We are already at the crossroads of a whole new future, one that is about to change everything we know as motoring enthusiasts.
We have relied on the power of internal combustion engines to drive our vehicles for more than a hundred years, developing technology enormously, but at the expense of the environment.
However, having realized that it is not too late to transition, motor manufacturers are now searching for alternative propulsion methods and hydrogen-powered vehicles are the best option.
Two primary alternatives, hybrid electric motors, and hydrogen fuel cell technology, have emerged at the forefront of these options as leading possibilities.
Some may argue that the fight lies fundamentally between electric mobility and hydrogen fuel cell technology. Still, hybridization offers us our best current option because electric mobility is not yet wholly viable.
However, with the hybrid class, to cover all bases, we will explore electrification benefits. These two propulsion techniques offer similar driving methods, using electric motors to drive the wheels.
What role will hydrogen fuel cell technology play in the future?
In addition to battery electric vehicles (BEVs), hydrogen will make a significant contribution to sustainable mobility in the future, provided that the required hydrogen infrastructure is in place and offers a reasonable hydrogen price, and the vehicle price comes within affordable range.
Hydrogen fuel cell cars will be able to accomplish no carbon emission, allowing users to maintain the flexible driving habits.
It can be processed and transported like LPG is now; as you stand and wait, it can be dispensed from a pump; it fills a physical tank and steadily and incrementally empties when you start moving around.
There is the infrastructure that we already have to supply liquid fuels and, with investment, hydrogen could be distributed. Even cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells have a range equal to that of a common-or-garden petrol hatchback.
How Does hydrogen-powered vehicles Work?
Hydrogen-powered vehicles sounds pretty exotic. Still, it’s just an electric car that substitutes a relatively thin, lightweight, and expensive electrochemical device that generates electricity onboard for the bulky, heavy, and costly grid-charged battery pack.
Fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) utilizes electricity to run electric motors, much like all-electric vehicles. Unlike other electric vehicles, FCEVs uses a hydrogen-powered fuel cell to generate energy instead of pulling energy from only a battery.
The vehicle manufacturer shall define the vehicle’s power during the vehicle design process by the size of the electric motors receiving electric power from the acceptable length of the combination of the fuel cell and battery.
Although car manufacturers could design an FCEV with plug-in features to charge the battery, most FCEVs today use the battery to restore braking energy, supply extra power during short accelerations, and smooth out the power generated from the fuel cell with the idling feature or switch it off during low power needs.
The amount of energy stored onboard depends on the size of the hydrogen tank. This is different from an all-electric car, where both the amount of available power and energy are directly related to the battery’s capacity.
How is electricity created from hydrogen?
An electrochemical reaction occurs in a fuel cell. It involves two elements joining together, but because electricity is created as the reaction runs its course, it’s an electrical reaction.
Similar to those in a battery, a fuel cell has three main parts. A positively charged terminal, a negatively charged terminal, and a chemical (electrolyte) that seperates the two that holds them apart.
Think of the whole thing as a sandwich with ham. The two terminals are the bread chunks, and the ham in between is the electrolyte.
The tank’s hydrogen gas feeds down a pipe to the positive terminal. Hydrogen is volatile and flammable, so the tank must be incredibly concrete. Oxygen comes down a second pipe from the air to the negative terminal.
Astronauts from NASA are known to power up their space shuttles using hydrogen since the 1960s. The source of water was the by product from the fuel cell.
Which manufacturers currently offer Hydrogen vehicles?
Significantly few car makers are currently manufacturing hydrogen-powered vehicles for public purchase as of 2020. Hyundai, Toyota, and Honda are the main companies, all of which have hydrogen-powered cars, but in small numbers and limited markets, coming off their production lines.
At least three vehicles, the Hyundai Nexo FCEV, Honda Clarity, or Toyota Mirai, are limited to our options.
Other brands are increasingly getting into the act and are at least exploring the concept of adding fuel cells of hydrogen to their fuel form mix.
