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09 June 2010

Will the fuel cell vehicle live up to all the hype?

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The fuel cell vehicle (FCV) is one new technology that might be a viable alternative to the predominant vehicle on the road. However, many challenges remain

To reduce the vehicle impact on the environment many companies are introducing new technology. Fuel cells came into the spotlight last year when leading vehicle manufacturers said they expect to introduce a few hundred thousand fuel cell vehicles (FCV’s) to the market beginning in 2015. Even though the vehicle industry is brimming with enthusiasm, problems remain making the FCV a viable alternative to the predominant vehicle on the road.

An analyst at ETC Battery and FuelCells Sweden AB, Kanehira Maruo, has studied electric engines for many years. “Fuel cell technology has two problems: the cost and the lack of hydrogen refuelling stations. California has quite a few refuelling stations, so you can drive without worrying about refuelling. Berlin has a few refuelling stations, but refuelling stations in other areas are rare," he said.

Another challenge is the safety of using hydrogen in FCV’s. “When the car is carefully maintained nothing goes wrong, but maintaining a high safety level is costly," said Vito Siciliano, an engineer at Ansaldo STS. "We do not have enough experience. Research must continue. A small failure may provoke a big disaster."

Magnus Karlström, Analyst at Hydrogen Sweden, is aware of the risks but thinks hydrogen reaches an acceptable safety level in society.
”There are other types of risks with gasoline and diesel and hydrogen is possible to handle as well. Hydrogen is odourless and colourless, so leaks are very hard for motorists to detect. It is easy, however, to detect a leak with sensors that will shut down the system. Hydrogen is also flammable, but it rarely is the cause of an automobile fire. Gasoline vapours are heavier than air and remain suspended near the engine and can ignite very quickly. Hydrogen gas, on the other hand, is lighter and disperses into the air very quickly. Hydrogen often passes different safety tests so I think it will maintain an acceptable safety level.”

In addition to improving FCV’s the vehicle industry is improving battery-powered cars as well. Lithium battery life limits driving to only 150-250 kilometres on a single charge. Recharging a lithium battery vehicle takes much more time than refuelling the tank with hydrogen, making it a car for short-distance travels. However, researchers in the ALISTORE (Advanced Lithium Energy Storage Systems) project have constructed a battery that can be charged as quickly as refuelling the tank with hydrogen. This is a breakthrough that could revolutionize vehicle travel. Although the battery could revolutionize travel, a distribution system is not available for battery-powered cars, and safety issues remain.

To call the FCV or the battery-powered car eco-friendly depends in part on the energy source. Fossil fuels and renewal energy, such as wind, are energy sources for both electricity and hydrogen. At the moment it is cheaper to make hydrogen from fossil fuels but that may change. Companies such as Vattenfall and SunHydro want to provide more renewable energy to fuel vehicles.

Neither of these technologies offers a quick fix. Making them viable alternatives depends on many factors. Few believe FCV’s or battery-powered cars will be the sole alternatives when companies are developing more efficient combustion engines and hybrid vehicles on the road to a greener society. provides its content to all media free of charge. We would appreciate if you could acknowledge as the source of the content.