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Hydrogen Fuel Cell Races With Battery Technology

There’s no denying one of the hottest race for the future choice of automobile propulsion is whether only batteries will power vehicles or the more complicated and exotic fuel cell technology. A 7 year DOE project comes to term with hydrogen and fuel cell technology.


Fuel Cell vs. Battery Cars. Ask anyone about pure battery operated vehicles versus fuel cell technology and you will likely witness a very lively and heated debate. Proponents on both sides quickly become emotional, as if defending their favorite sports teams. The problem is that both technologies are complicated and the overall picture has serious socio-political implication. Nonetheless, hydrogen draws on the imagination, maybe due to a Jetson’s age mixed with good old Star Trek.

Pure Battery Electric Car Technology. Battery technology and its never-ending development has advanced dramatically. If range hasn’t kept up with the exponential pace of battery energy density, we can blame this on weight factors including, security features, AC and other creature comfort features older electric cars dispensed with. Battery energy density can now power a full size sedan over 260 miles on a single charge.

Hydrogen’s Comeback. But if battery technology has had a good run so far, hydrogen proponents are still quick to point out that fuel cell technology is the future. The problem is that for one of the universe most abundant molecule, hydrogen is complicated to make, compress, store and render back into energy.

DOE & Hydrogen Fuel Cell. The U.S. Department of Energy, DOE's has recently completed a seven-year project with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, NREL in order to demonstrate and evaluate hydrogen fuel cell for electric vehicles, FCEVs and hydrogen fueling infrastructure in real-world settings. One of the problem found is that making hydrogen means a lot of energy, traditionally electricity, although newer breakthroughs show it can be done using algae and other less energy intensive processes.

While range is not much of an issue, considering plug-in hybrids offer enough these days, the hydrogen infrastructure is quite another. Keeping hydrogen cool and compressed takes a lot of energy and make transporting it almost impossible. The DOE established targets back in 2003 for FCEVs and hydrogen fueling infrastructure with the goal of achieving them by 2009. These targets called for a 250-mile driving range with 2,000-hour fuel cell durability at $3 per gallon gasoline equivalent for hydrogen production cost. But all of this might still be questioned with the advent of newer more efficient plug-in hybrid cars that can deliver 500 miles on a single tank at a much more advantageous purchase price.

Nonetheless, we should not dismiss hydrogen fuel cell technology, since they do have other applications where they excel. Michelin has been working on a low capacity, low-pressure fuel tank that could prove advantageous if driving in an area where hydrogen pumps are near. A few years ago I drove the Honda Clarity that while a fine sedan still cost back then $5 million to make. Ultimately, the choice of pure electric battery operated cars, intelligent plug-in hybrids and fuel cell technology should be part of the choice we have, and not the only option.


Aaron Turpen    August 13, 2012 - 12:55PM

All you need to know is this: every major auto manufacturer is working on hydrogen fuel cells. Toyota, Honda, GM, Hyundai.. all of them. They haven't done so with the force of government requiring them to build a car for compliance (CARB) nor for PR (HFCs usually get very little press compared to BEVs).

They're obviously doing it because they know that to be competitive a few years from now, they'll have to have the technology perfected.

Bob Wallace (not verified)    August 13, 2012 - 2:29PM

In reply to by Aaron Turpen

Aaron - every (?) major auto manufacturer has an EV on the market or one almost ready for production. Plus we have brand new car manufacturing companies bringing EVs to the market. I don't think anything is proved by the statement that car companies are also working on HFCVs.

What needs to be pointed out, IMO, is that the first adequate range, affordable, non-petroleum vehicle presented is likely to establish itself in the market and dislodging it will be very difficult.

The only way to dislodge an existing technology (outside of direct government action) is to offer major advantages or major cost savings. HFCVs could win if they can deliver range that EVs "never develop" or if they become significantly less expensive than BEVs/HPHEVs.

For HEFCs to gain a dominant position, or even sustainable position, there would have to be an economic reason to create the support infrastructure they will need.

EVs/PHEVs already have most of their infrastructure in place.

Aaron Turpen    August 13, 2012 - 2:48PM

In reply to by Bob Wallace (not verified)

How many of those EVs coming to market are compliance cars, Bob? You missed my point. The Ford Focus Electric, Toyota RAV4 EV, Spark, and others are being made purely to comply with California's inane law. The new companies are struggling and, frankly, gaining a bad name for EVs in the process (i.e. Fisker and the Karma fires, Tesla and the high cost of their cars). Coda is probably the only one that is doing it right and theirs are mostly made in China.

