Hydrogen fuel cell cars – are they the future?

“Super futuristic GM hydrogen car” by John Mahowald is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Hydrogen is the most plentiful element on the earth, and it has powered motors since 1807. It is also the cleanest type of fuel available. However, hydrogen has yet to gain traction in the automotive industry. World over, many manufacturers like Toyota have experimented with the technology. While some have committed to producing modest numbers of hydrogen-powered vehicles, the mainstream adoption appears to be a long way off because of less interest. Meanwhile, sales of electric vehicles continue to climb, with 162 percent more battery-electric vehicles sold in the year ending November 2020 than in the previous year. With this level of interest, automakers can afford to invest in EVs overspecialized technologies such as hydrogen. The existing infrastructure is another reason why the argument for hydrogen vehicles is suffering. There are only a few hydrogen-fueling stations around the world, which is far from enough to allow drivers to operate in the same way they would with gasoline or diesel.

Fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) generate energy by combining hydrogen stored in a tank with oxygen from the air, with water vapor as a byproduct. Unlike more prevalent battery-powered electric vehicles, fuel cell vehicles do not require charging, and current models all have ranges of more than 300 miles on a full tank. They can be filled with a nozzle virtually as rapidly as conventional petrol and diesel vehicles. The life-cycle emissions of today’s hydrogen cars are at least as low. According to a recent study, a hydrogen automobile like the Toyota Mirai generates roughly 120g/km of CO2 over its lifespan. However, when hydrogen is created from renewable sources, this can be greatly reduced. A popular method of producing hydrogen is to separate it from natural gas (through a process known as steam methane reformation), however, work is being done to produce hydrogen from biomass, which would drastically reduce hydrogen’s life-cycle emissions to roughly 60g/km CO2. Because of the environmental costs of battery production, this is lower than the level that EVs would achieve, even when electricity is produced from renewable sources.

Hydrogen is an essential fuel for completely sustainable travel. This is especially true in the heavy goods industry, where electric trucks are limited by battery capacity and must recharge via the power grid. However, establishing a full hydrogen refueling infrastructure, in which the gas is manufactured and then transported to stations, would cost billions of pounds and take years. In the UK, there are now fewer than 20 operating refueling stations, compared to about 36,000 (and growing) electric vehicle charging points. The willingness of parties – automakers, station developers, and municipal governments – to invest in the technology determines whether hydrogen can succeed. Toyota is actively collaborating with elected authorities, non-governmental organizations, utilities, and energy corporations to expand hydrogen access. A number of refueling stations have been developed or are nearly finished in the Northeast, with Colorado, Oregon, Washington state, and Texas being targeted as the next growth areas.