Hydrogen was used to power engines as early as 1807. Today, manufacturers are considering the viability of hydrogen fuel cells as electric vehicles (EVs) take center stage. But hydrogen technology is not as well-known in today’s market.
Nonetheless, hydrogen vehicles have lots of potential. Automakers such as Toyota are exploring the technology by complementing electric power with hydrogen. The energy-intensive process of producing lithium-ion batteries is one reason. On the other hand, EVs extract their energy directly from electricity, while hydrogen must be extracted, compressed in tanks, and mixed with oxygen in fuel cells to generate electricity.
Researchers studying the lifetime emissions of electric vs. hydrogen vehicles found similar numbers for CO2 emissions. But processes are being developed to obtain hydrogen from biomass that could improve efficiency. Currently, it is common to separate hydrogen from natural gas using steam methane reformation. But some benefits of using hydrogen include:
- It can be produced on-site instead of being transported.
- Hydrogen can be delivered via a grid like electricity.
- Stations can produce hydrogen without relying on an energy grid.
In California, there are a few dozen hydrogen refueling stations and there could be 200 by 2025, while so-called fuel-cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) powered with hydrogen included 25 buses in 2018. Advantages that could make hydrogen competitive with EVs include:
- Fueling takes just 3 to 5 minutes, compared to 14.5 to 48 hours to charge an EV via a household outlet, or an hour to supercharge one.
- Most hydrogen cars have about double the range of a battery powered EV, while affordable electric models typically have a range of 140 to 190 miles.
- Electricity used to power EVs is made using fossil fuels; hydrogen is too, but renewable hydrogen can be created in a number of different ways.
Transporting hydrogen remains the challenge. One method is to transport it via diesel truck. At the service station, vehicle owners would fill up with hydrogen that would be converted back to electricity. In Australia, a method of extracting hydrogen from liquid ammonia via a metal membrane has been developed. Service stations would need a liquid ammonia tank, membrane, and hydrogen refueling pump rather than coal power.
Today, hydrogen cars do exist, but are more expensive than EVs, so are therefore out of reach to many consumers. However, fueling one costs less, with prices expected to fall.
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates prices may fall from $10 to $8 per kg between 2020 and 2025.
Assuming regular gasoline costs around $3.50 per gallon, it would cost $0.13 per mile while a hydrogen car would cost $0.12 per mile.
The debate as to whether electric cars are losing out to hydrogen technology depends on how you look at it. The hydrogen economy is very much strong. More than 10 million metric tons of hydrogen are produced domestically in the U.S. (most of it for making fertilizer and refining oil). The U.S. Department of Energy has invested $40 million in a key hydrogen research program, while Great Wall Motor has invested $149 million into the research and development of FCEVs. Hydrogen fuel cells are being developed for buses and trucks, while in 2022, BMW is expected to release a hydrogen-powered SUV.
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