Hydrogen: The Fuel of the Future?

Although hydrogen-powered cars were introduced in the 1990s, the conversation was sidelined after Elon Musk and Tesla Inc. dismissed hydrogen as a viable fuel source, calling it, “mind-boggingly stupid.”

That didn’t stop 2 French engineers from automaker PSA Peugeot Citroen. They developed a blueprint that combined two tried-and-true technologies: a gasoline engine and hydraulics.  In 2010, the pair formed the Hybrid Air Program. The powertrain used a hydraulic pump and a piston to compress nitrogen in a tank called the high-pressure accumulator. Pressing on the accelerator released the pressurized gas which then moves hydraulic fluid through the same pump in reverse. The pump acts as a motor to power the wheels.

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Hydrogen is either the fuel of the future, or a technological bust.

A survey conducted by KPMG found that most senior automotive industry executives believe that battery-powered cars will fail in the long run – which means hydrogen fuel-cell cars will make their big debut and breakthrough for electric mobility.

Almost 1,000 of the executives that were polled said hydrogen cars will prevail. Cars that emit only water will rise above battery cars because their tanks can be filled in minutes as opposed to a charge time of 25-45 minutes.  

Toyota Takes on Hydrogen

Luckily for Toyota, they stood firm in their belief that hydrogen was the future.  Over the past few decades, they’ve spent their time developing mass-market hydrogen fuel-cell cars. Toyota is even willing to bet that hydrogen will triumph over batteries.

In fact, in 2012, the then R&D chief, Takeshi Uchiyamada criticized EVs saying that the cars “do not meet society’s needs,” referring to the short driving range and long charging time. Since FCEVs refuel in just minutes and have similar ranges to gas-powered cars, Toyota is relying on them to be the future.

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In 2015, Toyota launched the Mirai Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle (FCEV). This polymer electrolyte  fuel cell vehicle outputs 114kW of energy and the hydrogen tank can hold up to 11 lb. (when completely filled). A full tank in the Mirai can travel up to 310 miles.  Handling like a Toyota Camry, this car is basically a conservative family car. And as long as you are not expecting a rapid, sports-car-like acceleration, the Mirai delivers a rather elegant ride.

World Recognition for Hydrogen-Powered Vehicles

There have been massive investments for hydrogen fuel-cell cars, from all over the world, with Japan and California being the top 2 areas of interest. Japan is vying for fuel-cell cars and buses to transport athletes during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and California just recently spent $100 million on building fueling stations.  Because there is a hydrogen infrastructure in limited areas, the Mirai has only been sold 5,500 units globally. Primarily in California, Japan, and Europe.

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In 2016, a ride-sharing service called BeeZero made Munich the first city to offer this service that was comprised of only fuel-cell-powered hatchbacks. However, it was expensive to maintain due to the lack of fueling stations in the area and being outnumbered by other green ride-sharing services like BMW-owned DriveNow, which is comprised of battery- and fuel-powered rental cars.

Although you can purchase these cars (at a steep price), Toyota has sought-out high-profile operators to lease, like the German-based transportation company, CleverShuttle, which currently owns a fleet of 80 Mirais across 4 cities, as well as London’s Metropolitan Police, which has 11 cars they used for both marked and unmarked pursuit vehicles. The focus on leasing to companies instead of individuals is simply a way to generate interest and encourage energy companies to add hydrogen pumps to their filling stations. A car sitting in someone’s garage won’t do either of those things.

With hydrogen fuel-cells being “mature” enough, Nikola Motors is working with NEL Hydrogen’s Lars Jacobsen, on developing and building hydrogen trucks – a $9 billion deal that was secured with Anheuser-Busch.  These trucks are projected to travel up to 1200 miles on a single tank of hydrogen and could hopefully open doors for more consumer-based vehicles.

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High Cost for Emission-Free World

Because huge investments have been made in lithium-ion battery technology, the prices of electric vehicles are being significantly lowered. The BMW i3 retails for approximately $46,200 while the comparable Hyundai ix35 retails for approximately $80,600. Combine that with the limited availability of fuel-cell filling stations and how tricky it is to extract hydrogen from other elements and plug-in battery-powered cars are seemingly much more practical.

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The Hydrogen Council is urging governments to invest. Fuel-cells can store energy more efficiently than fossil fuels – which means they can power machinery, generate electricity, and heat buildings.  The initial investment is extremely high, but for long-term use, the cost will be justified according to forecasts, reaching 26% of automobile sales by 2050.

The Air Isn’t Always Cleaner

Like everything, there’s always a downside. Both hydrogen and batteries carry environmental costs to the point that neither can be called completely green.  The manufacturing process of batteries means they’re almost as bad for the environment as gas-powered cars. Only once they hit the road do the improvements begin.  

As for hydrogen, the majority of hydrogen is not created using renewable sources, but rather, is being mass-produced with steam-methane reforming. What this means is that hydrogen is being produced, but so is a large amount of carbon monoxide.  Not only that, but during the process, it’s possible for methane to leak and it is 100 times worse for the climate than carbon dioxide.

This problem is being addressed, but because it is a new source of energy, it takes time to narrow in on one solution that works. Denmark’s BioCat Project is working to use a biological process to turn carbon dioxide and hydrogen into a synthetic natural gas to use in power stations, and while it’s still emissions-heavy, it used renewable energy sources.

Any solution that doesn’t involve burning fossil-fuels is a step in the right direction.