Hydrogen Fueled Cars – Future or Fantasy?

We recently took a look at several potential sources for alternative energy. In our Clean Energy series we looked at the Bloom Box, biofuels, solar, and wind power – all while attempting to determine which power is best poised to be the next big thing. One of the most difficult challenges facing the next big energy source is that it will probably have to be versatile. Energy is consumed in a variety of different manners, including to fuel our vehicles, and to provide power for hour homes and buildings.

But, what about a fuel source which is not being touted as the next big thing in a general sense? What about an energy source which is only meant to address one type of energy consumption, albeit a large one: vehicles? Today we will take a look at a potentially explosive source of power for our vehicles. Hydrogen, the most basic of all elements known to man, has been touted by its proponents as the best replacement for oil in terms of fuel for our vehicles. But, adoption of hydrogen has been anything but widespread. Let’s take a look at why.

What Is Hydrogen Power?

First, let’s get an idea of just what hydrogen power is. Hydrogen power is the power which results from the conversion of the chemical energy of hydrogen into mechanical energy. This mechanical energy can come from the burning of hydrogen an internal combustion engine or, in the case of a hydrogen fuel cell, reacting hydrogen with oxygen. Hydrogen fuel is not found on earth in a usable form. It must be made from methane, fossil fuels such as oil, or even produced by using solar or wind power.

When hydrogen fuel is produced without the use of fossil fuels, using it to fuel cars actually produces a very carbon neutral source of energy. This is because the actual burning of hydrogen does not release carbon into the atmosphere, only producing water as a byproduct. So, why hasn’t the world started to seriously explore hydrogen as a source of energy for cars of the future? As we will see, hydrogen fuel faces serious challenges, including the cost the fuel cell, fragility of fuel cells, and public perception.

Hydrogen Fuel Cells Are Expensive And Fragile

One of the major obstacles to mass production of hydrogen powered cars has been the high cost of fuel cells. Though the cost of fuel cells has come down in recent years, just a decade ago the cost of a car equipped with hydrogen fuel cell technology would have cost and estimated $1 million. In 2009 Fortune magazine estimated that the cost of producing a hydrogen fueled car, the Honda Clarity, would be $300,000 per car. There have been recent advances in bringing down the cost of fuel cells, and cars manufactured to run on hydrogen. Still, a truly cost effective hydrogen car, which can be mass produced, eludes the major car makers.

On top of being expensive, fuel cells are known for being particularly fragile. If a catalyst, such as platinum or nickel, becomes contaminated by impurities in the hydrogen supply, the fuel cell may stop working altogether. Also, the internal environment of the fuel cell is a vaporous water environment. This means that water vapor in the fuel cell can freeze in temperatures below 32 degrees degrees. This too could prevent the fuel cell from working. Currently experts are looking for reliable solutions to both of these issues.
One additional obstacle to the adoption of hydrogen as a source of energy is public perception. It was scarcely a century ago that the great Hindenburg blimp went up in flames to cries of “Oh, the humanity.” The fact is that hydrogen fuel is seen as dangerous, in part due to that horrific accident. Brining hydrogen fueled cars to the masses means that hydrogen as a fuel itself will need not only a proven safety record, but also a massive PR effort to convince the populace of its safety and reliability.

A Hydrogen Infrastructure Is Needed

Once the above problems are solved, an infrastructure would be required for the safe and efficient delivery of hydrogen to stations across a region. According to General Motors study, cited by Wikipedia.com, 70% of the population of the United States lives near a facility which produces hydrogen. But, with virtually not infrastructure for commercial delivery of the hydrogen, additional infrastructure is needed for its distribution. This infrastructure is estimated to cost between $20 billion to $500 billion. The most widely cited infrastructure plans would include a hydrogen pipeline to transport the fuel, and hydrogen fueling stations where customers can fill up their vehicles. Also, hydrogen trucks, similar to those which currently carry gasoline, would be used to refill fueling stations which are not connected to the hydrogen pipeline.

Hydrogen Cars? Not Likely In Our Lifetimes

Hydrogen fueled cars are not a current reality, and many experts believe that the world will never see the day that hydrogen is used as a significant replacement for gasoline. The reasons for the pessimism are varied, but generally include concerns about the many technological barriers which exist between where fuel cell technology exists today, and where it would need to be in order to make mass production a reality. The fact is that electric cars are already being sold in the U.S., though in limited numbers. California actually just welcomed a chain of fueling stations for Tesla brand electric cars –totaling 7 locations in all. Hydrogen must play catch up with electric cars if it wants to take on oil head to head.

There is a reason that, even among cars which must be replaced every 5 to 10 years, there has been very slow adoption of new technologies and sources of fuel. There are a series of technological, infrastructural, financial, and cultural reasons that we do not see faster adoption of alternatives to gas. But, in the case of hydrogen, it may be that this fuel source actually faces headwinds in all these areas. According to experts, hydrogen fuel cells are not technologically capable of real world applications, there is virtually no infrastructure available for delivering hydrogen to the customer, current day hydrogen fuel cells are cost prohibitive, and people are suspicious of hydrogen as a fuel source. Add to that the fact that many experts say that hydrogen production produces more carbon than gas, and you have a pretty conclusive case for why hydrogen will not be a significant replacement for gasoline in our lifetimes.

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  1. Online Strategies says:

    Hydrogen based fuel cells can improve our fast depleting environment by maintaining it less polluted. But the technology it seems need to be more matured to implement.

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