BMW unveiled the iHydrogen in Frankfurt; with its h-Tron, Audi has renewed its commitment to fuel; Mercedes-Benz introduced its B-Class-based F-Cell FCEV back in 2010.
Which has a brighter future, hybrids or hydrogen-powered vehicles?
In gasoline-powered combustion engines, energy is extracted when fuel is burned. In hydrogen-powered vehicles engine, a chemical reaction occurs where hydrogen and oxygen react to produce energy with water as the byproduct.
Therefore, using hydrogen is clean and gives three times more energy than gasoline as it burns hotter and faster.
It is generally convinced that if the right infrastructure is set and the price of hydrogen is made affordable, being a zero-emissions system will allow the drivers a flexible driving habit.
With fuel-cell prototype passenger vehicles, there is now a wealth of practical experience available.
Several major automobile manufacturers have starting to sell early series-production automobiles that are now technologically almost as good as traditional internal combustion engine cars.
It is estimated that the number of fuel-cell vehicles produced over the coming years will range from several hundred to thousands of units. All fuel cell cars today comes with PEM fuel cells offering both series and parallel configurations.
Medium-sized vehicles that comes with fuel cells are still more than that of internal combustion engine passenger cars, at about EUR 60,000 / USD. Vehicle costs and prices are expected to drop significantly with the start of the FCEV series development.
The fuel cell stacks have an output of 100 kW or more in the newest fuel cell versions.
They have a more comprehensive range, with lower vehicle weight and a much shorter refueling period of three to five minutes, compared to battery electric vehicles, from about 400 to 500 kilometers today.
Usually, they hold 4 to 7 kg of hydrogen on board, held at 700 bars in pressure tanks.
The efficiency problem that comes with hydrogen-powered vehicles
The explanation of why hydrogen is inefficient is because to fuel a vehicle; the energy must pass from wire to gas to wire. This is also called the transformation of energy vectors.
Let’s take 100 watts of electricity, such as a wind turbine, provided by a renewable source. The energy must be converted into hydrogen to power an FCEV, likely passing it through the water in the electrolysis process.
This is about 75% energy-efficient because about a fifth of the energy is lost automatically.
It is essential to compress, chill, and transport the produced hydrogen to the gas station, a process that is about 90 percent efficient.
Hydrogen needs to be transformed into electricity once inside the engine, which is 60 percent efficient. Finally, about 95% of the electricity used in the engine to drive the vehicle is efficient. Put together; it uses just 38% of the initial energy.
Are there enough fuelling stations ?
There are hardly any petrol stations outside California as of today. Around 40 operational hydrogen gas pumps are currently identified mainly within the LA and Bay Area in the California Fuel Cell Partnership.
It is a real challenge to create enough fuel stations that will satisfy the increasingly growing market demand. The industry is working to open at least 200 pumps by 2025, but this is well behind the region’s current 17,000 charging stations.
A few stations in New York and Connecticut can be found in the north-east. In general, comparing to the west coast, that part of the US is 5-6 years behind the race.
Most Americans have not yet seen a hydrogen refueling station, but they will spread inwards from the coasts once they become popular.
What are the main drawbacks?
About 98% of hydrogen is created by steam methane reforming, releasing carbon dioxide, as of 2020. This can be produced using renewable feedstocks using thermochemical or pyrolytic means, but the processes are currently pricey.
Multiple technologies are being developed that aim to produce sufficiently low costs and relatively large quantities to compete with hydrogen production using natural gas.
The disadvantages about the use of hydrogen-powered vehicles are the massive scale of carbon emissions when produced from natural gas.
The burden of capital costs, the low energy per unit volume in atmospheric conditions, the production and compression of hydrogen.
The expenditure needed in hydrogen filling stations, the transport of hydrogen to filling stations, and the absence of facilities to manufacture or dispense hydrogen at home.
Fuel cell vehicles can also reduce carbon emissions by up to half if hydrogen is produced by natural gas and by 90 percent if hydrogen is produced by renewable energy, such as wind and solar, compared to traditional gasoline vehicles.
The future looks so bright and convenient for all both car lovers and environmentalists alike.