Because they reduce the amount of carbon emissions emitted into the atmosphere, electric and hybrid vehicles are becoming more and more popular. There are other ways to drive more sustainably without them, though.
Electric vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells may sound like they belong in science fiction, but they have been on the road for a lot longer than you might realize. Here’s how another substitute for the combustion engine functions in case you’re curious.
In contrast to electric automobiles that predominantly rely on lithium-ion battery packs and consume fuel, hydrogen vehicles use fuel cells to power their motors. Similar to electric vehicles, only water vapor is produced as a byproduct with hydrogen vehicles. You may also hear people refer to them as fuel cell electric vehicles because they are EVs (FCEVs).
With an anode, a cathode, and a catalyst that causes the separation of protons and electrons from the hydrogen gas pushed inside, fuel cells are constructed similarly to lithium-ion batteries. Hydrogen automobiles contain numerous fuel cells producing power simultaneously, similar to the lithium-ion cells in an EV battery. The hydrogen fuel cell stack refers to that group of cells.
Through a process known as reverse electrolysis, hydrogen from the car’s onboard fuel tanks combines with oxygen inside the fuel cell stack to produce power.
The engine is powered by removing the electrons from the hydrogen gas, which are then transmitted through the circuit to do so. On the other side of the circuit, oxygen and oxygen combine to generate water vapor, which is then released through the car’s exhaust.
Depending on the circumstances, the electricity produced by hydrogen fuel cells can travel down one of two channels. Either directly or after charging a small lithium-ion battery that assists in powering the motor and has the capacity to store energy for later use.
This battery also stores excess power from the fuel cell stack during low-energy driving and absorbs power from the vehicle’s regenerative braking system for later use. The battery comes on to assist if the engine is put under higher stress.
One significant benefit hydrogen cars have over battery EVs is that refueling the hydrogen tanks in an FCEV takes roughly as long as filling up a gas tank. The tank gets filled in about five minutes after you pull up to the fuelling station and connect the hose.
Multiple hydrogen gas tanks may be housed inside an FCEV. Those fuel tanks are thick-walled, pressurized, and inspected to assure crash safety because hydrogen can be highly flammable(Opens in a new window) if handled incorrectly.
Additionally, the car is equipped with failsafes that make sure the hydrogen is released and distributed in the event that, for instance, the fuel cell is removed or overheats.
At the time of writing, the longer range of hydrogen vehicles is another benefit over battery-powered EVs. According to California’s Drive Clean initiative, FCEVs may travel between 300 and 400 miles before needing to be refueled (Opens in a new window). On the other hand, as of this writing, the average EV range for all-battery EVs is about 250 miles(Opens in a new window).
Sounds like the ideal green car to you: quick refueling, electric power, and only water as a waste product. Well, that might be, but FCEVs simply aren’t there yet compared to electric vehicles.
First off, while having a longer range than EVs, FCEVs cost more to refill due in part to the high cost of producing hydrogen. Despite being the most plentiful element on the world, it requires work to refine it into a form that can power a vehicle, and the cost per tank reflects this work.
Currently, there is also a critical dearth of FCEV refueling infrastructure. Worldwide, there are fewer than 400(Opens in a new window) FCEV filling stations; the US plans to have 1,000 online by 2030. Nevertheless, efforts are being made to establish more stations.
Even still, there are significantly less hydrogen refueling stations than EV charging stations, which as of September 2021 had about 110,000 in the US(Opens in a new window).
While FCEVs may operate emission-free on their own, the facilities that produce their hydrogen fuel frequently do so by burning fossil fuels in a procedure known as steam reforming. This presents another barrier for FCEVs (Opens in a new window). If it keeps happening, FCEVs won’t be helping the environment as much as they could, and they won’t truly qualify as zero-emission vehicles.
Alternative methods are being investigated, such as water electrolysis, which can produce electricity from a renewable source, such as solar energy, to separate hydrogen from water.