The emergence of hydrogen fuel cell technology is providing Canadians with a zero emission transportation option that eliminates the recharging and range issues of pure battery electric powered vehicles without compromising on performance.

Going boldly where no car has gone before

Plug-in electric cars might be getting all the attention when it comes to green transportation choices, but hydrogen fuel cell technology is on the verge of taking off as the move to fight climate change intensifies and alternative options are sought. Fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) are fuelled with pure hydrogen gas stored in a tank on the vehicle. Instead of relying on a battery to store electricity, hydrogen and oxygen undergo a chemical reaction in the fuel cell stack to create electricity to power the vehicle.

“FCEVs have a lot in common with other electric cars, like motors, power electronics, batteries, and control computers,” says Andreas Truckenbrodt, a clean energy consultant with over 30 years of industry experience. “The difference is that with FCEVs, the energy is stored in the form of a gas and not directly as electrons in the battery.”

Similar to conventional internal combustion engine vehicles, FCEVs can fuel up in as little as 3 minutes and have a driving range of approximately 500 kilometres. However, as a zero emissions vehicle, the only by-product of hydrogen fuel cells is water vapour. Furthermore, as hydrogen can be produced from a wide range of primary energy sources, there is no need to worry about the depletion of resources.

“Vehicle electrification is an important step in the quest to decarbonize our transportation system, move away from fossil fuels, and localize our energy sources for transportation,” says Daryl Wilson, President and CEO of Hydrogenics, a company that designs and manufactures hydrogen generation fuelling station equipment. “Hydrogen does all this while being very cost effective.”

In addition to excellent environmental credentials, FCEVs offer convenience and performance, while also being fun to drive. Automakers are currently working on bringing FCEVs to Canada, while companies such as Toyota have already launched in Japan, Europe and California.

“Our fuel cell electric vehicles produce zero emissions while providing a driving and refuelling experience very similar to a gasoline vehicle,” says John Paul Farag, a Consultant in Advanced Technology and Product Advocacy at Toyota. “We feel that familiarity of experience is essential for people to be willing to adopt this new technology.”

Building necessary infrastructure is economically viable

While Canadian consumers are definitely excited about FCEV technology, Canada is currently stuck in a “chicken and egg” situation when it comes to hydrogen fuel cell infrastructure. Car manufacturers are hesitant to produce vehicles without the necessary refuelling infrastructure in place, while governments and industry are reluctant to finance the infrastructure build-out without substantial numbers of FCEVs already on the road. However, studies show that a hydrogen infrastructure is both economically viable and feasible.

“The infrastructure impact of electrifying passenger transportation is dramatically less with hydrogen than with battery electric,” says Wilson. “FCEV infrastructure can be built out in a similar manner to the gasoline refuelling infrastructure that we have today.”

Already, early markets for fuel cells are driving the installation of small hydrogen fuelling stations at warehouses and distribution centres, as well as stations used primarily for research and development purposes. As FCEVs and other large-scale consumer applications approach commercialization, the next step is to move from small, experimental stations to a network of retail hydrogen fuelling stations.

“If we want zero emission vehicles on the street, we need the infrastructure,” says Truckenbrodt. “If there is no infrastructure, there will be no vehicles.”

An important step in that direction came with the recent announcement that the federal government has provided $1.6 million to Hydrogenics for the construction of two public hydrogen fuelling stations along key transportation corridors in the Greater Toronto Area, while also allocating money for three future stations.

“This was a very important first step to signal to the automotive and hydrogen industries that the federal government has an interest in supporting alternative fuels, including hydrogen,” says Wilson. “I believe the announcement will serve as a catalyst for more collaboration amongst automotive producers and will heighten their interest in bringing FCEVs to Canada.”

Car manufacturers excited by potential of new technology

Having recognized hydrogen’s potential as a clean energy source for vehicles, Toyota has been at the forefront of developing and producing FCEVs for more than 20 years. The company’s efforts to make sustainable mobility a reality with hydrogen  is backed up by their success with hybrid vehicles since the launch of the Prius in 1997.

“Toyota believes hydrogen fuel cell technology has a lot of promise and our ultimate goal is to help reduce overall GHG emissions,” reports Toyota’s John Paul Farag. “It’s still early, but we see a great deal of interest and momentum and, as the refuelling network expands, I think we’ll continue to see success for the Mirai and future FCEVs.”

Toyota understands that in order for this new technology to be successful, it’s important to collaborate with groups such as industry partners and governments. That is why Toyota has released more than 5,600 royalty free fuel cell-related patents to facilitate the widespread adoption of hybrid vehicles and support development of innovative fuel cell technologies around the world.

As that momentum continues to build, FCEVs will give Canadians the ability to choose environmentally friendly transportation without changing their driving habits or compromising their love of driving.