If you have heard fuel cells mentioned in the news or on tech websites, you may be wondering: “What do fuel cells really do? Are there different kinds? Can they really replace the gas in my car?” The answers are yes, yes, and maybe – someday. Fuel cell research has made leaps and bounds in the past decade, but much remains to make an affordable, practical fuel cell car that anyone could drive.

First, the basic premise: fuel cells create cheap and easy electricity. The traditional hydrogen fuel cell, if you remember your high school science classes, works by splitting hydrogen atoms. This sounds dangerous, but besides the flammability of hydrogen, the process is perfectly safe. Hydrogen passes through a simple battery-like series of plates, from anode to cathode. A little bit of platinum and a flow of oxygen help the hydrogen atoms to split in hydrogen ions and an electron stream. Only the ions can pass straight through to the cathode plate. The electron stream has to go a different way – in this case, through the car battery. When the electrons finally return, everything combines into good old H20, a trickle of water that is the only byproduct of the fuel cell.

This sounds like an eco-dream come true, but the problems are efficiency and control. Fuel cell stacks require different single cells which work together to supply a steady stream of electricity, but it has taken researchers a lot of money and time to get this far. The platinum used in the fuel cell engines is expensive, and the quality of hydrogen or other materials is critical. But thanks to an increase in government subsidies, a growing number of scientists are working towards the future of fuel cell technology.

Fuel Cell Favorites

Hydrogen: Hydrogen is the most popular fuel cell on the market – safe, effective, and easy to create. The primary problem is producing enough power in a small enough space without sending costs through the roof.

Phosphoric Acid: These cells use hydrogen, with phosphoric acid as an electrolyte. They are easy to make and use, but as you can imagine, the acid reacts with the system and corrodes it over time.

Solid Oxide Fuel Cells: These cells replace phosphoric acid with a solid material that can withstand high temperatures and replace the platinum plating used in traditional cells. However, current models are too expensive and too slow for most vehicles.

Direct Methanol: Direct methanol fuel cells use pure methanol mixed with steam – a powerful energy source that is easier to use as a fuel than hydrogen. But the research and funding for methanol fuel has consistently lagged behind hydrogen research.

Give Me My Green Car

Car companies are well aware of the impatience of greener consumers. Although they might be a little hard to find, several fuel cell cars are practically on the market, courtesy of major manufacturers. These models include:

  • Honda FCX Clarity: With the customary hydrogen fuel cell and lithium ion battery, the Clarity doesn’t bring the house down, but it is a solid 60 MPG mode with a range of 240 miles on one hydrogen fill-up. The market for the car is primarily focused on southern California – like many fuel cell models in this generation, the Clarity serves as Honda’s first real foray in the fuel cell industry. The 2012 model is available for a $600 per month lease for three years, which includes maintenance costs and physical damage collision.
  • Mercedes-Benz F-Cell: As of 2012, the F-Cell sedan was also not in full production, available only as a test model in – you guessed it – California. The F-Cell comes with a 24 month lease for $849 per month, including insurance and fuel bonuses not offered by Honda. However, when it comes to power, the F-Cell falls a bit short of the Honda Clarity. It only has a relative 52 MPG to the Clarity’s 60, a 190 mile range, and a weaker 216V lithium ion battery.
  • Chevrolet Equinox Fuel Cell: The Equinox Fuel Cell (not to be confused with the regular model) sticks out as a larger fuel cell vehicle than most companies have attempted. Since 2008, GM has been releasing small batches of the Equinox Fuel Cell in LA, New York, and Washington D.C. It has 160 miles of range and an equivalent 43 MPG, which means lower performance for a larger vehicle.
  • Ford Focus FCV: The Focus FCV rounds up the four hydrogen cell contenders with a 150 to 200 mile range and a top speed of 80 mph. Ford intends to bring fuel cell cars to the real market at some point in the 2010s, or, depending on demand, as late as the 2020s.

Fuel Cell Future

In the coming decade, expect companies to adopt fuel cell technology for residential heat and power, a key step in getting cells into your next car. Remote labs, projects, and power centers will also start to use fuel cells. Manufacturers will continue to improve their design processes, slowly dropping prices and moving fuel cells into the commercial market.

The enormous barriers to fuel cell tech are become clearer and clearer. You have probably already guessed at the primary issue – infrastructure. To make fuel cell vehicles feasible across the country, you would need hydrogen (methanol, etc) stations just about everywhere gas stations are found. That is an immense amount of work with some serious funding required. Unsurprisingly, gas companies are the least likely to support the switch. So be sure to pay attention to government efforts to deal with infrastructure problems in the coming years.

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