We’ve talked a lot lately about alternative fuels here on the blog, and there’s one alternative fuel out there that’s really caught our eye: hydrogen. It’s a clean fuel, emitting only water vapor, which makes it much better for our planet than gasoline. But how does hydrogen fuel a vehicle? Are there hydrogen-powered cars out there already? And can hydrogen really be the answer to our alternative-fuel needs?
Hydrogen as Fuel
While hydrogen does not occur naturally on Earth, it can be manufactured by using methane and other fossil fuels. Solar, wind, and nuclear energy may also be harnessed to produce hydrogen, but they are not as economical and so are rarely used. Currently, manufacturers of hydrogen have several options when it comes to producing the stuff: steam reforming of natural gas, electrolysis of water, and waste stream hydrogen. The first two processes do give off some amount of greenhouse gas emissions, making hydrogen less clean than we’d like, of course. The last process has hydrogen made as a byproduct of other processes, such as the manufacture of sodium chlorate. Once made, hydrogen is stored in tanks, awaiting use.
Once hydrogen tanks are installed into a fuel cell vehicle (FCV), it is connected to the engine where it reacts with incoming air. The hydrogen reacts with the air to produce electricity and water. The electricity powers the motor and battery while the water leaves the tailpipe.
Existing Hydrogen Cars
Hydrogen has been used as a fuel since the 1840s, and NASA even used hydrogen fuel cells to power some of its rockets. Since the 1960s, car manufacturers have experimented with fuel-cell technology, but it’s only in recent years that improvements have been made to extend the range of fuel cells, making them a more viable option for everyday drivers.
Since 1996, Toyota has dedicated itself to improving and refining fuel-cell technology. They introduced the Prius, a hybrid vehicle, to Japan in 1997. By 2000, there were tons of Priuses on the road, cutting down on carbon emissions. Now, they’ve unveiled the Toyota Fuel Cell Vehicle, set to debut in 2015.
The Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell, also set for a 2015 debut, gets about 265 miles—similar to gas-powered car—and only takes 10 minutes to fuel up. Contrast that with some electric vehicles, which can take several hours to reach a full charge.
Mazda has also been working on a variety of hydrogen-powered cars, as has BMW.
Hydrogen fuel cells seem like a safe bet as the wave of the future, but until infrastructure improves, owning an FCV will be slightly impractical. As of this date, only about 40-50 hydrogen-fueling stations exist in the States, and some of those are privately owned. California is making strides to build more stations in the near future, and Hyundai, to combat the lack of fueling stations, offers free fuel and maintenance in the monthly payment for the Tucson. Hydrogen itself is also relatively expensive, more than gasoline, so that also throws a wrench in the plans. Nevertheless, hydrogen as a fuel is an intriguing option and one we’d be wise to continue investigating.