Most Plentiful Element
Hydrogen is the most plentiful element in the universe – which bodes well for its use as a sustainable fuel source. It is also, compared to batteries, quite energy-dense: about 100 times more energy dense than a battery for any given weight – although it is not quite as energy-dense as gasoline.
Whether using fuel cells to create electricity, or internal combustion, hydrogen cars also have equivalent range to gasoline vehicles – you’re not going to have to stop more frequently to fuel up.
Zero Tailpipe Emissions
Whether processed in a fuel cell stack to make electricity or burned during combustion, hydrogen creates zero tailpipe emissions. In a fuel cell stack, hydrogen is electrolyzed with oxygen from the environment creating an electrical current and producing H20 – otherwise known as water – as its only emissions. You can literally drink from the tailpipe!
Hydrogen combustion cars burn hydrogen in an engine in a similar way to gasoline. In fact, since hydrogen burns more quickly than gasoline, a hydrogen combustion car is very responsive and exciting to drive. And it still produces only water as emissions.
The best thing about hydrogen is refueling time. Electric cars can take several hours to charge on a Level 2 (220-volt) charger or can take half an hour or more on even the fastest Level 3 (DC) charger, making them inconvenient on long trips where you want to fuel up and go.
Hydrogen, on the other hand, can be stored in pressurized tanks and can refuel a car in a matter of minutes – even for large commercial vehicles. This reduces downtime on long journeys and improves efficiency for commercial vehicles. Which is why hydrogen is likely the game-changer that long-haul trucking needs to go zero emissions.
In addition to producing no tailpipe emissions and having similar range to their gasoline counterparts, hydrogen cars can be very rewarding to drive. Motivated by electric motors, hydrogen fuel cell cars are swift and silent in addition to producing no emissions – perfect for commercial long-haul vehicles as well as luxury and family vehicles. Hydrogen combustion engines, potentially fitted to sporty offerings, are responsive and fun to drive, with the same thrilling engine sounds you’ve enjoyed with gasoline vehicles.
What are the Negatives?
While it sounds like hydrogen is the best of all worlds, there are some barriers to it becoming more widespread.
The major challenge now is the lack of refueling infrastructure. Currently, hydrogen stations are few and far between – in the U.S., there are only about 50 publicly accessible stations, with most of them concentrated in California. (Private refueling stations exist for commercial fleets.) More are currently under construction – over 120 in various stages of development in California alone.
In Europe, automotive supplier Bosch has committed a billion euros to develop hydrogen infrastructure; it figures the market will be worth 40 billion euros by 2030. Hydrogen is difficult to transport, and store compared to conventional fossil fuels, but investments are being made to make it more widespread.
For readers that may remember the Hindenburg airship, you might be asking about safety. Pure hydrogen is indeed highly combustible, but hydrogen vehicles have plenty of fail-safe mechanisms, much like gasoline vehicles. (Sometimes you’ll see gasoline vapor when refueling – that’s also highly flammable.)
Because hydrogen gas is less energy-dense than gasoline or diesel on a per-volume basis, it’s generally stored under pressure in compressed, liquid form. Hydrogen tanks must therefore be very strong. For instance, the Toyota Mirai stores hydrogen at around 10,000 psi!
Hydrogen cars are also expensive, and there currently aren’t many options available to customers. In fact, only two new hydrogen cars, the Toyota Mirai and Hyundai Nexo, are currently available to customers in the U.S.; vehicles like the Honda Clarity FCEV are no longer available.
The Mirai is beautiful to look at and incredibly high-tech, but its sedan shape means it won’t fit many families’ needs and it is an expensive luxury car. The Nexo is a more practical crossover shape, but it still carries a starting price of over $60,000.
While hydrogen is currently a niche segment in the green vehicle landscape, it has clear advantages for certain kinds of drivers – so expect to see the infrastructure improve, and more vehicle choices, over time.