It should be obvious to everyone that putting all of our eggs in the petroleum basket was a huge mistake. We'll make that mistake again if we throw all of our eggs into the BEV, HFC, or whatever else basket. We need diversity and regionalization in power trains or we'll just be where we are now again in another few decades.

Predictions are that, by their current rate of advancement, fuel cells should be equivalent in cost per kwh to lithium-ion before 2020 and will have surpassed them in range per pound, durability, and more. So they will definitely be competitive.

Bob Wallace (not verified)    August 13, 2012 - 3:32PM

In reply to by Aaron Turpen

The RAV4 EV certainly looks like a compliance introduction, they didn't even bother to make it 4WD, which is a feature many look for in a SUV. The plug-in Prius, not so much.

The Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf certainly don't look like compliance vehicles. They are being manufactured in numbers larger than necessary to tweak past CA regs. Nissan has built plants in Tennessee and England for Leaf production. GM is manufacturing Volts overseas under a different brand.

The Focus EV - Ford designed its Focus assembly lines so that they could switch and make many more EV models if demand supports.

Tesla is giving EVs a bad name? On the contrary, Tesla has taken EVs from golf carts with roll up windows to lusted-after vehicles.

Tesla has chosen a very interesting and seemingly successful route to producing affordable EVs for everyone. Start by making EVs for those with the deepest pockets, those who can afford to overpay. Build name recognition and establish the ability to produce quality product and then reach down to cheaper models. Don't overlook the price drop and luxury upgrade going from the Roadster to the Model S.

Is the CA law inane? Only, I suppose, to those who aren't concerned about climate change and the problems of petroleum supply.

It's very early in the EV game. But there are EVs (and PHEVs) on the market right now that one can buy. You can't say that about HFCVs. EVs/PHEVs have stolen the march and if price/range develop as most expect they will be firmly situated in a few years.

You seem to feel a need to support HFCVs. I've got no favorite in this race, but I can see who is ahead. I'd be fine with any alternative to petroleum fueled vehicles which give us about the same utility for about the same price.

All I'm doing is pointing out that it's likely that HFCVs will have a very hard time establishing themselves if EVs/PHEVs get there first.


BTW, that Captcha stuff sucks. Big time. Almost no one uses that junk any longer.

Bob Wallace (not verified)    August 13, 2012 - 3:39PM

In reply to by Aaron Turpen

"Predictions are that, by their current rate of advancement, fuel cells should be equivalent in cost per kwh to lithium-ion before 2020 and will have surpassed them in range per pound, durability, and more. So they will definitely be competitive."

Do that math including the cost of fueling infrastructure for HFCVs.

Be sure to include the inefficiency of using electricity to create hydrogen.


Durability for EV batteries seems to no longer be an issue. A123 has increased their 100% DoD cycle life to 2,000 cycles. In a 150 mile range EV that's 300,000 miles. Two car's worth.

150 mile range, certainly 175 mile range, along with 90%, <20 minute rapid recharge is all that is needed to make EVs fully functional for almost all drivers. A full day of driving with only two moderate stops. Toshiba SCiB lithium-ions used in the Honda FiT take a 90% charge in 18 minutes.

Who will get there first? Hard to say, but it's kind of easy to see who is in the lead.

Aaron Turpen    August 13, 2012 - 4:11PM

In reply to by Bob Wallace (not verified)

Who's in the lead doesn't matter, Bob. Gasoline was a nobody when it came out of nowhere and ousted steam, electric and diesel to dominate.

I consider 300,000 miles ONE car. I got 289k out of my first car (would have gotten more if I'd taken care of it), 320k out of another, and have two vehicles in our driveay now that I consider only 1/2 way done and just getting started at 187k and 53k.

I like electrics, but I see many problems with them as well. Did you include the massive infrastructure improvements needed to charge all those cars if even half our nation's automobiles go electric? What about all the costs to "go green" with all that production? 1/3 of our power is currently coal produced. How about all those charging stations so that someone could, conceivably, go just about anywhere and find a fast charger to keep them going?

Most hydrogen is not produced from electricity and likely never will be. There are plenty of alternatives to making it without electrolysis and plenty of ways to easily transport it or make it right at home or at the filling station. In the end, it looks to me like hydrogen is as ready infrastructure-wise as is electricity. Many of the things needed for it are already there thanks to methane.

