What is Hydrogen Fuel Cell Technology?

Author: Kevin Stillerman

Electric Vehicle Content Writer

Will hydrogen fuel cells dominate in the future as transportation technology advances towards clean and renewable energy?

Hydrogen Fuel Cells

Is hydrogen fuel cell technology the clean and renewable alternative fuel source the transportation industry has been desperately searching?

Fuel cells offers a potential solution to eliminate carbon emissions and position society for a sustainable planet.

The technology comes with a set of pros and cons. The question is whether the advantages out-weigh the disadvantages, making it a viable option to propel the human race into the future.

What is a Hydrogen Fuel Cell?

Fuel cell technology promises clean energy from the most abundant element in the universe, hydrogen.

A fuel cell is a device that uses an electrochemical reaction to generate electricity. Unlike traditional gas vehicles, combustion is not required for fuel cell technology.

Fuel cells combine hydrogen and oxygen to generate electricity, heat, and water.

Hydrogen Fuel Cell Diagram, Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association

Hydrogen + Oxygen = Electricity + Water Vapor + Heat

In addition to being a clean energy source, fuel cell systems are efficient, reliable, and a quiet power generating source. 

Unlike battery cells, fuel cells do not need to be periodically recharged, and have the ability to produce continuous electricity as long as a fuel source is provided.

How does a Hydrogen Fuel Cell work?

Get your chemistry hat on! A fuel cell is comprised of an anode, cathode, and electrolyte membrane.

Hydrogen passes through the anode side of the fuel cell while oxygen is passed through the cathode side.

A catalyst (typically made of platinum) splits the hydrogen molecules into electrons and protons. The hydrogen protons pass through the electrolyte membrane to the cathode side.

Hydrogen Fuel Cell Diagram, Power Technology

The electrons are forced through an electric circuit generating an electric current with a byproduct of heat.

This electric current can be used to power just about anything, including a vehicle.

The cathode side of the fuel cell combines the protons (extracted in the anode), electrons, and mix with the oxygen (pulled in from the ambient air) to produce a highly clean byproduct, water.

Benefits of Hydrogen Fuel Cell Technology

Since fuel cells use chemistry to generate electricity, they can be much more efficient than internal combustion engines.

Pairing a fuel cell with a heat and power system creates an even more efficient system by utilizing the cell’s heat for heating or cooling applications.

Fuel cells are a scalable technology. Individual fuel cells can be joined together to form stacks which can in turn be further combined into larger stack systems.

HFC Vehicle, Department of Energy

You can therefore create a fuel cell system that can vary greatly in size and power for different energy applications.

In the application of fuel cell powered vehicles, “fueling” your vehicle means filling a pressurized hydrogen tank to be used in the electrochemical reaction.

This process can be performed in a fraction of the time required to charge a battery cell.

Fuel cell systems are much smaller and lighter than battery packs. This means they can be scaled without the major weight penalty seen in battery cell technology. 

Downsides to Hydrogen Fuel Cell Technology

There are quite a lot of benefits to fuel cell technology…so what are the downsides?

Although hydrogen is a readily available resource, it is typically not found as pure hydrogen in nature because it is a very reactive element.

And although there are many processes to generate pure hydrogen, these processes are expensive and typically require their own energy sources.

Hydrogen Production for Fuel Cells

While water electrolysis can be performed using wind, solar, or grid electricity, common energy sources for hydrogen production include the burning of fossil fuels and biomass (both of which release CO2 emissions into the atmosphere). 

Hydrogen is also highly flammable, so proper handling and storage is critical.

In addition, hydrogen must be stored at extremely high pressures which makes on-board storage of hydrogen challenging and expensive.

These safety considerations have continued to be a large factor deterring people from this technology.

Hydrogen Distribution Infrastructure, Fuel Cell Today

And probably the most obvious challenge for hydrogen fuel cell transportation is the lack of infrastructure of charging stations currently available for this technology. 

Nikola Motors Company

Founded in 2014 in Salt Lake City Utah by Trevor Milton (Founder and Executive Chairman) and Mark Russell (President and CEO), Nikola Motors hopes to claim a large slice in the transportation industry.

Nikola Motors has embraced hydrogen fuel cell technology as its main source of power. Their product lineup includes Nikola One, Two, Tre semi-trucks, and the Nikola Badger pickup truck.

Hydrogen Production for Fuel Cells

Development of these vehicles is currently in progress and Nikola plans to create a worldwide hydrogen fueling network to support their vehicles.

Of course Nikola Motors largest competition is the already well established all electric vehicle company, Tesla Motors.


Hydrogen fuel cell technology offers a viable energy source that is both clean and renewable.

In order for this technology to become ubiquitous there are several barriers that must be overcome.

This includes the extraction and storage of pure hydrogen, safety related challenges, and a need for infrastructure development.

Although the technology is proven, it faces numerous hurdles which all require a large amount of time, money, and resources prior to mainstream adoption.

Overall the future of alternative energy transportation looks very promising and our planet will be the main benefactor.  

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