Fuel Cell Buses, Utility Vehicles and Scooters

Fuel cells can be used to power the electric motor of buses, utility vehicles, and electric scooters. The vast majority of these fuel cells use oxygen from the air and compressed hydrogen; therefore, these vehicles only emit water and heat as byproducts. The major reason for developing fuel cell technology for buses, utility vehicles, and motorized scooters are their efficiency, low or zero emissions, and fuel production from local sources rather than imported sources. Fuel cells for these vehicle types can have one or all of the following characteristics:

• A fuel cell is sized to provide all of the power to a vehicle. A battery may be present for startup.

• A fuel cell typically supplies a constant amount of power, so for vehicle acceleration and other power spikes, additional devices are typically switched on such as batteries or super capacitors.

• A fuel cell can be used as the secondary power source. A system can be set up where batteries power the vehicle, and the fuel cell recharges the batteries when needed.

Fuel cells can be configured in many ways with the electrical system, power electronics, and other power sources. The configuration is dependent upon each system, power requirements, and peak power requirements.

Fuel Cell Buses

Buses are a good candidate for the incorporation of fuel cells into the commercial vehicle market. The difference between buses and automobiles are the power requirements, space availability, operating regimen, and refueling sites. Buses obviously require more power than automobiles and get more wear due to constant stops and starts. Despite this, the average fuel economy of a fuel cell bus is approximately 30-140% percent better than a diesel engine and natural gas buses [1]. Buses can be refueled in a central facility, which makes refueling with hydrogen much easier. Large quantities of hydrogen can also be stored onboard easily because of the large area of a bus. Hydrogen is usually stored in a composite compressed gas cylinder located on the roof. This is a safe place to store the tank since hydrogen is lighter than air, and it is not near critical engine components.

These buses have a major advantage over transitional diesel buses because they have zero emissions. This is critical in heavily populated and polluted cities. Many bus manufacturers began demonstrating their first fuel cell buses in the early 1990s. Fuel cell buses have been active in Whistler, Canada, San Francisco, U.S., Hamburg, Germany, Shanghai, China, London, England and several other cities. Over 13 companies have deployed fuel cell buses during the last couple of decades. Notable manufacturers include NovaBus Corporation (a subsidiary of Volvo), New Flyer Industries Ltd., EvoBus (a Daimler Chrysler company), MAN, Van Hool, Hino Motors Ltd. (Toyota subsidiary), and SunLine Transit Agency. The fuel cell manufacturers were Fuji Electric, Ballard, UTC, Hydrogenics, Nuvera, and Proton Motor Fuel Cell GmbH. Like the fuel cell automobiles, the fuel type most often used is compressed hydrogen, although methanol and zinc were also demonstrated. The most common type of fuel cell used is the PEMFC, but DMFCs, PAFCs, and ZAFCs have also been used. The fuel cell stack power ranges from 20 kW to 205 kW for 30 to 40-foot transit buses. All fuel cell buses used fuel cells developed from a fuel cell company (they were not developed in-house).

The main obstacles for commercialization of fuel cell buses are fuel cell cost and lifetime. Fewer fuel cell buses are being manufactured; therefore, the cost is higher per bus than the combustion engine buses. Toyota has developed a hydrogen fuel cell bus for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics that has twice the power of Toyota’s fuel cell electric vehicle, the Mirai. Toyota offers a next-generation fuel cell system capable of producing power equal to or greater than the bus’s current system.

Utility Vehicles

Many utility vehicles are able to adapt fuel cell technology earlier than automobiles because the competing technology for these vehicles is usually lead-acid batteries that often require charging and have maintenance issues. Demonstrations of fuel cell utility vehicles show that they offer reduced operating cost, lower maintenance, less downtime, and an extended range. Fuel cell–powered utility vehicles can also be operated indoors because there are no emissions. Examples of utility vehicles that can be powered by fuel cells are:

• Golf carts
• Lawn maintenance vehicles
• Forklifts
• Airport movers
• Wheelchairs
• Unmanned vehicles
• Boats
• Small planes
• Submarines
• Small military vehicles

Many manufacturers began demonstrating their first fuel cell utility vehicles in the early 2000s, which is later than many of the fuel cell automobile and bus demonstrations. Like the fuel cell automobiles, the fuel type most often used is compressed hydrogen, although methanol, metal hydrides, and sodium borohydride were also demonstrated. The most common type of fuel cell used is the PEMFC, but DMFCs and AFCs were also used. The utility vehicles that have had the most demonstrations are the forklift, boats, airplanes, scooters, and motorized bicycles.


