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Fuel Cells – The future of the automotive industry?

  -   5. May 2017
Source: yino19700/

Since 2014, several big players in the automotive industry are working on another alternative way of powering cars: fuel cells! Why? Because the automotive industry struggles with the problem of building sustainable and environmentally friendly cars. This has various reasons: people are becoming more aware of the climate change, fuel keeps getting more expensive and will sooner or later run out and even the purely electric cars have issues concerning the recycling of their batteries. Even though the mentioned alternatives have already been successful, for example hybridized electric and fuel-powered combustion engines and purely electric, battery-powered cars, fuel cells are seen as most sustainable and efficient.

The conflict of hybrid, electric and fuel-powered engines

So far, we know cars powered by simple combustion engines, hybrid-engines since the first generation of the Toyota Prius in the late 1990’s, a combination of electric, battery-powered, and fuel-powered engines, and also purely electric cars like the Tesla Model S. Both, hybrid and electric cars have the advantage over merely fuel-powered engines in terms of direct emissions while driving. But, hybrid and electric engines have their struggles with indirect emissions, because the batteries take quite some time to recharge.

And the chargers also need to be powered – by electricity coming from power plants, of which the emissions are enormous. The batteries also have a lifetime of only three to five years and due to the distance they can drive with full battery, which is around 300 kilometres (, 2017, own translation), they need to be recharged more often than normal combustion engines. Some models can drive more than 300 kilometres, but fuel-powered engines can still drive greater distances without refuelling. Further big disadvantages of electric cars are firstly the “high purchase price[s] due to the expensive batteries” and secondly the charging duration of several hours (, 2017, own translation).

Solution: fuel cells

A solution to this issue of sustainable car engines are fuel cells which are powered by hydrogen (, 2017, own translation). These engines are basically electric engines, functioning as follows:

  1. The battery is powered by electricity,
  2. BUT: the electricity is generated by the reaction of hydrogen and oxygen
  3. Through this chemical reaction:
  • The only emission/waste product is water vapour
  • The electricity is generated on board
  • There is no need for charging stations,
  • Which allows a longer range.

Are fuel cells really a sustainable and reasonable alternative?

On a first glance, fuel cells really seem to be a serious option as a powering device for cars. But as it could be foreseen, the technology has its price: for the Toyota Mirai, for instance, a customer has to pay “around 80.000 Euros or a leasing rate higher than 1200 Euros (, 2017, own translation). Furthermore, Mercedes-Benz announced that they want to offer their model GLC with not only a hydrogen powered fuel cell, but also a small electric battery with a range of about 50 kilometres, which can be charged on any domestic power socket. But just like Toyota, Daimler admitted that they will not be able to offer it for less than 60.000 Euros (Schaal, 2017, own translation), which again points out the disadvantage of sustainable engines compared to combustion engines. In addition to the price, the technology is not fully developed yet, which means that storing hydrogen in cars takes a big effort, and the fuelling station network of hydrogen in Germany is quite sparse (cf., 2017, own translation).

In comparison to electric cars, as an example of today’s clean and sustainable motors, the fuel cells have a range of about 500 kilometres, which is comparable to normal combustion engines and which makes it an actual alternative, even though it is quite costly (cf., 2017, own translation). And these costs do not only refer to the purchase price of one car, but also to the costs of developing the fuelling station network as well as the materials used in constructing the motor. One hydrogen fuelling station is estimated at 1 Mio. Euros and the fuel cells are built with the use of platinum (, 2017, own translation).

But all in all, fuel cells have a huge potential which should be considered in terms of environmental friendliness, especially due to the scarcity of oil in the future, and a great advantage in terms of the charging duration. In addition, the network of hydrogen stations is planned to be expanded to 400 stations in Germany by the year 2023 (, 2017, own translation). To conclude, even though there are still a few issues to clear, like the details on the technology and with that also the price, the chances of fuel cells becoming a serious competitor on the automobile market are quite high.

Who wrote it?

Maximilian Lenhardt

Maximilian Lenhardt is a student at the European Management School in Mainz.


