Hydrogen Fuelled Cars (do they have a future?)

By: Lisa Harper

Hydrogen is an alternative fuel source that is currently being investigated by numerous car manufacturers. There are only currently 2 commercially available hydrogen cars on the market, the Hyundai ix35 and Toyota Mirai; however, many other manufacturers are now considering hydrogens potential to offer a viable alternative fuel source.

How Do Hydrogen Fuel Cells Work?

- A fuel cell has positive (anode) and negative (cathode) terminals between an electrolyte (usually a Proton Exchange Membrane, PEM)

- Hydrogen is fed to the anode where there is a catalyst. The catalyst divides the hydrogen into protons and electrons

- The positively charged hydrogen protons and electrons are attracted to the negatively charged cathode, but must pass through the PEM to reach the cathode

- The electrons are unable to pass through the PEM and are forced to make their way around the cathode, via an external circuit, which creates an electric current. This current drives the car or can charge an on board battery

- When both hydrogen protons and electrons reach the cathode they re-combine with oxygen which is fed in from the air outside and produce water. This water is expelled through the exhaust as water vapour

From a user perspective you simply need to fill up with hydrogen much like you would fill up a conventional fuelled vehicle.

diagram of how hydrogen fuel cells work

Why are Hydrogen Fuel Cell Cars Not as Common as Hybrid or Electric Vehicles?

One of the biggest factors for a lack of popularity for hydrogen fuel cell cars is cost and lack of infrastructure.

The cost of hydrogen vehicles is currently much higher than that of similarly sized electric or hybrid vehicles. Manufacturers are looking at ways to reduce the cost of producing hydrogen fuel cell vehicles in order to bring consumer cost down. However, it’s a bit of a chicken and an egg situation, as whilst there is little demand productivity remains low and prices high. 

Refuelling is another big problem as there is currently little infrastructure within the UK to support hydrogen fuel. To achieve the infrastructure required to support hydrogen refuelling a vast investment is required. In addition refuelling a hydrogen vehicle is currently more expensive than charging an electric vehicle or re-fuelling a conventional engine with petrol or diesel.

Are Hydrogen Fuel Cars Better for the Environment?

In terms of tailpipe emissions, hydrogen cars are better for the environment than conventionally fuelled vehicles, as the only emission from the exhaust is water vapour.

Currently a lot of hydrogen is generated from fossil fuels, so there is an environmental cost to this. However, even extracting hydrogen from natural gas is better than the fumes produced from a conventional engine.

Many people believe that hydrogen fuel cell cars are less efficient than battery electric vehicles. This is because electricity is required to produce the hydrogen and to transport hydrogen it must be put under high pressure to turn it into a liquid (which again requires electric input). So in effect, more steps are needed to produce electricity from hydrogen than directly via electricity.

How Hydrogen Fuel Cell Cars could be important in the long-term?

At the moment, electric vehicles (EVs) have a maximum range of around 300 miles, but for this you’d be looking at top of the range models from the likes of Tesla which come at a substantial cost. For most EVs, a range of around 150 miles is the most currently achievable, whereas fuel cell cars are capable of a range three-times greater than this. What’s more, hydrogen fuel cell cars can be refuelled in the same way as petrol or diesel engines, which means they could provide a viable alternative fuel long journeys. So for trucks, long distance drivers, buses and taxis, hydrogen fuel cell cars could the answer.

Furthermore, the hydrogen required to produce electricity can be generated in a more renewable way by the electrolysis of water.  This process separates water into its component parts – oxygen and hydrogen. The main benefit is that the earth is made up of 70% water so there is plenty to access.

The cost of hydrogen will come down as more and more people start to use the fuel type. Manufacturers are also trying to come up with new approaches to car ownership, so options like leasing a hydrogen fuel cell car with fuel costs built in may become an option.

Whatever happens, with the government planning to ban the sale of conventionally fuelled vehicles by 2040, it’s clear we need to continue to look at alternative fuel sources. If you’re not convinced about hydrogen fuel cell cars, why not discover more about hybrid vehicles or take a look at our 5 top hybrid cars

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