Industrial forklift trucks are used for lifting and transporting materials inside of warehouses. Fuel cell forklifts have gained popularity because they produce no local emissions and they can be used without freezing and maintenance issues at lower temperatures. This is convenient because many warehouses store products at refrigerated or freezing temperatures. There are at least 4000 fuel cell forklifts used for material handling in the United States at companies such as FedEx Freight, Sysco Foods, and GENCO (at Wegmans, Coca-Cola, Kimberly Clark, and Whole Foods). Forklifts are expected to be the largest driver of hydrogen demand until 2020.

Fuel cell forklift manufacturers include Plug Power, Ballard, and Toyota Industries Corp. Forklift giant Hyster-Yale Materials Handling Inc. has purchased Nuvera, a U.S. -based company that specializes in hydrogen fuel cell technology.


Boats are largely powered by diesel fuel, but a shift to hydrogen can offer significant advantages. In Europe, ships cause more pollution than other types of vehicles, and fuel cells offer the possibility of zero to low emissions. Research is currently being conducted using solar and wind energy aboard ships to generate hydrogen. This will come in handy when ships are far out at sea and cannot be refueled. When hydrogen fuel cells are used on research vessels, researchers can take air samples without diesel emissions tainting the data. Also, hydrogen has an advantage in cold waters and climates because hydrogen is not susceptible to freezing like petroleum-based fuels. Fuel cell boats are much quieter, so there are advantages for sonar mapping and military use. Since the by-product of the fuel cell is water, this water can be used for drinking and other purposes – which limits the amount of water that needs to be brought on-board.

Fuel cell stacks used for fuel cell boats have had a power range between 3 kW and 41.5 kW. Fuel cell boats have been demonstrated by Anuvu, Inc. / Millennium Cell/ Duffy Electric Boats/Seaworthy Systems; EIVD / MW-Line / Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI); Texaco Ovonic Hydrogen Systems/ Hydrogenics/ Catalina Yachts; and Ballard Power Systems. The Nemo H2 passenger ship was developed in Amsterdam for 88 people by Fuel Cell Boat. This fuel cell boat has been in operation on the canals in Amsterdam since December 2009. The boat has a 60 – 70 kW PEM fuel cell, an integrated 30 – 50 kW battery, and six hydrogen storage tanks. The hydrogen is obtained via electrolysis of water by NoordzeeWind.

The Japan Fisheries Research and Education Agency (FRA) is teaming up with Toyota Motor Corp. to develop a fishing boat powered by hydrogen fuel cells. The Yokohama-based national research and development agency will begin designing the body of the ship in fiscal 2019 and conduct ocean testing in fiscal 2022, with the aim of commercializing the ship. The agency plans to build a 19-ton prototype in fiscal 2019 to test safety and practicality. Electric power generated by an offshore wind farm (constructed off Fukuejima island of the Goto chain by Toda Corp.) will be sent to a local power company, whose surplus energy will be used to produce hydrogen from fresh water to reduce production costs.


Many fuel cell airplanes and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) have been demonstrated since 2001. A unique feature of fuel cells used for powering UAVs or airplanes is a low thermal signature, low-noise, and the ability to attain high altitudes. In 2003, the world's first propeller driven airplane was powered entirely by a fuel cell. The fuel cell stack had a unique design, which allowed the fuel cell to be integrated with the aerodynamic surfaces of the plane. Also in 2003, Aerovironment / NASA Dryden Flight Research Center displayed Helios, a UAV with a 10 to 25 kW PEMFC fuel cell stack. In 2007, a Horizon fuel cell UAV set the record distance flow for a small UAV. A manned airplane powered only by a fuel cell and lightweight batteries, called The Fuel Cell Demonstrator Airplane, was demonstrated by Boeing and partners in Europe in 2008. The Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) flew a fuel cell plane for 23 hours and 17 minutes in 2009. In 2010, Boeing unveiled the Phantom Eye UAV, which used two Ford internal combustion engines to operate on hydrogen. The Rapid 200-FC airplane in Europe also completed six test flights in 2010. In Germany, the HY4 was the first passenger aircraft powered by a hydrogen fuel cell in 2016. It has four 11 kW fuel cells and two 20 kWh batteries.

