In the early 2000s hydrogen was touted as being the future of the automotive industry; yet, over a decade later, hydrogen vehicles still have not made their mark on society. Electric vehicles were instead were the ones to moved forward, championed by automakers for their cost-efficacy versus costly hydrogen generation. However, in the past decade, considerable advances have been made in the process of hydrogen generation and fuel cell technology which is bringing hydrogen vehicles back to the forefront of society again.
How does a Hydrogen vehicle work?
Hydrogen vehicles create power from a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen. Rather than having moving parts such as in conventional motors, a hydrogen fuel cell solely relies on the chemical reaction to generate electricity to power the vehicle. Hydrogen is introduced into the vehicle, much in the same way as gasoline is in current vehicles. As the hydrogen mixes with oxygen in the fuel cell, the chemical reaction creates electricity, to power the vehicle, and water. As water is the only by-product of hydrogen vehicles it makes them equally eco-friendly as electric vehicles, arguably more so due to the problem with the disposal of ageing lithium batteries from electric cars.
Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, however until relatively recently it has been quite expensive to harness. In the past decade, there have been considerable advances in hydrogen fuel cell technology. One of the main advances has been in the process of harnessing hydrogen from reverse water electrolysis, where an electric current is passed through water, separating the hydrogen and oxygen. This process has only recently become cost-effective thanks to investments in renewable energy sources (solar, wind, etc) and heavy research and development by automakers such as Toyota who have already produced a hydrogen vehicle and are betting heavily on its success in the near future.
One of the reasons many are returning to the idea of hydrogen vehicles is due to the recent declarations by developed nations from all around the world to work toward net-zero emissions by 2050. One of the important factors in this puzzle is the electricity grid. As fossil fuel vehicles are phased out, and electric vehicles are phased in, there is expected to be an ever-increasing burden placed on the electricity grid, which for practical purposes simply cannot meet this demand alone.
The Future of Hydrogen
Enter hydrogen vehicles. Apart from their lack of reliance on the electricity grid, they also have many other benefits over electric vehicles. Hydrogen vehicles do not rely on batteries that need to be recharged constantly. Stopping to fully recharge an electric vehicle can take anywhere from 30 minutes to 6-8 hours, however, hydrogen vehicles can be refuelled in the same way as fossil fuel vehicles today in a matter of minutes. Likewise, hydrogen vehicles have a range of around 300 miles, versus the 200 average that most electric vehicles currently support.
One company betting on this prospect is an Arizona start-up Nikola Motors, which is betting on implementing hydrogen technology into the lorry industry. The idea is that, while hydrogen may not be ready for the private consumer market, the commercial industry is fully ready. With an electrical power train, the hydrogen truck would have exceptional power, torque and acceleration all while powered by a silent motor making highways much less of a nuisance. The lorry industry also has the infrastructure to implement widespread refuelling stations wherever necessary, much like the diesel pumps of the current day and age.
There are certain practical issues to overcome with hydrogen in terms of private consumers, such as the necessity of access to these refuelling points and further investment in green energy generation to allow for the cheaper production of hydrogen through reverse electrolysis, however, the future is promising. Hydrogen has the potential to revolutionize the future of automotives likely for centuries to come. Needless to say, keep an eye out for what is to come from a hydrogen-based future.