Again, I see a future where there isn't a "winner" in propulsion systems, as you seem to want. Instead, there is a mix of options and solutions.

Nicolas Zart    August 13, 2012 - 4:54PM

In reply to by Aaron Turpen

I think we're still missing a key component of the hydrogen story, compressing it and keeping it cool. Last I checked, keeping cooled meant it lost a third of its energy/density to stay in this state. Remember, it's not an energy source per se, so when we talk about fuel cell, it's more an energy medium. Compressing it? Well that technology is very old, very inefficient and seriously outdated. The real progress needs to happen within these two categories and maybe localized production that can determine how much and how quickly it can produce it. There is only one compound that can actually contain hydrogen to this day and it is extremely expensive to make, even at NASA levels. My point was how can fuel cell technology compete with plug-in hybrids, even if gasoline goes past $7 in the US when PHEVs can already give you + or - 500 miles?

In the end, the more choice, the better it is for our economy but somehow, I still feel burning hydrogen is a better bet, at least so far. At least, NASA seems to think so.

Bob Wallace (not verified)    August 13, 2012 - 5:31PM

In reply to by Aaron Turpen

Few people get past 150,000 miles without an engine/transmission rebuild, and few want to drive a 150k+ car. YMMV. My point was that we now seem to have adequate battery life/duration. We can probably put the battery life issue to bed.


We have the generation and transmission needed to charge 78% of all US vehicles if they were turned into electrics overnight. Our grid is designed to supply daytime peak loads and our off-peak/nighttime loads are much lower.

Adding EVs to the grid is highly beneficial for renewable energy, especially wind. The average EV will need to charge about 1.5 hours per night. That means great flexibility for grid managers - it gives them large dispatchable loads which can soak up supply peaks and drop out when demand peaks. Some EVs could go days between charging if desirable.

EVs will make wind farms more profitable. And that will lead to more investment/more installation of wind generation. Furthermore, lots of EV owners are likely to pre-purchase their fuel for the next four plus decades by putting some solar panels on their roofs, selling the extra power to the grid, and taking back cheap wind-electricity at night.

We're already installing fast chargers. They will soon be in place along our major travel routes. Long before we see HFCVs in showrooms.

Making hydrogen from natural gas makes no sense. Just burn the natural gas as is. You loose less energy and screw the environment just the same amount.

How many homes now have a hydrogen nozzle? At least 50% of all homes have available outlets for charging an EV.

What would it cost to create the hydrogen infrastructure? The electricity infrastructure will cost small money per vehicle to furnish outlets for the 'other 50%'. Card swipe outlets along streets and in work/school parking lots, for example.

For HFCVs to be cheap we would need 1) the fueling infrastructure in place, and 2) large enough manufacturing volume to enjoy economy of scale. If EVs/PHEVs get there first I can't see HFCVs breaking through those barriers.


Captcha stinks. If you're going to screen the comments anyway, why suppress the input. I'm not likely to continue battling with that system for long.

Nicolas Zart    August 13, 2012 - 5:51PM

In reply to by Bob Wallace (not verified)

Yes Bob, on a very personal level, I'm not really sold on the hydrogen/fuel cell combo. I see more obstacles to overcome a system that is not that very efficient when we take everything into consideration, production, compression, storage, everything.

Battery technology seems to have developed faster and shows more efficiency, at least practical efficiency, which is different form what people expect from a car. The grid can handle the modest onslaught of EV and PHEV drivers, that has been proven over and over. But you're right, the real thing is to add more alternative energy production systems. All of this can come from a mix of government push and the private sector.

I agree with you: "Making hydrogen from natural gas makes no sense. Just burn the natural gas as is. You loose less energy and screw the environment just the same amount." Especially when emissions from internal combustion engines have greatly improved.

And yes, Captchas are annoying. We've made our editors aware of it.

Aaron Turpen    August 13, 2012 - 6:57PM

In reply to by Bob Wallace (not verified)

How long a car will last depends heavily on what it is and how you care for it. Regular oil changes in any of the proven 4- and 6-cylinder engines on the road for the past 20 years can easily get 300k+ without any major breakdowns. My Toyota Corolla (1984) lasted 289k without any major repairs. I just drove a 1965 Dodge Dart last week that has over 200k original miles on it and it's going strong - that slant six is as bulletproof as they come. I put more than 300k miles on a diesel big rig, again, without problems. Engines and drive trains today are generally very robust. I can name a dozen cars within a few blocks of me that are in the 200k+ range of age.

