No other element on Earth is more common than hydrogen. Wouldn’t it be great if we could power our vehicles with it? Many have dreamed of that reality, but so far we haven’t cracked the code for making hydrogen fuel cells practical. Some people think that will never happen, while others believe it’s only around the corner.
What Is a Fuel Cell?
People hear and might even use the term “fuel cell” without really understanding what it is. In simple terms, a fuel cell converts hydrogen into electricity. Hydrogen-powered cars use electric motors to move. The fuel cell recharges the battery that powers the motors. It’s not incorrect to say that hydrogen fuel is just another way of storing electricity.
Fuel-Cell Cars Exist
If you think hydrogen-powered cars are something only kept to labs or experimental fleets, you’re wrong. A handful of automakers have released production fuel cell models, but they’ve been restricted almost exclusively to California and Japan, where there are some hydrogen fuel stations.
The most prominent is the Toyota Mirai. Hyundai released a fuel-cell version of the Tucson and is getting ready to release the NEXO. Honda has been experimenting with fuel cell tech for a long time, and currently offers the Clarity Fuel Cell in California. There are others, like the Audi A7 sportback h-tron, and the list is growing.
The whole point of leasing (you can’t buy a fuel-cell vehicle, yet) these models to the public is to see how the tech works out in the wild.
Even more industrial fuel-cell vehicles are available. Nikola Motors just announced that Anheuser-Busch ordered 800 fuel-cell trucks, which boast a 1,200-mile range. Workhorse is combining forces with Plug Power to make an unspecified number of fuel-cell delivery trucks for FedEx.
Another notable proponent of fuel cells is NASA. The organization is working on a new generation of fuel-cell tech that could change everything.
Fuel Cell Benefits
There’s a lot to like about hydrogen as a fuel for cars. You don’t have to hunt high and low to find the element, since it’s all over the place. That means no drilling deep into the planet, or wars fought over its control.
Refueling a fuel cell vehicle takes only a few minutes. While you must learn how to attach the coupling to the vehicle for refueling, it’s a quicker and more convenient process than recharging an electric vehicle.
The driving range for a fuel cell car matches the average gasoline-powered vehicle. Of course, electric vehicles are starting to rival this advantage.
When it comes to energy content, hydrogen blows away all other fuels known to man. Energy density for hydrogen is between 120 and 142 MJ/kg, making it extremely potent.
Fuel cells don’t produce harmful pollution. The only thing that comes out of the tailpipe is water vapor. This tech would lead to much clearer skies in and around cities. Sound pollution is also decreased because fuel cell vehicles run on electric motors.
Plenty of Objections
The critics of fuel cells can be quite vocal, like when Elon Musk said “hydrogen is an incredibly dumb” alternative fuel. Mind you, Musk also thinks questions about finances from investors are also dumb, and much of the criticism is lobbed by electric car fanboy sites like Electrek, Green Car Reports, etc. so always consider the source.
Electric car proponents point out that we already have a delivery system built for powering cars: the electric grid. That makes sense, until you realize that powering every vehicle on Earth with electricity will require power grids of a magnitude we’ve never seen before. We might encounter unforeseen challenges by striking out solely in that direction.
You would do well to remember that 15 years ago electric cars were considered a dead-end waste of resources. GM’s EV1, the infamous electric car it “killed,” was a monumental money suck, which is why it was terminated. Sure, in hindsight that seems ridiculous and shortsighted, but who’s to say in 15 years we won’t be saying the same about fuel-cell tech? This doesn’t mean the criticism of fuel cells isn’t warranted, only that as innovations emerge, what once was ridiculous suddenly makes sense.
For all the critics of fuel-cell vehicles, the fact that the Chinese government is considering leaning into this tech full-bore could be a game changer.
While hydrogen is all around us, you still need to produce the fuel. That’s one of the biggest problems. Some methods of producing hydrogen for fuel also give off a fair amount of pollution. Other approaches are monumentally expensive, like using water.
Extracting hydrogen from water requires a ridiculous amount of electricity. That admittedly defeats the whole purpose of fuel cell vehicles, because we might as well use that electricity to recharge batteries for EVs. If that electricity comes from “dirty” sources like coal, it’s also not helping with air pollution. You can use “clean” sources like wind or solar generation.
Some of the most popular hydrogen sources are plant or animal waste, natural gas, and coal. Yes, it’s ironic that the final two are fossil fuels, since hydrogen is supposed to get us way from those.
What’s more, producing hydrogen also releases carbon dioxide, arguably nullifying any environmental benefits of using hydrogen fuel. And, if hydrogen escapes into the air, it poses a threat to the ozone layer.
The well-to-wheels emissions for fuel cell vehicles is a subject of controversy. A study conducted by Ford concluded there was no “significant environmental benefits” from using hydrogen. But a study from UC Irvine concluded that using natural gas to create hydrogen resulted in lower well-to-wheels emissions than battery electric vehicles.
Ideally, there would be a way to cheaply supply hydrogen without producing pollution. New research suggests ammonia might be the key. With a $39 million hydrogen and fuel cell technologies initiative from the US Department of Energy announced last month, progress could be on the horizon.
Another big problem with hydrogen as a fuel is finding a good way to store it. As a gas, it must be kept under high pressure, adding bulk to the packaging. Lately, some researchers have concluded formic acid would be a good carrier for hydrogen, eliminating that problem.
If hydrogen leaks out of a storage tank, you probably wouldn’t know it. The gas doesn’t smell like anything, but it’s still extremely flammable. That’s a deadly combination.
I should also point out that using hydrogen as our primary vehicle fuel would require an immense investment in fueling stations, along with trucks or pipes to transport the fuel. Some people think the stations could produce fuel onsite, eliminating that problem. Establishing a hydrogen infrastructure would take time and money, but it would also create jobs. To be fair, expanding the electrical grid creates jobs, too.
Whether you support or oppose fuel cells, you should at least be well-informed about the tech, which is evolving rapidly. Toyota, arguably the biggest proponent of hydrogen cars, isn’t pursuing this path just for the hell of it. As chairman of the board Takeshi Uchiyamada told Reuters:
“We don’t really see an adversary ‘zero-sum’ relationship between the EV and the hydrogen car. We’re not about to give up on hydrogen electric fuel-cell technology at all.”
Besides being controversial, fuel cells are a gamble that may or may not pan out, depending on several key factors.