Should Fuel Cells Have Been Called 'Hydrogen Batteries' Instead?

Larry Burns and fuel cell
Larry Burns and fuel cell

Even after some of the big-picture infrastructure hurdles are remedied, will the success of fuel-cell vehicles get tripped up by the term itself?

It's an issue that concerns former General Motors R&D chief Larry Burns, now a University of Michigan professor.

“If I could do one thing differently, I would never have uttered the word 'fuel cell,'” Burns recently said to IEEE Spectrum. “I would have called it a hydrogen battery—just another battery!”

Fuel-cell vehicles are, essentially, battery-electric vehicles, as they also store chemical energy that's released in the form of electricity. Only whereas batteries require (still relatively time-consuming) recharging, fuel cells can be merely refilled—given the presence of a yet-installed hydrogen distribution infrastructure, of course.


From the standpoint of the rest of the vehicle, you need similar components, and the driving experience is virtually the same as what you'd get from a battery electric—albeit with the potential for some significant weight savings versus a large battery pack.

Underscoring all of this is the issue of image, and Burns admits that the term makes the technology seem strange and suggests that as a reason it's scared away investors.

To speculate for the moment, 'fuel cell' might sound like it involves something dangerous and racing-related—or fossil-fuel-related—while batteries are now, to the vast majority, what we're now used to in our smartphones, our tablets, and what we go to bed next to, safely.

As we move toward another major push for fuel cells, especially in California, that spurs the question: Will there be an attempt to 're-brand' hydrogen fuel cell technology with a new name? And what would that be?


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