Powering four wheels with hydrogen cells is one of the available options for an alternative approach to mobility and the problem of high carbon emissions. Recently, we have been hearing mainly about hydrogen-powered trucks and buses, for which it seems to be a great solution due to the characteristics of these vehicles. This begs the question – what about cars?
When discussing the topic of hydrogen powered cars, it is worth noting that this type of propulsion also uses electricity for its operation. The only difference from a fully fledged electric car is that hydrogen cells are the primary energy source. While at first glance it might seem that hydrogen propulsion has many advantages that would allow this technology to dominate the market, it still plays second fiddle to the electromobility orchestra.
How does hydrogen propulsion work?
In a hydrogen car, which is referred to as an FCV (Fuel Cell Vehicle) in automotive nomenclature, electricity is generated on the fly by fuel cells placed in special tanks. FCVs also have batteries, but these are usually small units. Their task is to mediate the transfer of electrical energy and provide electricity just after the car is started, before the hydrogen cells manage to start working properly.
Returning to the comparison of electrics and hydrogen cars, the scheme of operation of a fuel cell and a battery is practically the same. In both solutions, current is generated by releasing electrons from the anode, which freely flow to the second electrode – the cathode. While in the case of an EV, we need to supply electricity before we hit the road, a hydrogen drive generates energy on the fly. A catalyst at the anode breaks the stored hydrogen into protons and electrons that can move freely. The only byproduct of this drive is water, which is produced through a reaction between oxygen and hydrogen. This makes it the zero-emission technology of the future.
An underrated technology
As you can see, hydrogen propulsion boasts an incredibly long list of advantages – even when pitted against full-fledged electrics, which suffer from low range, long charging times, high vehicle weight, and environmentally unfriendly battery production. What, then, makes it unable to break through to the mainstream? Statistics are cruel in this case, the total global sales of hydrogen-powered cars by the end of 2020 amounted to only a dozen thousand units
There are many more problems than one might think. The most important of them include high price, low energy efficiency, lack of infrastructure and not very ecological way of industrially obtaining hydrogen. Although it must be admitted that most of these problems are not so much about the technology itself, but about the problems of bringing a new energy solution to market. Similar to the launch of EVs, hydrogen cars face the problem of lacking any global or local network of hydrogen refueling stations. This is not surprising, however, given that the cost per station is as much as €1 million. Unless changes are made at the state level, it will be difficult to satisfactorily develop hydrogen technology and reduce the cost of fuel cell production and procurement.
Over time, we can expect to see an increased interest in hydrogen among automotive giants who will invest in developing and popularizing this technology of the future.