Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles

Fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) are powered by hydrogen. They are more efficient than conventional internal combustion engine vehicles and produce no harmful tailpipe exhaust—they only emit water vapor and warm air. FCEVs and the hydrogen infrastructure to fuel them are still in an early stage of deployment. The U.S. Department of Energy is leading government and industry efforts to make hydrogen-powered vehicles an affordable, environmentally friendly, and safe transportation option. Hydrogen is considered an alternative fuel under the Energy Policy Act of 1992 and qualifies for alternative fuel vehicle tax credits.

What is a fuel cell electric vehicle?

FCEVs use a propulsion system similar to electric vehicles, where energy is stored as hydrogen converted to electricity by the fuel cell. Unlike conventional internal combustion engine vehicles, they produce no harmful tailpipe emissions. Other benefits include increasing U.S. energy security and strengthening the economy.

FCEVs are fueled with pure hydrogen gas stored in a tank on the vehicle. They produce no vehicle emissions and only emit water and heat. Similar to conventional internal combustion engine vehicles, they can fuel in less than 10 minutes and have a driving range of around 300 miles. FCEVs can be equipped with other advanced technologies to increase efficiency, such as regenerative braking systems, which capture the energy lost during braking and store it in a battery. Major automobile original equipment manufacturers are offering a limited number of production FCEVs to the public in certain markets, in sync with what the developing infrastructure can support.

How Fuel Cells Work

The most common type of fuel cell for vehicle applications is the polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) fuel cell. In a PEM fuel cell, an electrolyte membrane is sandwiched between a positive electrode (cathode) and a negative electrode (anode). Hydrogen is introduced to the anode and oxygen (from air) to the cathode. The hydrogen molecules break apart into protons and electrons because of an electrochemical reaction in the fuel cell catalyst. Protons travel through the membrane to the cathode.

The electrons are forced to travel through an external circuit to perform work (providing power to the electric car) then recombine with the protons on the cathode side, where the protons, electrons, and oxygen molecules combine to form water. See the fuel cell animation or the Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle (FCEV) infographic to learn more about the process.

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