Scooters and Bicycles

In countries with very large populations, scooters and bicycles are popular forms of transportation. Fuel cells may provide a solution in these countries and have already been positively demonstrated. Power requirements are much less, and prototypes have been demonstrated with compressed hydrogen and methanol. Hydrogen storage is still an issue for these vehicles; therefore, metal hydrides and electrolyzers are also being considered.

Many manufacturers began demonstrating their first fuel cell scooters and bicycles in the early 2000s, which is later than many of the fuel cell automobile and bus demonstrations. Like the fuel cell automobiles, the fuel type most often used is compressed hydrogen, although methanol, metal hydrides, and zinc were also demonstrated. The most common type of fuel cell used is the PEMFC, but DMFCs and ZAFCs were also used. The fuel cell stack nominal power ranged from 400 W to 58 kW. The companies that have created scooter and motorized bike prototypes are Asia Pacific Fuel Cell Technologies (APFCT), Besel S.A. / Derbi, ECN / Piaggio & C SpA, Selin Sistemi SpA and Commissiariat a l’Energie Atomique, FAAM/ Beijing Fuyuan, Honda, Intelligent Energy / Seymourpowell, Manhattan Scientifics/ Aprilia s.P.a, Masterflex AG/ Veloform, MES-DEA, Aprilia, PEM Technologies, Inc., Powerzinc Electric, Yahama Motor Company, and Yuasa Corporation.

The Hydrogen Infrastructure

The largest obstacle in the introduction of fuel cell vehicles is the lack of hydrogen infrastructure. Establishing a new fuel infrastructure is extremely costly (but not any costlier than establishing a methanol or ethanol infrastructure). There are, however, already over 150 hydrogen refueling stations around the world. Japan is leading the world with the number of hydrogen gas stations with 100, followed by the United States with 44. Hydrogen that is produced from natural gas can be cheaper than gasoline. Hydrogen produced from water and electricity via hydrolysis is more expensive than gasoline using conventional methods, unless low-cost off-peak electricity is used, or solar panels are employed.


Fuel cell vehicles have made a lot of progress during the last couple of decades, and the progress seems to be increasing again due to interest from various governments. To be a desirable power source for the future, improvements should continue to be made to the fuel cell stack and manufacturing processes, as well as in the creation of a non-polluting source of hydrogen that can preferably be created in-situ or close to where it will be used.


[1] "FY 2010 annual progress report: VIII.0 Technology Validation Sub-Program Overview". John Garbak. Department of Energy Hydrogen Program.

Dr. Colleen Spiegel Posted by Dr. Colleen Spiegel

Dr. Colleen Spiegel is a mathematical modeling and technical writing consultant (President of SEMSCIO) and Professor holding a Ph.D. and an MSc degree in Engineering. She has seventeen years of experience in engineering, statistics, data science, research & technical writing work for many companies as a consultant, employee, and independent business owner. She is the author of ‘Designing and Building Fuel Cells’ (McGraw-Hill, 2007) and ‘PEM Fuel Cell Modeling and Simulation Using MATLAB’ (Elsevier Science, 2008). She previously owned Clean Fuel Cell Energy, LLC, which was a fuel cell organization that served scientists, engineers, and professors world-wide.

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2 Comments To "Fuel Cell Buses, Utility Vehicles and Scooters"

Stephen Metzger On 11.19.2020
To your knowledge, Dr. Spiegel, do you know of companies making three wheel utility vans that are considering fuel cells? Reply to this comment
Fuel Cell Store On 05.06.2021
Fuel cells have been gaining popularity across a wide range of applications including vans for cargo transportation, buses, heavy duty trucks, ferries, etc. Sometimes, the companies would publish this information in the public domain and one can find all of that information on the internet. Though, most of the time fuel cell related developments have been done quietly or secretly until they have a product in the market. Early disclosure such news would usually make them lose their competitive advantages. Despite the fact, we are not aware of such public information for three-wheel utility vans, we will not be surprised if someone is already quietly working on it (most likely in one of the Asian or Far-East regions since three-wheel vans are mostly popular in that part of the globe).

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