Automotive fuel cells – the future of vehicle sustainability?

Automotive fuel cells – the future of vehicle sustainability?

Driven by greenhouse gas reduction policies and emission legislations, with EU and US mandating zero carbon passengers vehicles by 2035, the automotive industry is in the middle of a rapid transformation towards electrification (find the EU’s policy on EU CO₂ emission performance standards for cars and vans). Hydrogen fuel cells are an alternative power source to internal combustion engines and battery electric, both of which have their drawbacks including emissions or grid dependence. But how viable are automotive fuel cells, and what role do they play in the future of vehicle sustainability?

How do automotive fuel cells work?

In a fuel cell, hydrogen and oxygen are combined in an electrochemical reaction to produce electricity, with heat and water vapour as by-products.

The reaction in automotive fuel cells, step-by-step:

  1. Hydrogen atoms enter at the negative anode of the cell.
  2. Oxygen from the ambient air is fed to the positive cathode of the cell.
  3. Protons pass through the membrane over to the cathode.
  4. Electrons can’t pass through the membrane, so they move through a circuit, generating electricity.
  5. Electrons and protons meet at the cathode and combine with oxygen at the catalyst found here to produce heat and water vapour.

You can learn more about the process and the history behind the technology in our previous article.

Problems that automotive fuel cells could help solve

Carbon emissions and environmental sustainability

Did you know, automotive fuel cells are 95% recyclable unlike batteries which have a significant carbon lifecycle footprint and reduced recyclability.

With respect to batteries, fuel cells do not require scarce materials such as lithium, cobalt, graphite, manganese for which the EU and UK are dependants both for raw and processed materials on a limited number of third countries.

Hydrogen fuel cells help improve sustainability within the transport sector, contributing to the circular economy and can use renewable hydrogen produced via electrolysis from wind and solar power (green hydrogen). The roll out of fuel cells using these renewable energy sources could also contribute to the democratisation of power, reducing the dependency on fossil fuels and affording more independence to individual countries in relation to their fuel supply.

Driving range

Automotive fuel cells have a similar range to combustion engines of 350-450 miles and similar refilling times of 3 to 5 minutes. They also have better range than battery electric vehicles (BEV) which take a long time to re-charge too. Both fuel cells and the hydrogen tanks required to power these vehicles are lighter and smaller than batteries, opening up more space within the vehicle and making them far easier to integrate into a vehicle.

Air pollution and noise

Internal combustion engines emit particulate and NOx which are associated to respiratory disease and premature death in the population (Air quality in London 2016 – 2020). Fuel cell powered cars emit only a small amount of water vapour and are also near silent to operate which helps reduce noise pollution in busy urban and suburban areas. This enables even larger commercial vehicles to operate during anti-social hours, depending on legislation.

Electrical grid strain

Battery electric vehicles rely on power from the grid for charging and with more in use every day, the strain on the grid is becoming far greater with further expansion not possible in many cities already (West London faces new homes ban as electricity grid hits capacity).

Unlike battery electric, hydrogen powered fuel cell vehicles refuel at hydrogen filling stations in a very similar way to petrol and diesel cars. As well as introducing more BEV charging stations, in 2023 the EU passed legislation to deploy one hydrogen refuelling station every 200km in major European motorway networks (Trans-European transport TEN-T network).

IE-DRIVE 100 automotive fuel cell

IE-DRIVE 100 is our market ready automotive fuel cell for light commercial vehicles (LCV). It’s modular in design and can be simply integrated into LCVs for a zero-emission alternative to combustion power. It will be used for both LCVs and passenger vehicles to reduce the reliance on fossil fuels and improve range, which is a drawback of battery powered vehicles.

Do automotive fuel cells have a place in the future of vehicle sustainability?

Automotive fuel cells are being deployed around the globe and could help solve a number of problems once they are widely adopted by end-users on a larger scale. From meeting sustainability targets, to offering more range with less resource use than electric battery powered vehicles, automotive fuel cells will help change the future landscape of vehicle sustainability.

If you’d like to get in contact with us to discuss your business’ requirements for automotive fuel cells or to find out more, please fill out a contact form or email us at Our team is happy to help!