Exploring Hydrogen as an Alternate Fuel for Vehicles

// Published September 21, 2015 by Max

The same stuff that can power rockets may be coming to your vehicle pretty soon. Hydrogen-powered cars used to be the stuff of science fiction, but it’s coming out in a big way for the rest of us. It’s known as fuel cell technology, given that the hydrogen has to be placed in a stable system in order for it to actually do the job. But is this stuff ready for prime time? Let’s look into that.

In order to power something, the hydrogen atoms within the fuel cell have to be separated from their electrons. This produces electricity and also forms water as a byproduct of the process. But in order for mainstream adoption to take place, things had to get a little more complex than that. You see, hydrogen is extremely difficult to store and even harder to transport properly. Despite these challenges, there’s been an increase in government incentives for the US.

Hydrogen-powered cars

The biggest problem facing hydrogen fuel cells is that there aren’t refilling stations easily available right now. Charging stations follow a pretty old model: we already know how to bring electricity somewhere, so charging a vehicle isn’t really that much different. But hydrogen is a completely different concept, so it requires a completely different supply chain.

Automakers are entering the fuel cell game, but it’s not because they have an overwhelming desire to benefit mankind here. It’s because the incentives are there for them to try to bring fuel cell vehicles to the marketplace. Currently, the government treats these fuel cell vehicles equivalent to their electric counterparts. In the state of California, it’s even worse: fuel cells give automakers the most ZEV (zero emission vehicle) credits for their investment. So this is really more of an effort to please shareholders than it is to please consumers, but the two goals are still connected. If they can increase consumer demand, then they will improve sales and protect this investment.  In 2017, the EPA will give both types of alternative vehicles an impressive credit multiplier of 2.0, covering the rest of an automakers fleet, and helping them cover the costs of investment. Multiple automakers have formed partnerships between each other, including BMW and Toyota, as well as GM and Honda. There’s a large partnership underway between Ford, Daimler, and Renault-Nissan.

Are you able to buy a fuel cell car right now? Not worldwide, and not even in every US state. You can purchase them in California, but the refueling stations aren’t widespread just yet. It’s a technology that still has a lot of room to grow.

A few notable people have questioned the viability of hydrogen technology in the US, such as Elon Musk. It’s well known that Mush prefers electric vehicles, but the billionaire automaker mentioned hydrogen’s main problem: infrastructure. There really isn’t a strong infrastructure around hydrogen fuel the way there is around the electric vehicle maker. We know how to do charging stations for EVs, but building the hydrogen refilling platforms are extremely expensive.

While some have cited safety concerns, the reality is that hydrogen fuel cells are still safer than traditional gasoline fuel. Indeed, there are strict requirements that must be met, and they’re handed down by the Department of Transportation. The Society of Automative Engineers also have collaborated with the DOT for safety regulations. The storage tanks that contain hydrogen have to withstand pressure and flame tests. The tanks themselves are constructed from multiple layers of carbon fibers and then wrapped around polyethylene or aluminum liners. Multiple layers of steel are often included. There are even policies regarding pressure relief devices and at what temperature gas may be released. These policies are designed for maximum safety.

Other critics skip over safety and go right to sustainability. While hydrogen itself doesn’t generate the heavy CO2 problems other fuels have, the reality is that not every link in the supply chain is zero emissions. When you add back in the remainder of the supply chain, hydrogen fuel cells aren’t all that sustainable.

You might wonder why we would choose to spotlight hydrogen fuels, given the problems with the technology. The truth is that we would rather talk openly about an alternative fuel, explore it, and watch the technology grow. Innovation happens when we take an idea and continue to refine it. What do you think about hydrogen fuel cells? Would you own a car like this?

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