So while maybe you don't like going over 150k, I do and I know many others. An older, used car is almost always worth more as a driver than as a trade-in.

Nicolas Zart    August 14, 2012 - 3:35AM

In reply to by Aaron Turpen

A lot of engines "break in" after 120,000 miles. I've noticed even my Alfa Romeos, going over 120,000, the engines ran strong and had no problem, contrary to its reputation. On the flip side, I do put very good oil and filters in it and I'm on top of it. When it came time to buy a regular car 10 year ago for my wife's daily traffic route, we turned to the only company who still have 98% of the cars they've ever made on the road, Subaru. At least, the car is fun to drive.

I think plug-in hybrids are truly the game changers. A sort of stepping stone between gasoline cars and pure electric, they'll give people a taste of what's it like driving on electricity for short low-speed trips and use gasoline for longer, faster trips. All of this is perfect while we wait for battery energy to help electric cars achieve over 500 mile range.

Bob Wallace (not verified)    August 14, 2012 - 10:42AM

In reply to by Nicolas Zart

Some people do drive their cars for extended mileage. I took a Datsun pickup to 300k. But that is not "normal". Typical US car life is about 150k. With higher quality vehicles now being produced and people having less money I wouldn't be surprised to see that 150k raise over the next years, but this is a side issue. The topic was EV battery life.

We're seeing Prius batteries lasting for the life of the vehicle. Some hitting 300k. I think we can drop the worry about battery duration. Some will fail before 300k, but the same can be said for ICEs and transmission.


I don't think 500 mile range is important. Very few people drive long distances frequently. Try to identify anyone who has a 500 mile drive even once a week. Most people do that sort of driving once or twice a year.

Roughly 175 miles with 90%, ~20 minute charging will do the job. Drive 175, stop 20 min for a charge, drive 158, stop 20m, drive 158. You've driven 490 miles with only one more stop than you'd make driving an ICEV for fuel. And few would complain about the second stop if they can grab something to eat, pee, check their messages, etc.

Daily functionality is what counts most. If people can drive a comfortable, well-performing car for $1/gallon and not have to visit gas stations for fuel they will be a lot more willing to take an extra break or two on their infrequent long trips. The question for most will not be "How many miles can I drive without stopping", but "Can I get to wherever I want to go".


PHEVs may have a great future, at least a near term future. GM is releasing full sized PHEV pickups and SUV. If they can get the price down to a reasonable level those are going to be some very popular vehicles. Forty miles on cheap electricity.

The big question is how soon better batteries appear. If we call the Leaf a "solid 70 mile range EV" then we're roughly half way to fully functional EVs. We've got a lot of very smart people working on battery tech. There are immense fortunes to be made. The technology could move very fast.

Nicolas Zart    August 14, 2012 - 12:37PM

In reply to by Bob Wallace (not verified)

Battery life has never worried me. Back in 2008, I visited Southern California Edison who had just finished lab test with Johnson Saft lithium ion and found they could handle 200,000 without noticeable degradation. That put any fears I had to rest.

I don't think too many people drive past 150K, simply because the vast majority of people don't know how to maintain a car and most of the cars on the road are not that great a quality.

The way I see PHEVs is that they are the perfect stepping stone before we get to full EVs. People got bombarded with that idiotic range anxiety (thanks GM!) and that slowed down enthusiasm, probably not adoption. Although we have EVs that can handle 240 and now 260 miles, the price will come down even more n the next few years.

I think it's a question on intelligent balance. We need to see gasoline cars that cut down on emissions and consumption, as well as hybrids, plug-in hybrids and electrics. As we move into the years, the goal is to go fully electric, at least that's what I'm getting from many carmakers. And it makes sense.

The next step might not be so much battery chemistry but tweaking what we already have. I've written something on it on the Examiner. Better management, better cooling and better written software will help us squeeze an extra 70 mile from what we have today. We're getting there.

Bob Wallace (not verified)    August 14, 2012 - 12:59PM

In reply to by Nicolas Zart

A123's new 2,000 cycle battery is also much more temperature tolerant. Apparently it won't need a cooling system.

