The ever-increasing cost of gasoline and diesel fuel and the looming climate change crisis has again created a surge in the electric vehicle market. However, with them needing hours to charge, many buyers aren't quite ready to commit to the full-electric market. 

What if there was an electric vehicle that was as easy to recharge as filling your fuel tank? There is. They're called hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCVs), and they've been around a lot longer than you think. The first commercially produced FCV was the Hyundai ix35 FCEV in 2013. 

However, like so many alternative powertrain vehicles, FCVs have shortcomings too. You're likely wondering, "what is a fuel cell vehicle and is it right for me?" We cover that and more below. 

What is a Fuel Cell Vehicle? 

A hydrogen fuel cell vehicle (FCV) is a vehicle that uses hydrogen as its fuel. However, unlike other fuels in traditional cars, hydrogen is not the primary driving power for an FCV. They are actually a subset of electric vehicles, which is why they're also sometimes called fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs)

Here's how that works. 

How do FCEVs Work? 

FCEVs use compressed hydrogen, a polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM), a small battery pack, a positive and negative electrode, and electric motors to propel the vehicle. 

In a standard battery electric vehicle (BEV), you charge the lithium-ion battery, which powers the electric motors. In an FCEV, the battery generally only recaptured braking energy and excess energy produced by the fuel cell. There's no plug-in function like in a traditional electric car or a plug-in hybrid. The stored energy helps with initial acceleration. 

The way an FCV creates electricity is quite ingenious. An electrolyte membrane crammed between the positive and negative electrodes within the PEM to form the fuel cell stack. Hydrogen is introduced to the negative electrode and oxygen heads to the positive electrode. An electrochemical reaction in the fuel cell causes the hydrogen molecules to separate into protons and electrons, and the protons travel through the positive electrode's membrane

That process forces the hydrogen electrons to head through an external circuit to perform work, which creates the electricity that powers the electric motors. The electrons then recombine with the protons at the positive electrode. And this is where the hydrogen molecules reform and combine with the oxygen molecules to create water. And water vapour is the only emission that comes from the tailpipe during this whole process. 

So while hydrogen creates the electricity, it doesn't propel an FCEV. That responsibility belongs to good old electricity. 

How Convenient is an FCEV?

In most cases, an FCEV can be refilled in about the same amount of time as a traditional gasoline vehicle, as it takes about four minutes to refill the hydrogen tanks. An FCEV can drive up to 700 km on a refill, giving them about the same driving range as many internal combustion vehicles. 

All of this must make FCEVs a rather convenient zero-emission vehicle, right? 

Yes and no. The big issue with FCEVs is you generally can't pull up to the local fuel station and top it off. You have to find a special hydrogen fueling station. 

Gray hydrogen, which creates 12 tonnes of carbon dioxide for every 1 tonne of hydrogen production, costs $1.50 per kg. That's a lot of greenhouse gas to produce supposedly clean fuel. You can get green hydrogen, which is produced using renewable energy and other clean energy sources, for about $3.50 per kg.

Given the average FCEV has a 5-kg fuel tank, it can cost $7.50 to $17.50 to fill up, which is not bad at all. The hard part is finding a station. There are only seven publicly available hydrogen refueling stations compared to nearly 12,000 fossil fuel stations.

So, the act of driving a hydrogen fuel cell car is relatively convenient. However, the big issue is refilling it. If you don't live within range of one of the handful of hydrogen refueling stations, you could find yourself in some trouble.

Is a Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicle Right for Me?

When determining if fuel cell technology is right for you, consider several variables. 

Your Proximity to a Hydrogen Refueling Station

This is by far the most important variable, as you need to refuel your FCEV just like a traditional gasoline vehicle. If you live within 20 km or so of the nearest fueling station, you should be OK. Any farther and you may waste more time and fuel than it's worth to drive an FCEV. 

Make sure to keep an eye open for proposed refueling stations too, though. Sure, you may be 40 km from the nearest station now, but the hydrogen infrastructure is growing and there may be one coming just a few km from you soon. 

Your Average Commute

When looking at the nearest hydrogen refueling station, you must also consider your average commute. If you drive 50 km to work every day and 50 km back, then have to carve out time to drive 20 km to the nearest fueling station, this could be a little overwhelming. 

On the other hand, if there's a refueling station near your work, you're in good shape. 

The Car You Drive Today

If you drive a vehicle that's already fuel-efficient and green, like a hybrid or plug-in hybrid, you'll want to look at your current fuel expenses and compare this to the expenses of an FCEV. You may find out your hybrid or plug-in hybrid is already the better option for your scenario, especially if you have to drive out of your way to find a hydrogen refueling station. 

Your Maintenance and Repair Bills

The added benefit of buying an EV is its low maintenance and overall cost of ownership relative to an internal-combustion engine. The same rings true for an FCEV. With nothing more than electric motors powering them, these vehicles have tremendously low ongoing maintenance and repair costs. 

So, when considering an FCEV, look at your current car's maintenance costs and weigh this against the higher cost of an FCEV and the inconvenience of refueling it. You may find the cost savings alone here makes up for all this. 

What Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles Are Available Today?

While FCEVs haven't exploded onto the market like plug-in hybrids and battery electric cars, a few carmakers have some options for you. 

Hyundai Nexo

Despite limited demand due to the small number of fueling stations, Korean automaker Hyundai released the Nexo FCEV in 2021. This compact SUV can travel up to 570 km on a full tank and takes just five minutes to refuel. 

The Nexo's electric motor delivers 161 horsepower and 291 pound-feet of torque, which helps get this crossover to 100 km/h in 9.2 seconds. Sure, it's no speed demon, but it gets the job done without a spec of greenhouse gas coming from its tailpipe. 

It consumes hydrogen at 0.84 kg per 100km and can handle cold starts as low as -30 degrees Celsius. 

Toyota Mirai

Toyota announced the Mirai FCEV would be available in Canada starting in July 2019. This midsize sedan delivers a 500 km driving range on a full hydrogen tank, which takes just five minutes to top off. 

Its electric motor delivers 151 horsepower and 247 pound-feet of torque, delivering respectable straight-line performance. Plus, like the Nexo, it can handle cold starts as low as -30 degrees Celsius. 

Get a Quality Eco-Friendly Car With Clutch

While FCEVs are still hard to come by in the pre-owned automotive market, Clutch, Canada's first-ever 100% online vehicle retailer, has a wide range of quality pre-owned green vehicles to choose from. Whether it's a hybrid, plug-in hybrid, or full electric vehicle, we have the vehicle for you. 

You can also feel confident buying your next green car from us, as all our vehicles go through a 210-point inspection and reconditioning process to ensure they're top quality. We back them up with a 90-day or 6,000 km warranty. 

Plus, if you don't love your Clutch vehicle in the first 10 days of 750 km, you can return it for a full refund or exchange it for another vehicle. 

Check out our full line of quality pre-owned vehicles, choose the one you love, and we'll help you secure financing and complete your purchase online. Plus, we'll even deliver the vehicle to you and pick up your trade-in vehicle, if applicable.