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Hydrogen Fuel Cell

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Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are zero emission and run on compressed hydrogen fed into a fuel cell "stack" that produces electricity to power the vehicle. A fuel cell can be used in combination with an electric motor to drive a vehicle – quietly, powerfully and cleanly.

How It Works

A hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle is powered by a group of individual fuel cells, known as a fuel cell stack.The stack is designed to contain enough cells to provide the necessary power for the automotive application. A fuel cell stack produces power as long as fuel is available, similar to a combustion engine. The electricity generated by the fuel cell stack powers the electric motor that propels the vehicle.

Each fuel cell is an anode, a cathode and a proton exchange membrane sandwiched in between. Hydrogen, from a tank onboard the vehicle, enters into the anode side of the fuel cell. Oxygen, pulled from the air, enters the cathode side. As the hydrogen molecule encounters the membrane, a catalyst forces it to split into electron and proton. The proton moves through the fuel cell stack and the electron follows an external circuit, delivering current to the electric motor and other vehicle components. At the cathode side, the proton and electron join again, and then combine with oxygen to form the vehicle’s only tailpipe emission, water.

The U.S. Department of Energy provides additional illustrations and information:



Most automakers have placed fuel cell electric vehicles with customers, and many plan to introduce FCEVs to the early commercial market in the 2015-2017 timeframe. By 2020, automakers expect to place tens of thousands of fuel cell electric vehicles in the hands of California consumers. Today, about 300 FCEVs have been placed on California’s roads and fill at public and private hydrogen stations in the state. These vehicles have either been leased in Southern California or have joined fleet programs. As the number of FCEVs in California increases over the next 5 to 10 years, California is working hard to ensure hydrogen is easily available to drivers.

For the latest on each auto manufacturer's plan for FCEV development and commercialization, visit the following websites:


There are also a number of websites that track FCEV developments and may provide a closer look at the projected FCEV market:


How Fuel Cells Compare

Understanding the primary technology powering vehicles is the first step to evaluating different vehicle types. Battery electric, hydrogen fuel cell electric, and internal combustion vehicles are each powered by a fundamentally different technology:

  • Battery electric vehicles are powered by rechargeable batteries

  • Fuel cell electric vehicles rely primarily on fuel cells

  • Internal combustion vehicles burn fuel

Rechargeable batteries, fuel cells, and combustion engines are distinct technologies, yet they share some common attributes. Here is how fuel cells are similar to and different from rechargeable batteries and combustion engines:

Fuel Cell Versus Rechargeable Batteries

A fuel cell operates similar to a rechargeable battery. Fuel cells and batteries are devices that transform chemical energy from a substance or compound into electricity through electrochemistry. The electrochemical reactions in batteries and fuel cells are controlled and produce virtually zero pollutants. The difference between the two technologies lies in the storage of fuel. A battery converts a finite amount of a chemical compound stored internally into electricity. The chemical substance consumed in the battery to produce electricity is regenerated when the battery is recharged. A fuel cell, on the other hand, converts a chemical compound stored externally into electricity. That chemical compound is hydrogen stored in a tank onboard the FCEV.

Fuel Cell Versus Combustion Engines

Fuel cells and combustion engines both consume fuel that is stored externally in a tank onboard the vehicle. Unlike the controlled chemical reactions in batteries and fuel cells, gasoline combustion is marked by a series of uncontrolled chemical reactions that produce many undesired compounds. NOx, SOx, and particulate emissions are all undesired products of combustion that negatively affect air quality.

The uncontrolled combustion of gasoline also reduces how efficiently engines transform chemical energy into power. A conventional combustion engine uses less than 20 percent of the chemical energy in gasoline, which means more than 80 percent of the fuel is “wasted.” In contrast, a fuel cell converts up to 60 percent of the chemical energy in hydrogen to drive the vehicle. Therefore, a fuel cell electric vehicle is potentially 3 times as efficient as traditional combustion vehicle and virtually pollution-free.

Fuel cell electric vehicles achieve the beneficial characteristics of both conventional and battery electric vehicles. The combination of these desirable characteristics makes fuel cell electric vehicles an attractive advanced vehicle option for drivers that value long range, fast refueling, and zero-emissions. The similarities and differences between conventional, battery electric, and fuel cell electric vehicles are summarized the figure below.


Most people assume that driving a FCEV is too expensive for the average Californian. Since current leasing packages for FCEVs include fuel, service and maintenance, physical damage insurance, in addition to all of the other perks and benefits you get from driving a FCEV, these cars may make sense—not just for the environment, but for your pocketbook. Search incentives by zip code to find out what is available in your area.

As for the cost of fuel, the standards for measuring dispensed hydrogen fuel for sale in California are under development, but do not exist today. Although FCEV drivers have access to hydrogen fueling stations around the state, drivers are not paying for the fuel based on the amount dispensed. The cost of providing fuel is packaged as an add-on in vehicle lease agreements. The state of California is aiming to sell hydrogen in the retail market before 2015.


Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are eligible in California for single-occupant HOV lane use. Check out the incentives search to find other incentives in your region.


Most new hydrogen fueling stations are being located at existing gasoline stations, which means that hydrogen dispensers may be placed adjacent to or on the same island as the gasoline dispenser. Although the gasoline and hydrogen dispensers look very similar, the nozzle and hose for the hydrogen dispenser are different. The hydrogen nozzles form an airtight connection with the FCEV fuel tank and are not physically similar to gasoline nozzles. The hose for the hydrogen dispenser is narrower than gasoline hoses and is cool to the touch as chilled, high-pressure hydrogen fills the FCEV fuel tank. Most hydrogen dispensers provide hydrogen fuel at two different pressures: 35 and 70 MPa. The hydrogen gas compressed to 70 MPa is more dense than 35 MPa hydrogen fuel, which means that more fuel at 70 MPa can be contained in the same fuel tank volume. FCEVs that run and store 70 MPa hydrogen fuel typically have greater driving range. For this reason, a single hydrogen dispenser will typically house a hose with nozzles for each pressure.