Shanice Mack
09-05-2017 21:11

To be honest, I am not really interested in the automotive industry, but the key word fuel cells led me to read your blog. Within your first paragraph I was fascinated of your blog, because i support a green environment. I like the way you show the problem, which only a few people know is behind the electric and hybrid engines. The problem how to energize the charge stations. One the first sight, those cars look so sustainable and efficient but a deeper look shows us the background, which you've cleared up for us. Those cars are only a few steps better than normal engines. I also like the way you explained fuel cells. What they contain and how they function. Furthermore, you didn't just mention the advantages of the fuel cells, you also show the the disadvantages. The most shocking disadvantage was the price. But by thinking of the factor sustainability, I think we should be willing to pay for it, because it is for our planet. And I think, that through all the steady technological progress and innovations, the companies will find a solution, so that by 2023 we will have 400 stations in Germany and maybe nearly every person could drive one of those sustainable cars, for a price everybody could be able to afford.

Jil Becker
07-05-2017 18:50

Your blog entry first gave me an overview of the situation of the automotive industry market, which was necessary for me as a layman to get deeper into the topic. Dealing with the question whether fuel cells are a really sustainable and reasonable alternative sounds very interesting. I'm curious if 2023 actually built up such a large network of hydrogen stations in Germany! What about the progress in the automotive industry in other countries? Maybe a completely different concept will enter to the market? In any case, it should be paid attention to the environmental friendliness, which would be the case referring to your presented innovation of fuel cells.

Clara Brilmayer
07-05-2017 14:45

When I started to read your blogentry, fuel-cells seemed to be a very promising alternative to electronic cars. Due to the facts, that electricity is generated on board and, that you have therefore a range as long as a normal combustion engine, is auspicious. As you mentioned several advantages, there are unfortunately some problems, first of all, concerning the price. It is always like this, that healthy or environmental-friendly products are more expensive, than the simples ones. Nowadays, a fast-food burger is cheaper than a healthy salad, and same applies to the automotive-industry: fuel-cells, or electric cars are more expensive than combustion engines. As we could saw the decrease in prices for electric-cars (e.g. Tesla) in the course of time, we can only hope, that the same will happen to the price of fuel-cell car, due to their big potential for the future.

Tabea Arnold
06-05-2017 00:55

There are approximately 14.000 petrol stations in Germany and the fact that one hydrogen fueling station costs one million euros to build shows how costly the network to support such cars would be. Furthermore, the comment about 400 stations being build by 2023 is marginal as many more would be needed if all of Germany would transfer from combustion engines to hydrogen fuel cell powered cars. Tesla built around 100 superchargers in Germany as of right now and that is only one car manufacturer trying to set up a charging network for electric cars. The German automotive industry has vowed to build around 400 charging stations by the end of 2017. Furthermore, Elon Musk has called hydrogen fuel cells “dumb and just silly” as they are inefficient and extremely difficult to produce. Additionally, hydrogen is problematic to store in a car. As you mentioned, battery technology is not at the point where it can supply enough power over long durations to match the range of combustion engines as well as there being a high environmental impact during their production. However, there is new battery technology coming out every day like, for instance, the “Flow Battery” which are non-toxic, non-corrosive and lasts for far longer than current Lithium-ion models.

Nicolas Eckhardt
05-05-2017 20:33

I think the important thing is not that we already are able to build a super-efficient car with fuel cells. It is more that there is the possibility to something new. As often in innovations: when do we reach our boundaries? And the perfect example of this are fuel cells. The imagination of an ending resource like fuel or other finite resources is scary. Therefore, the importance of developing new technologies is tremendous. The problem of having the same progress as normal electric cars had since a couple of years ago will be that fuel cells are something completely new. Standard electric vehicles are not! Cars, like Tesla is building them, are just more efficient because of new batterie innovations but nothing completely unknown. So yes, I think fuel cells are something young entrepreneurs, who have the intention to change the world, should take an eye on. Thank you for giving us information´s about fuel cells. It will be needed faster than we can imagine.



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