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Hydrogen Powered Cars

The Wave of the Future?

Joshua D. Hartman
Department of Chemistry
University of California, Riverside
Jack F. Eichler
Department of Chemistry
University of California, Riverside


This problem-based case study guides students through a systematic exploration of the scientific issues surrounding the application and development of hydrogen fuel technology. A PowerPoint presentation introduces a New York Times article about the impact of our abundant natural gas resources on the cost of hydrogen fuel production. The article includes an Energy Department estimate that places the gasoline-cost equivalent of hydrogen fuel production, compression, and distribution at less than $4 per gallon, making it a viable option for the transportation sector. Students are then given primary literature articles and a worksheet to help them examine (1) the benefits and drawbacks of using hydrogen as a fuel in automobiles and trucks, (2) the current technological/engineering limitations of using hydrogen fuel, and (3) whether the pursuit of developing large-scale use of hydrogen-powered cars is the right direction for the country. Originally written for a second semester/second quarter general chemistry course, the case study is designed to illustrate the direct application of chemical thermodynamics and gas laws to the production and distribution of renewable fuels.


  • Highlight the relevance of chemistry to current world issues.
  • Apply basic chemical knowledge to complex, multifaceted problems.
  • Develop the ability to critically analyze primary literature and draw conclusions based on the data and evidence contained therein.
  • Develop the ability to communicate scientific and technical concepts in both written and verbal form.
  • Foster the development of fundamental chemistry skills such as stoichiometry, calculating reaction enthalpies, and applications of the ideal gas law.


Gas laws; thermodynamics; stoichiometry; calculating reaction enthalpies; hydrogen fuels; hydrogen energy; alternative fuels; renewable fuels; automobiles; trucks; transportation

Educational Level

Undergraduate lower division


PDF, PowerPoint

Type Methods

Analysis (Issues), Journal Article, Problem-Based Learning



Subject Headings

Chemistry (General) Chemical Engineering Environmental Science

Date Posted


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John Pilger
Agnes Scott College
Regarding the new Hydrogen Powered Car case, I read recently David MacKay's book, Sustainable Energy-Without The Hot Air. In it he claims that hydrogen powered cars consume approximately 4 times the energy as a fossil fuel car (254kWh per 100 km for hydrogen power versus 80 kWh per 100 km for fossil fuel) and that electric vehicles are the most efficient (2-20 kWh per 100 km. Would the authors care to address the significant discrepancy between their conclusion and MacKay's?

John Pilger
Agnes Scott College
My apologies to the authors of the Hydrogen Powered Car case. In my recent comment I did not mean that they had concluded that hydrogen power is the better alternative but rather to point out that the numbers provided by MacKay were skewed so far away from hydrogen as a power source so as to make it out of the question. As persons more expert than I am, I wondered how they would address this.

Jack F. Eichler, PhD, LSOE (Lecturer with Security of Employment)
Department of Chemistry
Riverside, CA 92521
Author's Reply: As the second comment from the case user acknowledges, the intent of this case was not to endorse hydrogen fuel cell automobiles. We feel that the provided case materials clearly guide potential case instructors to encourage students to assess the evidence provided in the case materials and arrive at their own conclusion in regards to whether hydrogen fuel cell cars will ultimately succeed on a commercial level. In order to be succinct and to keep the guided inquiry case activity more closely linked to general chemistry course content, we had to make choices in regards to which articles and resources would be included. In an effort to do this we focused on hydrogen storage, and then provided the Zuttel article from Nature to give the students a manageable amount of reading that still provides a nice overview of this particular aspect of using hydrogen fuel. Instructors are certainly encouraged to provide additional resources for their students, and the MacKay book appears to be a nice resource that provides an unbiased analysis on the broader advantages/disadvantages of hydrogen fuel cell cars. We do note that the analysis cited in the user comment focuses on energy consumption and efficiency, issues which may not be as pertinent to a general chemistry course. If instructors wish to have their students carry out a more complete analysis of the issue then they may indeed choose to include this resource in the case activity.

Hope this helps.

Best, Jack