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Carmakers Yet to Give Up on Fuel Cells

Sandy Tung's picture
Senior Manager 100 Resilient Cities

Sandy is a resilience practitioner with over 7 years’ experience in sustainable development and program management, specializing in embedding resilience principles into strategic planning...

  • Member since 2018
  • 13 items added with 8,973 views
  • Jul 10, 2013
Photo Credit: whiteknuckled via Compfight cc

Over the years the auto market has begun to warm up to electric and hybrid vehicles, and this trend looks set to continue as people become increasingly conscious of the consequences of the continued use of fossil-powered vehicles. There are of course other alternatives, including biofuels, natural gas vehicles, and fuel cell vehicles, too, but in the race to reach the mass market, the electric vehicle has emerged to be a clear winner at this point in time. 

This did not seem to be the case a decade ago, however, when there were many that were actually in the fuel cell camp, believing that hydrogen was the way forward. Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the world, and its combustion produces only water vapour, seeming like the perfect solution. All we needed was a way to extract the hydrogen in a clean and economic way. Which turned out to be quite a problem unfortunately. Production via electrolysis continues to be expensive and energy intensive, and steam reforming from methane, while cheap, defeats the point of using carbon-free fuels, leaving the dream of the hydrogen fuel cell vehicle on the back-burner for many.

Hydrogen continues to get a bad rap, with Tesla CEO recently saying fuel cells should be called “fool cells” instead because they were never going to be competitive with lithium-ion batteries, claiming that “You could take best case of a fuel cell, theoretically the best case, and it does not compete with lithium-ion cells today. And lithium-ion cells are far from their optimum.” (Of course that isn’t a biased statement in any way, coming from the CEO of an EV company)

This could be about to change, with Toyota, Honda and General Motos still clinging to the hydrogen bandwagon to bring a fuel cell vehicle to the market as early as 2015. GM and Honda recently signed a long-term agreement to develop a “next-generation fuel cell vehicle powertrain”to be used by around 2020, while also working on hydrogen storage technologies and improving hydrogen refueling options. Toyota will be aiming to launch a Lexus fuel-cell model in 2015, to be price-competitive with a mid-size BMW or a Tesla Model S, at an estimated price in the region of $50,000. Ford, Nissan and Daimler AG are also holding out for fuel cell technology, having signed an agreement earlier this year with the goal of producing a mass-market fuel-cell vehicle by 2017.

One of the reasons why the push for hydrogen continues, in the US, at least, is the requirement by the state of California that automakers build zero-emission vehicles. Furthermore, the US Energy Department launched the H2USA program in May, a public-private partnership involving automakers, government, gas suppliers and the hydrogen and fuel cell industry, focused on advancing hydrogen infrastructure to provide increased alternative transportation energy options for consumers. According to the Energy Department, research has already helped to reduce fuel cell costs by over 35% since 2008, and by over 80% since 2002, while doubling fuel cell durability over the same period.

Whether or not we will see market-ready fuel cell vehicles hit the road before 2020 remains to be seen. But it is clear that major carmakers have not completely mothballed the notion that fuel cell vehicles may still become an essential component of the future of green transportation. But until a breakthrough comes along that can put them on par with electric vehicle technology, hydrogen and fuel cells will be playing catch up in a race where the EVs continue to extend their lead.

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Paul O's picture
Paul O on Jul 10, 2013


I am begining to think that we should perhaps concede transportation to Natural gas and fuel cells, utilizing the Hydrogen in Nat. Gas. Or directly buned in micro-tubines to produce electricity. Perhaps the cars could have onboard CO2 scrubbers which are regularly replaced and buried away (as chalk)  every now and then.

Perhaps these engnes could use secondary waste heat conversion from sterling engines attached to batteries or so.I am not sure what the weight costs of onboard scrubber and sterling engines would be/mean. However if the entire car was built with carbon fibres we could gain back some of the weight losses. The more I think about this, the more the pros-and-cons Keep rushing in.


think about this, are you really saying that we could prevent the predicted 20 meter volume of sea level rise  by converting all of it  to Hydrogen and oxygen gasses, by electrolysis?

Off the top, this sounds a little far fetched.  I don’t think we’ll  be able to produce enough power from all the generating sources on the planet to do that. If we were to Combine all the Nuclear, Wind, PV, Geothermal, Dams, and a million OTECs and we still won’t electrolyse this amount of water. 

Also, where would we store all that Hydrogen, and all that Oxygen?

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jul 11, 2013

Powering cars with a carbon-free fuel has several advantages:

  • It provides a means for the huge (and influential) fossil fuel companies to help decarbonize our transportation system (via carbon capture & seq).
  • It provides a clear path to the use of sustainable energy sources.
  • Fuel synthesized from sustainable electricity provides a large dispatchable load for matching instantaneous supply and demand (for a cost much lower than large scale electricity-to-electricity energy storage).
  • It provides rapid refueling and long driving range.
  • It scales easily to heavy trucks, buses, trains, and ships.
  • Fuel cell vehicles in particular make electric car luxury and performance accessible to motorists who don’t have access to a garage or wired parking space. 

