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Hydrogen Vehicles: Future or Finished?

Hydrogen Vehicles: Future or Finished?
July 17, 2022 Rosie Ranson

Fuel cell electric vehicles are an interesting proposition for those who want to go green, but they’re not as widely available as full EVs. Because they reduce the amount of carbon emissions emitted into the atmosphere, electric and hybrid cars are becoming more and more popular. There are other ways to drive more environmentally friendly though [1]. Hydrogen fuel cell electric cars sound like something out of science fiction, but they might just be the gateway to green fuel.

hydrogen vehicles

Figure 1: ITM Power Hydrogen Station and Toyota Mirai [2]

How do They Work?

In contrast to electric automobiles that predominantly rely on lithium-ion battery packs and consume fuel, hydrogen vehicles use fuel cells to power their motors. Like electric vehicles, hydrogen cars don’t generate harmful emissions, only water vapour is produced as a by-product. You may also hear people refer to them as fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs).

The fuel cells are similar in design to a lithium-ion battery: they have an anode, a cathode, and a catalyst that triggers the separation of electrons and protons from hydrogen gas pumped inside. To produce energy, hydrogen automobiles feature numerous fuel cells operating concurrently, similar to the lithium-ion cells in an EV battery. That collection of cells is called the hydrogen fuel cell stack. [3]

Through a process known as reverse electrolysis, hydrogen from the car’s onboard fuel tanks combines with oxygen inside the fuel cell stack to produce power. The engine is powered by removing the electrons from the hydrogen gas, which are then transmitted through the circuit to do so. On the other side of the circuit, the electrons and oxygen combine to generate water vapour, which is then released through the car’s exhaust. [4]

The Positives

  • Refuelling Speed: One significant benefit hydrogen cars have over battery EVs is that refuelling the hydrogen tanks in an FCEV takes roughly as long as filling up a gas tank. Simply pull up to the fuelling station, connect the hose, and in about five minutes the tank will be full
  • Capacity: An FCEV can have multiple hydrogen gas tanks on board. The car is equipped with failsafe’s that make sure the hydrogen is released and distributed if, for instance, the fuel cell is removed or overheats. [5]
  • Range: According to California’s Drive Clean initiative, FCEVs may travel between 300 and 400 miles before needing to be refuelled. As of June 2022, the average EV range is about 250 miles.

The Negatives

  • Cost: Because hydrogen is so expensive to create, FCEVs are more expensive to refuel than EV vehicles. Despite being the most plentiful element in the world, it requires work to refine it into a form that can power a vehicle, and the cost per tank reflects this.
  • Infrastructure: FCEV refuelling infrastructure is also severely lacking at the moment. In order to provide the energy the UK requires right now while also accelerating the switch to cleaner energy for the future, BP is aiming to invest up to £18 billion in the UK by the end of 2030. These plans include developing a network of up to 25 hydrogen refuelling stations across the UK by 2030. [6]
  • Fumes: While FCEVs may operate emission-free on their own, the facilities that produce their hydrogen fuel do so by burning fossil fuels in a procedure known as steam reforming. If it keeps happening, FCEVs won’t be helping the environment as much as they could, and they won’t truly qualify as zero-emission vehicles.

The Future

Despite its drawbacks, hydrogen is increasingly being considered as a practical alternative energy source for everything from vehicles and buses to aeroplanes. FCEVs could be a game-changer for environmentally friendly transportation if we can figure out a practical way to make hydrogen production more environmentally friendly while also constructing the required refuelling infrastructure.

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[1] Morris, J., 2022. Hydrogen Cars Might Be Dead Already Despite This Fuel Cell Hypercar. [online] Forbes. Available at: <https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesmorris/2022/06/25/hydrogen-cars-might-be-dead-already-despite-this-fuel-cell-hypercar/?sh=6fb6a84a465b>

[2] Bexim. (October 2016) from WikiCommons. Available at: <https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ITM_Power_Hydrogen_Station_and_Toyota_Mirai.jpg>

[3] BMW. 2019. Hydrogen fuel cell cars: everything you need to know. [online] Available at: <https://www.bmw.com/en/innovation/how-hydrogen-fuel-cell-cars-work.html>

[4] Bogna, J., 2022. Hydrogen-Powered Cars: Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles Explained. [online] PCMag UK. Available at: <https://uk.pcmag.com/cars-auto/141086/hydrogen-powered-cars-fuel-cell-electric-vehicles-explained>

[5]  Energy.gov. 2022. Safe Use of Hydrogen. [online] Available at: <https://www.energy.gov/eere/fuelcells/safe-use-hydrogen>

[6] Reeves, F., 2022. UK hydrogen vehicle infrastructure to be unlocked with new funding – ‘needs to happen now’. [online] Express.co.uk. Available at: <https://www.express.co.uk/life-style/cars/1635402/hydrogen-vehicles-hgvs-uk-investment-infrastructure-refuelling-bp>



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