Ever since their invention in 1991, hydrogen powered vehicles have been the Holy Grail for clean transportation.
Offering up the potential of limitless, zero emissions locomotion, hydrogen fuel cells seemed to be the silver bullet we desperately needed to help curb climate change.
However, the road to adoption has been a long and arduous one, fraught with technological and economic difficulties that have stymied the growth of this sector for decades.
But with recent advances, are hydrogen vehicles finally becoming a reality?
We look at the history of the hydrogen vehicle and discuss the exciting breakthroughs that have allowed these cars to be on the precipice of becoming mainstream.
What is a hydrogen vehicle?
To understand the future of the hydrogen vehicle, we first have to understand what exactly they are.
A hydrogen vehicle is a car that is powered by the chemical reaction that occurs when hydrogen and oxygen mix. When these two elements come into contact, they fuse together and become water, and release heat in the process. This heat is captured and transformed into electricity, which is then used to power the car.
Thus, hydrogen vehicles would be classed as electric vehicles (EVs), as the driving energy behind their momentum is derived from electricity as opposed to combustion from burning gas.
As the world shifts continuously towards a greener future, with everything from plastics to energy production becoming more environmentally friendly, hydrogen vehicles present a huge benefit over traditional gas powered cars in the fight against climate change.
The most abundant element
Hydrogen acts as the sole fuel for hydrogen cars, and is the most abundant element in the universe. It comprises up to 75% of all atomic matter!
Hydrogen is also the third most abundant element on Earth. Whilst it’s gaseous form is actually fairly rare in nature, due to it being so light that it escapes the atmosphere into space, hydrogen is found in many other forms. The most obvious example is water, which is made up of two hydrogen molecules bound to an oxygen molecule, but this element is also found in hydrocarbons, minerals, organic matter, and more.
This means that hydrogen as a fuel source is essentially limitless, readily available, and burns cleaner than any other fuel, making it the ideal energy source for cars of the future.
So why aren’t we already driving around in our futuristic clean cars?
Unfortunately, hydrogen is quite difficult to store and transport. Much like pure oxygen, pure hydrogen is actually extremely flammable and will ignite readily if exposed to an open flame or spark. This presents a host of logistical challenges for storing and transporting this volatile gas, as well as raising consumer fears about the safety of such a fuel source.
Luckily, over the past several years, there have been significant breakthroughs in the storage and transportation of hydrogen that are pushing it towards the top of the heap when it comes to future cars.
Hydrogen refuelling networks
As has been seen with the rise of Tesla and EVs in general, the key to convincing consumers to make the switch from combustion engine cars is to show them the alternative is just as convenient and also cheaper.
A decade ago there were very few EV charging stations across the world, which made buying an EV almost unthinkable to the average consumer. However, major companies as well as many governments have invested billions in building out these networks so that now there are thousands covering the world.
Just as the EV revolution came to pass, the global hydrogen refuelling networks are beginning to emerge. There are currently 25 refuelling stations across Europe, 50 across Japan and South Korea, around 45 in the U.S., and 5 in Canada. There are plans for some 300 extra stations to be built in the next 5 years, with each one adding to the viability of the technology.
One of the key benefits of a hydrogen fuel network compared to an electric charging network is cost and efficiency. Whilst the individual cost of a hydrogen refuelling station far outstrips an electric charging station at $3 million, the cost of converting an entire nation’s network to hydrogen would be around five times lower than converting all to electric.
This is because hydrogen vehicles are able to recharge in 5 minutes, compared to the absolute fastest recharge time of approximately 45 minutes for an electric vehicle. Additionally, hydrogen vehicles can travel much further on a single “tank” than an electric vehicle is currently capable of travelling, meaning cars would need to refuel less.
Add to this the fact that essentially no country in the world has yet transitioned fully to renewable energy to power their electrical grids, hydrogen cars are also the cleaner option in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.
The rise of hydrogen vehicles seems inevitable given the changing political and economic landscape surrounding personal transportation.
Multiple countries around the world have made mandates regarding the ban of gas powered vehicles in the next few decades, acting on advice from thousands of scientists urging them act quickly on climate change.
This is one of the rare instances where industry appears to be ahead of the curve when it comes to reacting to climate science, with many automakers committing to removing fossil fuelled cars from their lineups significantly faster than government requirements. Sweden’s largest car maker, Volvo, has committed to only selling new electric or hybrid vehicles from 2019 onwards!
With EVs now well and truly on the map, many car manufacturers are looking towards hydrogen vehicles to cash in on the next big eco-friendly movement. Brands like Hyundai, Ford, and Nissan all have hydrogen powered models either on market or in the works. The Toyota Mirai is one of the leading hydrogen vehicles currently available, combining elegant design with attractive fuel bonuses and excellent safety standards.
This proof of concept shows that there is a market for hydrogen vehicles, and that they can be just as attractive and stylish as the latest EVs or conventional cars.
One of the biggest challenges that has faced adoption of hydrogen cars is the difficulty surrounding storage and transportation of hydrogen.
Previously, hydrogen would have to be synthesised and then stored under pressure in gas canisters and then transported very carefully to their final stop. This came with it all the risks of explosion, as well as the time consuming safety and hazard concerns.
A recent breakthrough from Australia has opened up a new possibility for storage and transportation of hydrogen that could revolutionise the industry. The CSIRO has developed a method for converting hydrogen into ammonia, a much more easily stored and transported compound. They have also developed a special membrane that can reverse this conversion and turn the ammonia back into pure hydrogen.
This would make storing and transporting hydrogen much easier, as the hydrogen would simply be turned into ammonia, stored until needed, and then turned back into hydrogen without exposing the user to the risks associated with the flammable hydrogen throughout the entire journey.
Prices will continue to fall
Just like what happened with EV prices, the prices of hydrogen vehicles and fuel will continue to fall as production and demand increases.
When EVs first came onto the scene, they were prohibitively expensive to the everyday consumer, often costing over $100,000. However, as brands like Tesla and Faraday Future made EVs “sexy”, the demand for them skyrocketed, which forced manufacturers to increase their production capacities and drive prices down. These days, an entry level EV costs little more than a standard gas powered car, and refuelling is significantly cheaper.
Currently, a hydrogen car costs around $80,000, which puts it firmly still in the luxury car expense category. However, demand for these cars is already increasing and prices are expected to fall rapidly as the cost of production decrease with increase in volumes.
Additionally, the cost of hydrogen is currently expected to be about $15 a kilogram, with the average hydrogen car capable of storing five kilograms. That is roughly equivalent to a full tank of gas these days, however, hydrogen cars will be able to go twice the distance comparatively. This means that they are in effect half as expensive to run as gas powered cars, and with zero emissions to boot.
Whilst they still have a little way to go, hydrogen fuel cell cars are certainly going to be a part of the transportation future, and will be vital in our fight against climate change. Their efficiency, infinite fuel source and zero net emissions make them even more attractive than electric vehicles. With the breakthroughs in storage and transportation, as well as design and public policy, hydrogen fuel cell cars are finally becoming the reality that was promised almost three decades ago.