Your average motorist assumes that electric vehicles (EVs) are the key to reducing humanity’s addiction to fossil fuels. But in the general public, there’s a less talked about option in the rising green market: the hydrogen fuel cell car. They’ve always played second fiddle to battery-powered EVs.
But what exactly do hydrogen-powered cars do?
H + O2 = Water And Energy
Hydrogen fuel cell powered cars use hydrogen gas and combine it with oxygen to produce electricity. This electric power runs the motor. So in a way, they’re also electric-powered vehicles — but they have a couple of crucial advantages.
Firstly, since they don’t rely on battery storage, they’re able to travel much farther than conventional electric vehicles. Plus, refueling them is much more akin to refuelling a gas-fueled car. You just fill it up with pressurized hydrogen gas instead of petroleum. No need to charge it up or switch out the battery entirely like with EVs.
Plus, as any third grade chemistry student knows, combining hydrogen and oxygen creates H2O. So the “exhaust” is literally water vapor.
The fuel cell in modern hydrogen-powered vehicles is called a Polymer Electrolyte Membrane (PEM) fuel cell. The PEM is composed of a moist, organic compound as thick as a few sheets of paper. This PEM is placed between a cathode (positive electrode) and an anode (negative electrode). When hydrogen is channeled to the anode, its protons and electrons separate. The PEM allows the protons to flow through the cathode, but not the electrons. The electrons are forced to an external circuit, which generates the electrical current.
The Trouble With Hydrogen
On paper, that all sounds great. All of the carbon-reducing benefits of battery-powered electric vehicles, without the long charging times and small driving range. Who could possibly hate that?
Well, Elon Musk for one.
His main beef is with the efficiency of the energy conversion process, as he explains in this press conference at the Automotive News World Congress.
“Hydrogen is an energy storage mechanism. It is not a source of energy,” he exasperatedly tells a reporter. “So you have to get that hydrogen from somewhere. If you get that hydrogen from water — so you’re splitting H20. The electrolysis is extremely inefficient as an energy process.”
In truth, manufacturers have been exploring hydrogen fuel cell cars for decades. GM produced the first one in 1966 with the GM Electrovan. Many more brands took a stab at their own fuel cell vehicles in the 90s and early 00s.
They’ve even earned a small amount of government support in the past. In 2003, President George W. Bush announced an initiative that pledged $1.2 billion dollars toward hydrogen power. “Hydrogen fuel cells represent one of the most encouraging, innovative technologies of our era,” he said.
But the theoretical potential of hydrogen fuel cells has always been been squashed by real-world hurdles. One of the most significant barriers is the lack of infrastructure. Right now, no one is interested in producing the required amount of hydrogen and establishing hydrogen refuelling stations all over the country. The business case just isn’t there. As the Sustainability Lab at the MIT Sloan School of Management observed, “The expected returns on investment under traditional business models are too low for the project to attract most potential investors and distributors, especially given the levels of risk involved.”
Hydrogen fuel cell cars always feel like a great idea, but due to practical barriers, they’ve never gained any traction — which is why some alternative energy insiders like to joke, “Hydrogen is the fuel of the future – and always will be.”