Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles: growth and innovation

While much attention and noise has surrounded the growth in the number of electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles, as well as the advances in battery technologies, the emergence of fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) has been a quieter affair to date.  But it could prove to be no less exciting.

Benefits of FCEVs

The role of fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) in the transition to a clean, low-carbon energy system is well understood.  There are many obvious attractions.

Stored in vehicles in a tank, hydrogen is used in an electrochemical energy conversion process with oxygen in fuel cells to generate electricity. This runs into a drivetrain much like those in other electric vehicles, powering a motor to propel the FCEV.  Like any other energy source, the fuel cell will continue to run so long as it has its fuel, hydrogen, and oxygen flowing into it.

FCEVs have longer ranges than battery-powered vehicles (some can travel up to 800km on a single tank)and charge faster (the refuelling time is typically three minutes).  Converting hydrogen gas into electricity produces only water and heat as a by-product.  So if the hydrogen is generated by renewable sources, FCEVs genuinely do provide the opportunity for zero-emission transportation.

Yet a mass roll-out is some way off.  There are very few FCEVs available in the global market and sales to date have been modest.  High costs, efficiency issues and the limited number of refueling stations have all constrained their spread.


Yet the predictions of growth are striking.  This assessment by Frost & Sullivan researchers expects 20 fuel cell car launches by leading OEMs over the next five years, with Asian manufacturers leading the way. By 2030, the researchers predict unit sales of Toyota FCEVs at 165,000 and Hyundai FCEVs at 148,000.

Japan is at the forefront: its government has invested heavily in developing a hydrogen fuel infrastructure as well as incentivizing consumers to buy FCEVs.  By 2020, the country aims to have 160 hydrogen refueling stations.  This expansion is part of a much wider vision for Japan’s hydrogen economy - a vision which will be widely promoted at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.  Toyota has made over 8000 of its fuel cell related patents available for licence royalty free until 2030.

In Korea, meanwhile, Hyundai has announced that it will invest $6.7bn over the next 10 years to boost production of fuel-cell systems and engines to 700,000 units.

In California, Governor Brown’s Executive Order set a target of an additional 200 refueling stations by 2025, double the amount agreed in 2015.  “Meeting this ambitious target clearly requires accelerated effort on the part of the State to ensure its achievement,” notes the California Air Resources Board in its 2018 Annual Evaluation of Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle Deployment & Hydrogen Fuel Station Network Development.  Governor Brown also set a target for five million zero emission vehicles by 2030, with fuel cell electric vehicles “expected to comprise a significant portion of this future fleet.”

The public/private California Fuel Cell Partnership (CaFCP) views these targets as just a milestone on the path to 1m FCEVs on the road by 2030, supported by a network of 1,000 refueling stations.

In Europe fuel cell technology has been selected by the EU as one of Europe’s six Important Projects of Common Interest. The ZEFER project, which will run until September 2022, will deploy 180 FCEVs in Paris, London and Brussels in order to demonstrate the business case for them.  Hydrogen Mobility Europe (H2ME) is a collaborative project that aims to create access to the first pan-European network of hydrogen refueling stations. (At present, for example, the UK has less than half a dozen publicly available refueling stations.)

The need for innovation

To foster the growth of FCEVs, a fresh wave of innovation is needed to develop fuel cell technology and the hydrogen transport infrastructure, as well as to lower the cost of hydrogen production.  Such innovation can help to break us out of the “chicken and egg” paradox facing FCEVs, where FCEV manufacturers are reluctant to build models unless there is an adequate refueling infrastructure yet station providers are reluctant to commit unless there are sufficient FCEVs to use them.  Consumer awareness about the advantages of FCEVs also needs to grow.

The commercial markets of trucking, buses and forklifts, where there is already significant worldwide adoption, will be influential in boosting overall demand and thus strengthening the supply chain and global ecosystem.  There are more than 23,000 fuel cell-powered forklifts in operation at warehouses and distribution centres across the US in more than 40 states.  Hyundai has said it will begin rolling out 1,000 fuel-cell trucks in Switzerland as part of a five-year tie-up with Swiss hydrogen company H2 Energy.

At a technical level, one challenge is to reduce the cost of fuel cells while ensuring their performance and durability.  Fuel cells often require expensive materials, such as platinum. In this FT article, Sunita Satyapal, director of the Fuel Cell Technologies Office at the US Department of Energy, notes that “generally speaking, increasing the platinum content of the fuel cell leads to increased performance and durability.  The best way to decrease cost is to reduce platinum content.”  Development of new materials which can replace the platinum reduction catalysts, or increase their efficacy of that less platinum is needed, is an exciting area of development. 

Just last year, research from the US Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory was published in Science, identifying a new cobalt-platinum composite catalyst which does just that.  Their work suggests that a whole family of low-platinum catalysts, or even effective catalytic materials including no platinum at all, might be on the horizon.

A surge like this in one area might be enough to spur or open up other advances to bring FCEVs to the top of the consumer conversation.  Pierre-Etienne Franc, secretary of the trade group Hydrogen Council, recently stated, “the years 2020 to 2030 will be for hydrogen what the 1990s were for solar and wind.”  Today solar and wind farms are dotted around countries world over, and are ever expanding – will the hydrogen economy go the same way?

Interested in hydrogen?

Read our blog about the challenges of storing hydrogen