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Are hydrogen fuel cells the new sheriff in town? Move over batteries!(?)

By Don Taylor

Wed, Sep 22, 2021 07:08 PM PST

Visiting the Advanced Clean Transportation Expo (ACT Expo) trade show in Long Beach, I found the main takeaway to be the interest in the new sheriff in town, bringing another earth-friendly transportation power source to the eco fight. And that would be the hydrogen fuel cell. Move over batteries!

a white and red large semi truck from Shell Oil.
Shell Oil's super-streamliner designed for Marvel comics?

Quick History Lesson - Fuel Cells

Sure, the fuel cell has been heralded as the power source of the future, and seemed like it was always going to be just that, forever waiting in the wings, undergoing unending decades of development, after much of it having started in the 1960’s NASA space program. But its time has come, at least for large commercial trucks, according to those speaking and exhibiting at the Expo.

Now that we are all slowly accepting that the world’s automakers plan to go completely electric in the next decade or two, we are assuming that those vehicles will be powered with batteries. We’re seeing a steady stream of battery powered passenger cars and trucks being introduced by virtually every automaker in the quest for zero emissions. However, hardly on our radar, there are also a limited number of fuel cell cars roaming our LA streets - the most notable being the Toyota Mirai, Hyundai NEXO, and Honda Clarity.

The Dangers Of Hydrogen

I’ll bring this up before you do: What about the dangers of using hydrogen? Historically, mention hydrogen and the Hindenburg airship disaster comes up. However, dear Boomer, few remember that today - today’s generation thinks Hindenburg is a German craft beer. Much attention is being given to safe, modern handling techniques for H2. If gasoline were introduced today we’d be suspect: it can leak, splash, and leach into the ground, plus its fumes are easily ignited... And you want drivers to dispense it themselves? Huh?

a hydrogen refueling pump on display at the ACT Expo
A Hydrogen refueling pump - looks pretty "normal", right?
a red hydrogen refueling pump with two alternatives
A Hydrogen pump with two options - just like the pumps we're used to.

What Is A Fuel Cell?

What exactly is a fuel cell? Well, in simple terms, the fuel cell consists of a stack of rectangular plates in a box, thru which hydrogen (H2) is passed...Like magic, out comes electricity and an “exhaust” of H2O (yeah, that's water in fancy-speak). It’s a bit more complicated than that, but that's the general idea.

Are Hydrogen Cars Electric?

Well, kinda.. After creating electricity in the magic fuel-cell box, everything else is common with EV technology as we know it. The electricity flows thru a DC to AC inverter, a controller, and electric motors at the wheels or axles. In other words, a “fuel cell” car or truck is really an “electric vehicle” - it’s just that the big battery pack is replaced by the hydrogen-tank-fed fuel cell as the source of the electricity used for propulsion.

Fuel Cell vs. Conventional Electric Vehicle

What’s the advantage of a fuel cell vs. battery solution for everyday drivers like you and me? Well, a fuel-cell powertrain offers us a "zero emissions" alternative that can be refueled in a familiar way - in minutes at a “gas” pump once that infrastructure is rolled out - and you’d enjoy a greater range and thus less anxiety than with a battery-electric. Not everyone who is interested in purchasing a zero-emission vehicle parks in a home garage or workplace parking lot with a handy Level 2 or Level 3 charger.

Admittedly, the hydrogen fueling infrastructure is hardly in place currently. However, I'm fairly certain that it will come, and that you will see customer-friendly hydrogen pumps occupying the service station real estate - along with electric battery charging devices.

The Trucking Industry Of Tomorrow

That’s where the hydrogen fuel cell is poised to step in and provide a better solution. From what was said at the ACT Expo, the trucking industry is about to start adopting fuel cell power, and in the process build the fueling infrastructure and drive down their costs - and ours?

Kenworth trucks on display at the ACT Expo in Long Beach
Battery electric still the most prevalent for medium and light duty trucks.
a large Nikola truck, gray
Nikola has decided that they will focus on large trucks from now on.

Advanced Clean Transportation Expo - Commercial Vehicles

Meanwhile at the ACT Expo, everyone has been focused on commercial vehicles - those for long-distance transport of goods as well as those for local deliveries. The exhibitors are manufactures of the vehicles, with familiar names like Kenworth and Peterbuilt, as well as newer ones like Nikola. The attendees are mainly fleet owners - deciding what to invest in to optimize their long-term profitability. Although battery power works well for short range operation, it becomes less desirable for pulling heavy loads over long distances. The exponentially increasing battery weight required for moving heavier loads and delays caused by lengthy recharge times both contribute to this.

two trucks at a stoplight, one of them is labeled as a hybrid electric truck.
Fuel cells being designed to fit into current chassis configurations.
a Saratoga Ford Transit powered by hydrogen on display at the ACT in Long Beach
Large and small fuel cell vehicles were on display at ACT.

Going Forward

So, when auto companies say they are going all electric, don’t be surprised if down the road the electric vehicle you buy has a fuel cell under the hood instead of a floor full of batteries. That'd be because it offered something the other EVs didn’t.

About The Author

Don Taylor's profile picture

Don Taylor

Don Taylor formerly ran the NASCAR program for General Motors, worked as a car stylist at the Ford Motor Company, and as a National Tech Director for the NHRA. He currently serves as the Director of the Stand 21 Safety Foundation. Taylor also writes articles for the UK’s Racecar Engineering magazine. Don resides in Boston, but makes frequent trips to the west coast and still owns a home in Pasadena.

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