The concept of a hydrogen car has been around for a number of years. Creating a clean, green way for people to travel around by converting hydrogen into electricity without producing any pollutant emissions is the main theory behind hydrogen cars.
What powers hydrogen cars?
There are two ways to power a vehicle with hydrogen – either through a modified internal combustion engine or via a hydrogen fuel cell.
For the former, a car’s internal combustion engine would need to be set up to convert the chemical energy that comes from the hydrogen directly into electricity. Nearly ten years ago specialist hydrogen car companies modified the internal combustion engines of a Hummer and a Shelby Cobra to enable them to be powered solely by hydrogen, and at the same time delivered higher mileage and cleaner emissions.
The later essentially fuels the car by the hydrogen fuel cell, which is more like batteries. Hydrogen and oxygen are combined within the cell to generate electricity and water. There are a number of fuel cells available today, and they range in price depending on the type of catalyst used, but currently receiving the most attention are polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) fuel cells. The benefit of the fuel cell is that they are much cleaner and more efficient than the internal combustion engine.
Probably the biggest benefit of hydrogen technology for vehicles is that only water and heat come out of the exhaust. The idea behind a car no longer needing to be fuelled by fossil fuels or producing exhaust fumes is very appealing, especially at a time when peak oil and pollution are at the forefront of many people’s minds. President Bush’s hope was that by 2020 millions of Americans would be able to move to less polluting cars being powered by hydrogen fuel cells.
Hydrogen car technology also has some major advantages over electric cars, including a far greater travel range and much faster refuelling. Plus you don’t need to replace or dispose of dead batteries.
… and the bad
There are a couple of key challenges that comes with hydrogen technology. Hydrogen needs to be stored and this can take up quite a lot of room. In older hydrogen cars it is generally stored as a compressed gas. Now there is a lot of research developing the potential to store the hydrogen as a solid or in the form of a cryogenic liquid.
Hydrogen cars need to be topped up with hydrogen at special fuelling points which are costly to build and, unlike electric car recharging points, are totally reliant upon an infrastructure of customized stations being constructed. So at the moment the infrastructure to support mass market availability of hydrogen cars is simply not in place. This has been one of the main barriers to a mass up take of hydrogen cars.
A bright future for hydrogen cars
There are a few countries that use hydrogen cars as fleet vehicles, including Germany and Japan. One of the first global car manufacturers to previously invest in the hybrid car technology, Toyota, is now keen to become a major player in the hydrogen car industry. They are preparing to sell tens of thousands of cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells, which they hope will replace the current fossil fuel powered cars of today.
The hydrogen car technology is still lagging behind the nearly commercial-scale production of electric cars and the widespread reliance on fossil-fuelled cars, but this type of car has proven to be a viable contender as it offers many of the features car owners are searching for.