, and the government has provided $47 million for 28 more stations to be built in the state. [4]

The cost of hydrogen fueling infrastructure could be five to six times lower than the cost of charging network for battery and plug-in hybrid vehicles. Yet Joseph Romm explained if hydrogen were to replace the existing gasoline fuel station infrastructure in the U.S., it would cost half a trillion dollars. [5] While hydrogen seems to be a very promising green technology, the business side of these cars does not make sense to many businessmen such as Elon Musk, who dubbed them "fool cells." After the launch of the Toyota Mirai in 2015, it will be interesting if other car companies change their hydrogen concept cars, into mass produced vehicles.

© Charlie Hopkins. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] S. Fields, "Making the Best of Biomass: Hydrogen for Fuel Cells," Environ. Health Persp. 111, A38 (2003).

[2] F. Barbir, PEM Fuel Cells: Theory and Practice (Academic Press, 2005).

[3] M. Ramsey, "Toyota Prices New Fuel-Cell Vehicle" Wall Street Journal, 18 Nov 14.

[4] R. L. Busby, Hydrogen and Fuel Cells: A Comprehensive Guide (PennWell Corp., 2005).

[5] J. J. Romm, The Hype about Hydrogen: Fact and Fiction in the Race to Save the Climate (Island Press, 2004).