Hydrogen Fuel Cells

Bradley Knox
December 17, 2016

Submitted as coursework for PH240, Stanford University, Fall 2016


Fig. 1: A Hydrogen-powered Honda prototype is displayed in Brazil (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

With oil reserves depleting, a debate has sparked about what the next source will be to power cars. Tesla and other car companies have invested billions into Lithium ion batteries, but current cars that contain electrical batteries have obvious shortcomings, such as the inability to travel long distances without having to recharge. It is for this reason that some people have turned to hydrogen fuel cells as the source for the next form of energy, as we can see in Fig. 1 with Honda's new Hydrogen-powered vehicle. [1]

How it works

In order to produce energy, a fuel cell combines hydrogen and oxygen in order to produce heat, electricity, and water. A fuel cell can continue to produce energy for as long as these two elements are supplied. Fuel cells do not produce very much pollution due to the fact that much of the oxygen and hydrogen used to generate electricity simply combine to form water.

Case For Hydrogen Fuel Cells

As of right now, fuel cell powered cars have a range of between 250 and 400 miles, which is better than most electric vehicles, and also have a refill time of less than 5 minutes. [2] The most efficient electric car is the Tesla Model X, which can run approximately 250 miles and will recharge to about 170 miles in 30 minutes. It is also estimated that a car that runs efficiently on fuel cell electricity could use about 40% less energy than an internal combustion vehicle and produce about 45% the amount of greenhouse gas.

Case Against Hydrogen Fuel Cells

One of the main problems facing Hydrogen-powered cars is the lack of infrastructure, meaning that in California there are only 49 hydrogen filling stations, which when compared to 9,000 gas stations in the state is very minuscule. Another case against fuel cells in cars comes from Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who claims that this could lead to potential dangers due to the fact that hydrogen is extremely flammable when it leaks and burns with an invisible flame, making it very difficult to detect.


Ultimately, fuel cell vehicles are a developing technology that show much promise, but in order to become more widespread companies must find a way to build the infrastructure that will make the use of Hydrogen- powered vehicles more convenient for the consumer.

© Bradley Knox. 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] L. Ulrich, "Hydrogen Fuel Cell Cars Return for Another Run," New York Times, 16 Apr 15.

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