Fuel Cell Vehicles Slipping in Popularity

fuel cell diagram
Fuel Cell Diagram

I am a big fan of alternative fueled vehicles overall but I was always most optimistic about fuel cell vehicles. 5 Years ago I thought this was the automotive power plant of the future. Unfortunately it seems that the research and development of these vehicles has slowed to a crawl.

First let’s clear up what type of vehicle I am speaking of. A fuel cell powered vehicle contains a device that converts fuel directly into electricity to power the vehicle. It wasn’t long ago that fuel cells where seen as the solution to the problems of electric cars. We hoped that the technology would have been able to replace the lithium ion batteries currently installed.

In essence being able to remove the most troublesome part of an electric vehicle and replacing it with a renewable source of continuous electric power that would work in harmony with the electric drive systems that are currently installed in vehicles such as the Nissan leaf and Chevrolet volt.

How fuel cells work

Fuel cells do not store electricity they actually convert it as needed from chemical reaction. This power will spin electric motors that move the vehicle. Fuel cells release energy derived from the reaction between hydrogen and oxygen. They have high efficiency and depending on the fuel used produce little tailpipe emissions besides water.

trunk mounted fuel cell
Trunk mounted fuel cell

One problem is you need to supply hydrogen to the cell. There are several options for storing hydrogen and feeding it into the fuel cell to produce the chemical reaction that creates the electricity. One of the most common used in the experimental vehicles of today would be compressed or liquid hydrogen. The nice thing about a fuel cell is that it has no moving parts and ultimately requires no maintenance.

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The construction of the fuel cell is similar to a battery as a fuel cell has two electrodes (positive and Negative). These are fed fuel and air through channels cut into plates. Between the electrodes is a coat of platinum catalyst which acts as the electrolyte needed to spur the chemical reaction. Hydrogen is pumped into one side of the fuel cell and air is pumped into the other side.

When the hydrogen flows across the catalyst material it turns into free electrons and protons allowing electrical current to flow between the negatively charged electrode and the positively charged electrode. These free electrons become current and are channeled to the electric motor that drives the vehicle. If power is not needed or created in excess it can be stored in a battery.

Slipping popularity of fuel cells

bmw hydrogen car
BMW Hydrogen Car

There are a lot of difficulties associated with this fuel cell technology. One of these would be safety concerns with storing compressed hydrogen. Another issue is that it takes some time for the cell to produce enough electricity to power the electric motor.

At this point the vehicles being built often include batteries to store energy and keep the vehicle going until the fuel cell is ready to take over. When I saw the first BMW 7 series luxury vehicle powered by hydrogen about six years ago I thought to myself that this would be the emerging technology of the future.

But the difficulty of mass producing the components has made it cost prohibited. Since gasoline electric hybrids are more widely accepted by consumers car companies have put most of their research and development dollars into this more popular form of alternative fueled vehicle.

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Homemade hydrogen generator
Homemade hydrogen generator

Car-makers will research and develop technologies that have the best chance of being accepted by the general public. This makes a lot of sense and I can’t find any fault with that. For me I was always fascinated by hydrogen. I built my own science project type system. I was just blown away that my water and electrolyte mixture could produce combustible hydrogen.

It was like magic. I was totally into it and put a test system on my 2004 Chevy Blazer and entered it into the Fuel Cell HHO games that my local county sponsored. It was a lot of fun and there were a lot of creative people on the scene. As fuel prices pulled back people lost interest in pushing this type of hydrogen system forward.

It also didn’t help that people that got involved in this system where often attacked verbally for trying to think out of the box. But with all of this said I still think that hydrogen is the way to go in the future. You can’t beat powering your vehicle and the only byproduct coming out of the tailpipe being drinking water. I have many more articles on alternative fuels that may interest you. Read more articles about general auto repair from this next link that takes you back to the auto repair information blog. Interested in reading a few articles I wrote about increasing fuel economy on your current automobile? These type of articles always get popular when gas goes over the four dollars a gallon mark.