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Green-Energy Advocates Bet Big on Fuel-Cell Electric Vehicles

Oct. 15, 2020
When it comes to long ranges, quick refueling, and low weight, FCEVs hit those marks and thus are gaining more popularity. Find out what else is motivating stakeholders to vouch for them.

What you’ll learn:

  • Why hydrogen is dubbed as the next-gen fuel.
  • How PEM technology is touted to flourish.
  • What are forward-looking companies up to?
  • Why heavy-duty trucks are counting on FCEVs.

Often dubbed “future mobility and a silver bullet” to the climate crisis, fuel-cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) have come through the ranks as a viable way to do away with greenhouse emissions. The FCEV is seen as a lucrative business model that complements sustainability and promises to attain zero emissions, producing electricity from non-fossil fuels, including hydrogen. That said, is investing in FCEVs profitable for car manufacturers? 

OEMs and other stakeholders are gearing to be in line with policies put forth by various agencies. To put things in perspective, the European Commission has set an audacious target of 40% of new vans and cars to be zero- or low-emission vehicles by 2030. Overall, fuel-cell technologies and hydrogen are perceived as major technologies to achieve the greenhouse-gas reduction targets by 2050.

Various watchdogs are focusing on technology optimization and product differentiation to bolster the value chain. Turning challenges into potential opportunities will provide a win-win scenario for stakeholders involved in the FCEV industry.

Making transport more sustainable will be one of the top priorities that may boost the commercial development of FCEVs to go mainstream. What’s more, manufacturers are striving to put FCEVs into mass production and redefine their portfolios, adopting a proactive approach.

Is Hydrogen the Next-Gen Fuel?

Traffic experts are counting on an alternative to long charging times, namely the hydrogen engine. There’s no doubt that the battery electric vehicle (BEV) is a bottleneck for FCEV manufacturers.

That’s not the end of the road for FCEV suppliers, though. With an infusion of funds to enhance fuel-cell technology and infrastructure for hydrogen supply mechanisms, bullish sentiments are palpable. Manufacturers such as Bosch, Iveco, and Nikola Motor Company are moving into the hydrogen-driven vehicle business.

Seen as an alternative to the combustion engine, there are a number of advantages to using FCEVs:

  • Quick charging time: Helping to boost flexibility, quick charging time is one of the major upsides to FCEVs. The fuel cells’ hydrogen tanks are full and ready to go in merely five minutes.
  • No engine noise: With almost no engine noise and a robust start owing to electric motors providing full torque even at low speeds, the propulsion in hydrogen fuel-cell cars is solely electrical.
  • A longer range: Hydrogen cars may have a longer range as compared to purely electric cars. It’s alleged that a full hydrogen tank can run around 300 miles.

The fuel cell is a natural fit—it has a system efficiency of around 60%—compared to the 20%-30% efficiency of an internal combustion engine. What strikes more is its mobility—1 kg of hydrogen contains three times as much energy than 1 kg of petrol. And hydrogen produces only water vapor; there are no CO2 emissions. Overall, FCEVs are regarded as environmentally friendly, clean, and sustainable.

PEM—State-of-the-Art Fuel-Cell Technology

The proton-exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells commonly used in FCEVs contain two electrodes. The electrodes are separated from each other by a polymer electrolyte membrane or proton exchange membrane. Strikingly, the production of electrical energy in the FCEV is totally emission-free; thus, FCEVs are zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs).

PEM fuel cells have become the most sought-after technology in fuel-cell electric vehicles. They maintain high power density to keep up with the space constraints in vehicles for a robust startup. Owing to its lightness and compactness, these cells are highly desirable in many transport applications.

PEM fuel cells exhibit a fast start from room temperature, high capacity to follow electrical load variation, and good power-to-weight and power-to-volume ratios. 

Shifting Industry Sands

It’s not all pie-in-the-sky in the FCEV industry, though. Of late, a host of mergers and acquisitions plus joint ventures have taken place and the major players haven’t taken a backstep to acquire hydrogen-related companies. High up-front cost and fierce competition from BEVs are reasons why several companies have given up.

