The idea of using hydrogen to power vehicles is not a new one. It’s been around for over a century, but the technology behind it has only recently started to gain traction.
China plans to have a million hydrogen-powered vehicles on roads by 2035, and Japan, which has a much smaller population, is shooting for 800,000 units by 2030.
Although their numbers are still rather low in Europe — 3,885 new cars were registered in 2021, with only 228 refueling stations available — the EU has lofty goals for hydrogen fuel-cell electric vehicles (FCEVs); according to some sources, 4.3 million vehicles should enter traffic by 2030.
In the U.S., total sales in 2021 reached 3,341, up 257% from 2020 when 937 vehicles were sold. As of end of 2021, there were 12,272 FCEVs on U.S. roads. According to the glpautogas.info, there are currently 107 public hydrogen fueling stations in the U.S. and other supply points for private fleets. The federal government hopes to see more than 5 million FCEVs hit the road by 2050.
When it comes to carmakers, Toyota Motor Corp.
(Toyota Mirai) and Hyundai Motor Co.
(Hyundai NEXO) still dominate the market; only a few others, such as BMW AG
(iX5 Hydrogen) and Stellantis N.V.
(commercial hydrogen vans), are brave enough to test the hydrogen waters.
CEO Elon Musk, for his part, has thrown cold water on the idea of hydrogen, saying it’s “the most dumb thing.” Most hydrogen production is based on fossil fuels, so the technology isn’t green.
Despite that, this may all soon change for the better if prognoses are any indication. As the interest in this EV alternative won’t wane anytime soon, it’s time to take a closer look under the hood.
How hydrogen-powered cars work
FCEVs use fuel cells — which consist of a positive (cathode) and a negative electrode (anode), separated by an electrolyte membrane — to create electricity. Oxygen from the air is introduced to the cathode, while hydrogen molecules accumulate on the anode, where they break apart into protons and electrons from the reaction with the electrolyte. Protons then travel through membrane to the cathode, while electrons are forced through an external circuit, powering an electric motor in the process. Finally, electrons are recombined with protons on the cathode, where they react with oxygen to create water vapor.
So, what makes hydrogen cars an attractive proposition for drivers and manufacturers alike? First, they produce no emissions, which makes them a cleaner and more sustainable way of transportation than gas or diesel cars. FCEVs are also more efficient than conventional internal combustion engine vehicles, as the only byproduct of the chemical reactions within the engine is water vapor. Another benefit is a longer range than that of battery electric vehicles (BEVs), as the fuel cells can convert more hydrogen into electricity than an average, currently available EV battery can store.
Finally, hydrogen cars can be refueled much more quickly than BEVs — it takes only a few minutes to fill up a FCEV, compared with the hours it takes to charge a battery electric car.
With all these advantages, one would think that almost everyone should be driving a FCEV by now. So why isn’t that the case?
The main reason is the lack of infrastructure. In order for hydrogen cars to become a viable option, there needs to be a network of refueling stations in place. This is a chicken-and-egg situation as car manufacturers are reluctant to mass-produce FCEVs without the existing infrastructure, and investors are unwilling to build hydrogen refueling stations without a strong demand for them.
Another reason is cost — fuel-cell stacks are still quite expensive to produce, but the price is likely to come down as the technology improves and production increases.
Although hydrogen still isn’t a mainstream option, it is an alternative fuel source that is certainly worth keeping an eye on. With the right infrastructure in place, hydrogen cars could become a viable option for those looking for a clean and sustainable way to power their vehicles — if not now, definitely in the future.
What’s your take on hydrogen-powered cars? Do you own one? Please let me know in the comment section below.