I've lived through (at least) three major technology shifts - slide rules to calculators, ledger books and typewriters to computers, and film to digital. They've all played out the same way. The initial technology was a bit limited, a bit clunky, and expensive.

But after a relatively short period performance improved and prices fell. Early adapters pointed the way for those who flocked to the new technology in short years. Two years after the first scientific calculator came to market the two largest slide rule manufacturers quit production. Computers took about a decade to become common, starting with the Apple II in the early '80s. The first sort-of-affordable 2 meg digitals capable of making a decent 8" x 10" print appeared around 2000 and ten years later film was becoming a niche product.

With early digital the solution was to use longer lenses because one couldn't afford to crop away precious pixels. Now the sensors are 8x or more capable of capturing detail and it's easier to crop than to carry larger lenses.

I don't have a crystal ball, but I certainly won't be surprised if we see very much improved batteries very soon and when/if that happens ICEVs and PHEVs will be, at best, niche products.

I just ran some numbers on another site. Let me copy them over here because I think they illustrate why, if we get better batteries, EVs will dominate...

Average US miles driven per year = 13,000.

Nissan Leaf 0.31/kWh per mile.

4,030 kWh per year. 11 kWh per day.

Most of the lower 48 gets at least 4.5 solar hours per day.

2.5 kW of solar panels would produce enough electricity to power an EV for 13,000 miles a year.

In Germany installed PV solar now costs less than $2.25/Watt. No subsidies included.

At $2.25/Watt you could purchase all your EV "fuel" for the next 40+ years for $5,625.

That's $11.72 per month to fuel your ride. Fixed, inflation free, price for the next 40+ years.

And I used solar only because the numbers are more accessible. Wind generated electricity is considerably cheaper.

Nicolas Zart    August 14, 2012 - 1:24PM

In reply to by Bob Wallace (not verified)

I also lived through all these shifts and used to have a compass for school, way back then. We had an IBM XT, then I became a computer consultant. I know a lot of people who power their EVs with solar panels and elsewhere where the wind blows more, wind turbine make even more sense. I hope to see off shore wave energy harnessed because that is a day, day out abundant energy.

There is a great talk on TED, I think it was Simon Sinek who talked about the early adopter curve and then the mass. All new technologies did the same. I was one of the first people in NYC to use a headset for my cell phone in the late 90s. People thought I was crazy and talking to myself. Today we commonly see ear cockroaches :)

I think we are a reluctant bunch and our analytical and critical capacities have never been developed through our worn out education system, so something like EVs are too much for most people to understand. I'm working on a how do you talk to people about EVs, depending on who they are. In other words, don't tell an environmentalist about 100% electric motor torque, or an adrenaline junky about zero emission.

As far as PHEVs, like I said, it's a stepping stone and will do very well the next 8 years until battery energy density becomes good enough to carry us further. You mention 500 miles is not important. As much as I agree, yes, it's not practical and I don't know many bladders who can drive 500 miles :) But somehow, people are clinging on to this magical number, drawn out of nowhere. Maybe it's not such a bad thing and it pushes carmakers to go beyond and further. At the same time, it hinders the mass adoption of what we could already have now.

P.S. go check out Power Engineering, they have interesting new studies, US energy pollute 19% less then in 2010 and a new wind farm producing 50 gW.

Bob Wallace (not verified)    August 14, 2012 - 1:41PM

In reply to by Nicolas Zart

" I'm working on a how do you talk to people about EVs"

Perhaps we need videos/commercials/talking points about how one gets from point A to point B "175" miles at a time.

We're getting close to the northern part of Interstate 5 being turned into an electric corridor. I think within the year one will be able to drive from the Canadian boarder well into California, perhaps all the way to Mexico using Level 3 chargers along the way.

That's not a trip I'd want to do with a ~70 mile range Leaf, but with the smallest battery pack Tesla Model S and its 160 mile range it could be fine.

Might be interesting to do a comparison drive between the 160 mile range S and a gasmobile. Stick to the speed limit. Stop a reasonable amount of time to eat/pee/etc. See how much longer it would take with EV recharges over gas refills.

Aaron Turpen    August 14, 2012 - 3:42PM

In reply to by Bob Wallace (not verified)

David Herron already did this, though he did it with his own car instead of a Model S. It took him 7 hours to go 150 miles, as I recall.

You'd also have to convince Tesla to loan you an S for longer than a few hours, which is what they've been doing with press loans so far.