As described in this Energy Collective article from April, the National Academy of Sciences issued an opinion that The technical hurdles that must be surmounted to develop an all-purpose vehicle acceptable to consumers appear lower for FCEVs than for BEVs. However, the infrastructure and policy barriers appear larger. “.

Of course the most familiar carbon-free fuel is hydrogen, which has many problems (e.g. very high cost for fuel cells and very poor energy density).  But ammonia (NH3) is also a carbon-free fuel, and it has an energy density a little better than that of cng (and double that of 10,000 psi H2), so it can be burned in a modified Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) and it still produces adequate vehicle range (like diesel fuel, ammonia can be burned with a high compression ratio engine, so the efficiency will be midway between that of a fuel cell and a gasoline engine). 

The most important feature of ammonia ICE cars is that they will cost about the same as gasoline powered ICE cars, which is to say much less than fuel cell or battery electrics.  This means that they complement rather than compete with battery electrics (since batteries give lower refueling cost).  And fuel cells that run on ammonia do exist, so that option for efficiency improvement is preserved.

The ammonia path has a lower infrastructure barrier than hydrogen, since ammonia is much cheaper to transport by truck or rail than is hydrogen (due to the better energy density and much lower pressurization).  We already have a couple thousand miles of ammonia pipeline in the US, which is used to distribute ammonia for use as fertilizer.

Ammonia has the added advantage that when made from sustainable sources, it will be cheapest in developing nations with low labor costs, i.e. it is a technology that targets nations like China and India whose CO2 will soon dwarf those of the developed world.  So world emissions wise, a US investment in ammonia technology would be highly leveraged.  If we mature the technology by converting a few percent of our vehicle fleet to ammonia (using Government incentives), China and India could conceivably convert a majority of their fleets to ammonia, saving money and improving their trade balances in the process.

Here’s a good intro to ammonia fuel:  NH3 – The Other Hydrogen

Here is a story about a Toyota sports car that has been modified by an Italian team to burn ammonia, here is a conversion done in South Korea.

see also:  

Paul O's picture
Paul O on Jul 11, 2013


I was going to addend my post to suggest Ammonia as a substitue to/for Natural gas. Granted it has a higher energy density than CNG, the downsaide (if you wanna call it that) is that Ammonia has to be manufactured, and costs more.

Do you have a comment on what the range of an Ammonia vehicle would be if the ammonia were run through a fuel cell versus being burned directly inside an Gasoline engine?

DO you have comments on the safety aspect of Ammonia if it were to be spilt during an accident. I am mostly intersted in exposure of skin and lungs to Ammonia.

Stephen Nielsen's picture
Stephen Nielsen on Jul 11, 2013

“Off the top, this sounds a little far fetched.  I don’t think we’ll  be able to produce enough power from all the generating sources on the planet to do that”

Think about it. It’s actually a very simple chemical reaction, but on a grand scale. We’ve produced enough CO2 via a simple chemical reaction to create the problem in the first place – and that was unintentional. Do you really think we couldn’t intentionally do the same kind of thing to reverse the reaction?

Also, there is no need to store oxygen.  Over the last century, while we have added CO2 to the atmosphere, we have also reduced O2 – we would just be putting it back.

Also, the demand for hydrogen is only going to grow. It is a feedstock for countless other reactions and products

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jul 12, 2013

Yes, given the low cost of natural gas today, ammonia fuel only makes sense if the goal is sustainability and/or CO2 emissions reduction (same as with renewables and nuclear for electricity).

As far as range, I would expect an engine tuned for ammonia to get 20-30% better efficiency than a gas engine (the quick&dirty Ford Escorts from the 1981 methanol program got 15% better mileage than gas – not per gallon since the fuels are so different, but per unit energy).  Fuel cells should be up to double the efficiency of gas, or about 60% better than ammonia ICE.  Of course in the real world, fuel cell cars have not been 2x gas hybrids, more like 30% better.

Here is an article on a demonstration project using an alkaline fuel cell running on ammonia for stationary power.  It is expected to be cheaper than using diesel generators for off-grid cell-phone towers. (For vehicles, I think the high temperature ceramic fuel cells are considered better suited.)

Here is a presentation on ammonia safety.  Overall, the safety is expected to equal that of gasoline.  Walking away from an ammonia spill is as easy as walking away from a gasoline spill (the toxicity offsets the reduction in fire and explosion risk).  I don’t think pure ammonia is hazardous to the skin (since unlike ammonia in water, it rapidly boils at room temp like liquid nitrogen), but it is bad to inhale in high concentrations.  Note that unlike carbon-monoxide which has no smell and is poisonous, it can be smelled at 100x lower concentration than is dangerous.

Spill-proof fuel dispensers have already been developed for methanol, so the familiar experience of fuel dripping from the dispenser after a gas fill-up won’t be a part of the ammonia experience.  I would not expect ammonia powered lawn mowers anytime soon though.

Note also that fuel tank ruptures are very rare in car crashes (except in the movies).  Auto makers do a good job of protecting the fuel tank.  The tanks will have automatic shut-off values, which in the event of an accident, would limit fuel releases from broken fuel lines to very small amounts which would disperse quickly (vertically, since ammonia vapor is lighter than air).


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