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Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles Explained

The Model E fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV) runs on hydrogen and oxygen from air. Click on the car below to see its features.

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How fuel cell electric vehicles work

The Model E fuel cell vehicle or fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV), like a battery electric vehicle (BEV), is an all-electric car. Unlike BEVs, The Model E FCEV is not recharged from the electricity grid, but is instead a series hybrid with the internal combustion replaced by a fuel cell and supplemented by a small battery.

A fuel cell combines hydrogen stored in a tank and oxygen from air to produce water and the electricity that runs the motor—proton-exchange membrane, or PEM, fuel cells are the technology use in most automotive fuel cells today. 

When a driver steps on the accelerator pedal in the Model E FCEV, hydrogen and air are sent to the fuel cell and the power controller directs the electric current (and added current form a small battery if an extra boost is needed) to the motor, turning the wheels and accelerating the vehicle.

When a driver steps on the brake pedal, the controller allows the motor to act as a generator, sending electricity back to the battery to help recharge it, a process called regenerative braking. If a really quick stop is needed, conventional brakes help slow down the vehicle as well.

The Model E FCEV is designed to use a high-density hydrogen storage unit. Most FCEVs store gaseous hydrogen onboard in a cylindrical tank at 5,000 to 10,000 pounds per square inch (about 350 to nearly 700 times atmospheric pressure), though some have used liquid hydrogen stored in a highly insulated tank and dispensed in a similar manner to gasoline.

Research is underway to find more inexpensive methods of storing significant amounts of hydrogen onboard a vehicle.

Range of a fuel cell electric vehicle on a full charge and full tank

The Model E FCEV is designed to go at least 400 miles before it needs to be refueled. The Honda Clarity fuel cell vehicle has an estimated range of 240 miles on a single tank of hydrogen, and most automakers are expecting to reach the same range as a conventional gasoline vehicle—about 400 miles—with fuel cell electric vehicles to be introduced in 2015.

Refueling a fuel cell vehicle like the Model E FCEV can happen at a public refueling station or potentially at home. Honda and others are developing ways commercialize a system for FCEV owners to produce fuel for their vehicles at home, but hydrogen fuel cell vehicles currently are filled up at special hydrogen refueling stations. There are about 60 of these stations in the United States, mainly in Southern California and the East Coast. Check for a hydrogen fuel cell station near you.

Environmental impacts of fuel cell electric vehicles

The Model E fuel cell electric vehicle can deliver significant reductions in smog-forming and global warming pollution, depending on the source of the hydrogen used to power it. 

If the hydrogen is made from natural gas, the Model E FCEV will achieve comparable or superior environmental performance to the Model E BEV running on the same source.

Producing hydrogen from electricity is a poor environmental choice unless the electricity is generated from sustainable biomass, wind, or solar power.

See our FAQ for more on the differences and similarities between FCEVs and battery electric cars.


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