However, there’s still a silver lining. Several auto manufacturers have jumped on the bandwagon and teamed up with hydrogen producers and filling-station operators. For instance, Germany may lead from the front as BMW contemplates expanding the hydrogen fueling-station network to 130 stations by 2022, enabling the operation of around 60,000 hydrogen cars in the country. That’s not all. With an unprecedented spike in fuel-cell vehicles, 400 stations may be observed by 2025 in Germany.

An unprecedented spike in the production of fuel-cell vehicles is being witnessed globally. Hyundai Motor is gearing to produce fuel-cell trucks from 2023 after the trials in 2021, which will acknowledge the accord with South Korea’s Ministry of Environment.

Toyota Motor Corp. is eager to produce 200,000 hydrogen-powered vehicles by 2025, while the company expects to have the capacity of 200,000 units for the non-auto industry and 500,000 fuel cells for commercial vehicles and passenger cars.

In a bid to make vehicles greener, Robert Bosch GmbH recently teamed with Powercell Sweden AB, a fuel-cell stack maker. The deal involves manufacturing of PEM fuel cells, while the stack will be added to Bosch’s fuel-cell products. Bosch predicts at least 20% of EVs globally will be powered by fuel cells by 2030.

Viability of Fuel-Cell Vehicles Lies in Commercialization

Hydrogen-celled vehicles may be commercially available worldwide by 2025 due to the backdrop of environmental regulations and demand for FCEV systems. The FCEV’s total cost of ownership hasn’t yet approached that of EV batteries, though a slew of fuel-cell buses is planned or in use in Massachusetts, Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, and California.

The dearth of hydrogen cars on the streets is partly attributed to the rise of EVs as the green alternative. Cynics argue that the efficiency factor gives EVs an edge as hydrogen has to be extracted and compressed in fuel tank. In a fuel-cell stack, it’s mixed with oxygen to create electricity to power motors of the vehicle.

Consumer hydrogen refueling stations have surged globally as companies such as Honda and Toyota have partnered with the government in Quebec to construct a hydrogen infrastructure in Montreal. And Saudi Arabia is poised to get its first station.

A dramatic rise in the scalability of fuel-cell electric-vehicle technology reinforces the fact that hydrogen fuel cells are being touted as a zero-emission solution. With thousands of fuel-cell vehicles on the road, commercialization of FCEVs should give EVs a run for the money. Industry influencers predict that hydrogen fuel-cell systems could potentially cost four times less vis-à-vis lithium-ion batteries and provide much longer range.

While FCEVs may not replace EVs, they will potentially complement electric power. EVs are energy-intensive and take tons of CO2 to produce the battery. When it comes to sustainability, auto manufacturers will likely turn to FCEVs.

Hyundai Motor has reportedly taken its partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) to the next level. The latter will receive five additional FCEVs—dubbed Nexo—to help boost the R&D of fuel cell technologies.

Heavy-Duty Vehicles Bet High on FCEVs

Heavy-duty trucks, passenger vehicles, logistic vehicles, and hydrogen buses are major application areas of FCEVs. Production of heavy-duty vehicles has surged in recent years with companies like Hyundai, Toyota, Nikola Motor, Fast Track Fuel Cell Truck, and Foton Motor Group leading the charge. 

Due to high pollution and greenhouse emissions, OEMs and other green advocates consider heavy-duty trucks as a compelling option in the development of zero-emission vehicles. In fact, most OEMs are focusing on R&D in this area.

Though the development of fuel-cell heavy-duty vehicles hasn’t yet gotten lots of traction, such trucks can provide faster refueling times versus battery electric trucks, as well as travel longer distances. This in turn, of course, will help minimize the downtime across entire fleets.


FCEVs have come to the fore as a green hydrogen and a CO2-free alternative energy source. Costs for hydrogen-fuel-cell vehicles will likely drop in terms of total cost of ownership over the next decade, partly due to improving economies of scale and reducing vehicle build costs thanks to maturation of the technology.

FCEVs are perceived as the vehicle of the future with the ongoing push for high performance and clean emissions. Creating a hydrogen refueling station infrastructure will become the linchpin in the FCEV’s commercialization on a global scale.

Sunil Kumar Jha is a Content Writer for Global Market Insights Inc.

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