Some resources for finding fueling stations for hydrogen fuel cell cars include:

California Fuel Cell Partnership: The CaFCP maintains a map of all hydrogen fueling stations planned and in operation in California.

U.S. Department of Energy Alternative Fuels Data Center: A site developed by the Department of Energy that provides maps to refueling stations in the US for CNG, LPG/propane, ethanol, electric, biodiesel, hydrogen, and liquefied natural gas (LNG).

If you see a sign with this symbol on a State highway, a hydrogen fueling station is within 3 miles:

hydrogen sign


Hydrogen fuel cell cars are quiet, very energy efficient, have zero emissions and have equivalent range and performance to their gasoline counterparts. Drivers identify range, refueling time, emissions, power, and performance as valuable vehicle characteristics.


Electric motor / fuel cell stack plus battery


High-pressure hydrogen gas


Similar to a conventional vehicle - between 300 – 400 miles (some FCEVs go even further) on a full tank.


Time: 3 - 7 minutes for a passenger vehicle, 10 - 15 minutes for a transit bus.

Fuel Type: Currently technologies are capable of 35 MPa and 70 MPa compressed gaseous hydrogen storage.  

Cost: Today, fuel costs are typically included in the FCEV lease cost. When regulations for selling hydrogen are complete, it's expected to be cost-competitive with gasoline.

Fuel Cell:

FCEVs utilize proton exchange membrane fuel cells that generate 70 – 100 kW (93 - 134 horsepower).


FCEVs typically have lithium ion batteries that are 1 – 3 kWh.


FCEVs are zero emission vehicles. Water vapor is the only emission from the tailpipe. The only emissions are associated with the hydrogen production method, which may be renewable, and the delivery of hydrogen to the station.



The United States is committed to reducing its dependence on petroleum fuels as a result of increasing focus on environmental, public health, and energy security issues.  California is taking a leadership role in deploying new fuel and vehicle technologies that can benefit its constituents across these areas. As a fuel capable of being produced from domestic, conceivably renewable, feedstocks and carbon-free, hydrogen has the potential to become a substantial portion of our sustainable transportation fuel portfolio. Fuel cell electric vehicles are highly-efficient, have zero tailpipe emissions, and can be powered by domestically-produced hydrogen fuel. Consequently, hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle adoption in California will help the state achieve its environmental, public health, and energy security goals.

You can make a difference now by driving a FCEV. More information about why FCEVs are good for California can be found on the California Fuel Cell Partnership's website.

Hydrogen Production

Hydrogen can be produced from many domestic feed stocks, such as natural gas and renewable resources like water, using electrolysis. While the most common method of making hydrogen, using natural gas reformation, results in fewer smog-forming and greenhouse gas emissions than traditional vehicles, California is working to increase use of renewable production sources.

Perks & Conveniences

Fuel cell engines offer a combination of the range of conventional combustion engines with low fuel consumption, minimal or no harmful emissions, low noise emissions, and the comfort of an electric vehicle. FCEVs also qualify for incentives that provide additional perks relating to cost and convenience.


Auto manufacturers are committed to building fuel cell vehicles that are as safe or safer than conventional vehicles by meeting the standards set by the Society of Automotive Engineers and other standard development organizations. Fuel cell electric vehicles have essential safety systems designed to protect passengers and first responders in case of an accident. Most importantly, FCEVs are held to the same safety requirements as conventional vehicles set by the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration.

Safety systems for FCEVs differ from conventional vehicles largely due to the fuel cell stack and battery pack—two sources of high-voltage electricity—and the fuel storage tanks containing high-pressure hydrogen gas. The CaFCP provides a good description of fuel cell electric vehicle safety systems and there are some great resources in their safety toolkit.

The fuel cell stack and high-voltage battery pack in FCEVs also pose no additional risks over a conventional vehicle. Both the fuel cell stack and battery pack are sealed separately in metal cases and electrically insulated from the vehicle’s metal body. There are a number of safety systems designed into the vehicle to prevent high voltage hazards. High-voltage circuits are also color-coded orange and posted with warnings to advise of their presence. First Responders undergo training so that they are prepared to appropriately respond to potential emergency situations involving fuel cell electric vehicles.

Hydrogen fuel is stored at high pressures (up to 70 MPa, 10,000psi) in tanks much stronger than typical gasoline fuel tanks. The hydrogen storage tanks are designed to withstand twice the maximum pressure to avoid rupture. The tanks undergo rigorous testing to validate the safety of the vehicle under severe or unusual conditions to meet the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards for crash safety. Sensors are located throughout the vehicle and, in conjunction with the safety systems, ensure that the driver and the vehicle are safe in the unlikely event of a hydrogen leak. To learn more, the Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy provides an animation demonstrating multiple safety systems in FCEVs that prevent the accidental release of hydrogen. To date, FCEVs have been involved in real-world collisions without major incident.

Fueling your FCEV is easy and safe. A hydrogen fueling dispenser, hose, nozzle, vehicle hydrogen storage tank all have built-in safety protection that is tested and certified by national codes and standards, as well as automotive standards for FCEV hydrogen fueling.

Additional Resources

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