There is much interest in both hybrid and fully electric vehicles at the moment, particularly with their potential to reduce harmful pollution in the atmosphere, and their strident bid to lower the use of fossil fuels, which is good for the whole planet. But in embracing these new and exciting technologies, many people – and car manufacturers in particular – are ignoring the even cleaner alternative, and one which has the potential to run almost everything on the planet, cleanly and efficiently: hydrogen fuel cells!
Hydrogen – the fuel of the future?
Currently, there are several car manufacturers looking at commercial versions of fuel cell technology. There is the Honda Clarity which debuted at the Tokyo International Car Show in 2017, the Toyota Miria, which entered the US market in 2016, and the new Hyundai Nexo which was unveiled at CES 2018.
With even European manufacturers such as Mercedes Benz taking fuel cell technology seriously, plainly this is a technology that is going to become increasingly important to both the automotive industry and beyond to almost anything that requires power. It has been reported that phone manufacturers like Apple and Samsung are actively working on fuel cells as replacement for the Lithium-Ion battery units that currently run our handsets. Furthermore, many car gadgets are likely to be run with this reusable technology.
But hydrogen fuel cells are nothing new. The technology is well understood and has been a major part of satellite and advanced technologies in space-flight for decades. The standard fuel cell is a simple energy transference device that produces electricity through the reaction of a fuel – typically hydrogen (H) – with oxygen (O2), with water (H2O) being the only waste product that comes out of the system. The reaction within the cell follows the simple form:
hydrogen + oxygen → water
2H2 + O2 → 2H2O
This means that two hydrogen atoms pass through a gas diffusion layer and on to a proton exchange membrane which strips and electron off the hydrogen, producing a hydrogen proton which then transports through a membrane and recombines with the electron which has taken a different path to contribute to an electrical output.
The hydrogen then combines with input oxygen to create water, which is expelled. With many millions of hydrogen atoms doing this at any one time, the developed charge is substantial. So, regardless of one’s driving style, any vehicle – or other technology powered by it – is going to be clean and not a burden to the environment. This type of fuel cell is known as a PEM (proton exchange membrane) and is the area of the highest interest in this field of technology.
Easy fuel for everyone?
Both hydrogen and oxygen – for use as the catalyst – are abundant on earth, and can be generated as necessary. With the only by-product being the one thing that we all need to live – and actually have a limited amount of in some areas – running automotive technologies with hydrogen fuel cells not only makes sense but is imperative for our planet.
With the automotive industry fast recognising the potential of fuel cells, which leaves it in a bit of a quandary; with the relatively new technologies of fully electric vehicles being demonstrated by the likes of Tesla. Elon Musk dislikes fuel cells and has called the technology ‘dumb’, pointing to the need to have hydrogen storage stations in place of the current petrol/diesel stations, and the reduced efficiency of only about a third compared to fully electric vehicles, so driving techniques may become an important factor between the power-plant types.
However, exponents of fuel cells point out that electric vehicles are in reality not that much less clean that fuelled vehicles as the electricity to drive them still has to be produced somewhere. By simply plugging into a wall, the user is just shifting the problem out of sight.
Pick your car technology
Both fully electric and hydrogen fuel-cells are credible alternatives to fossil fuels in cars and the problem becomes one of infrastructure and potential. Musk’s assertions are a little hollow since electric vehicles also require an infrastructure to allow charging, although the laying of electric cables is much easier than creating refuelling stations, particularly for something as volatile as hydrogen. But if we are going to get picky, you can refuel a hydrogen car in a few minutes rather than having to wait for it to charge over a few hours.
There is also the efficiency question with hydrogen fuel cells currently being a lot less efficient in producing energy than battery storage units, but the technology will advance, particularly if it becomes mainstream and more people work on it as an alternative to electric cars.
Those buying electric cars for the first time might well consider a hydrogen fuel cell instead. While refuelling stations are currently few and far between, fuel cells are a real alternative to electric vehicles and with an increasing number of manufacturers considering them, buying one might be the smart thing to do.