Hydrogen is the newest renewable energy and fuel source to hit the headlines and seek a future in the automotive industry. From the Hyundai N Vision 74 to the Audi H-Tron Quattro, the next decade promises a plethora of hydrogen-powered vehicles in the driveways of consumers and in an effort to decarbonize the global vehicle market.
But how does hydrogen actually work? Hydrogen fuel cells are the product of combining hydrogen with oxygen, creating a reaction akin to a battery that results in electrical output. Hydrogen as a source of electricity isn’t a new phenomenon. The element itself was discovered in 1766 leading to waves of scientific “ah-ha” moments that led to the eventual discovery of the fuel cell.
In the 1920s, a German engineer was the first person to swap out the gas-powered engines of vehicles to use hydrogen after Sir William Grove created the first hydrogen fuel cell in the late 1800s. Today, small hydrogen fuel cells power the laptops office workers type on and fuel the electric systems of rockets.
However, it wasn’t until nearly two centuries after Grove was coined the “Father of the Fuel Cell” that the U.S. Department of Energy declared hydrogen a legitimate alternative fuel source for the automotive industry. Since then, manufacturers have scrambled to integrate hydrogen-powered vehicles into their fleets to reach their respective carbon-neutral deadlines.
Information in this article has been sourced from the U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Energy Information Administration, The White House, Forbes, Bloomberg, International Energy Agency, Hyundai, Toyota, and Renault Group.
Hydrogen Fuel Cells Fill The Need For A Spectrum Of Fuel Sources
Solar and wind are the big names in renewable energy and have been for the past couple of decades. Renewable energy sources made up 21.3 percent of the U.S. electrical generation in 2022, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. But all renewables aren’t created equally. Wind power makes up 10.3 percent of that share and solar accounts for 3.4 percent. Fossil fuels still fuel 60.4 percent of the nation’s overall electric grid. The electric vehicle industry still relies heavily on nonrenewable, or fossil fuel, energy sources.
While a percentage of the electric vehicle fleet currently on the roads gets its power from natural gas and coal, Forbes reported that the cars still reduce emissions as a whole — even if the initial fuel sources aren’t carbon-neutral. In order to reach 100 percent carbon-neutrality — a goal the White House set by 2050 for the U.S. — power sourcing must come from a wide spectrum. Hydrogen has the potential to fill the gap left in the renewable energy space to achieve a net-zero future.
In cars, hydrogen power results in zero emissions and has been the vision of scientists around the globe for a greener future for decades. For example, the first hydrogen-powered buses were introduced in Chicago in 1995 and in 2003 and 2004 the respective administrations set millions aside for hydrogen development, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
Just before the U.S. announced its investment in the future of hydrogen technology, Iceland had already set a plan in place to have an economy fueled by hydrogen by 2030. The desire for a hydrogen-fueled economy is there and the future lineup of cars is right around the corner, with over 56,000 hydrogen fuel cell vehicles navigating the roads globally already.
Lack Of Hydrogen Refueling Stations Have Been A Big Barrier
However, there still remain a few downfalls. Despite investment starting in the early 2000s, hydrogen power stations are far and few. In a report published at the end of 2022, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported that there were only 56 hydrogen refueling stations for vehicles in the U.S. and those weren’t even spread out widely. Instead, they all reside in California.
In 2023, that number has increased to 59 with one in Hawaii and five future stations planned for the East Coast. The availability of infrastructure is only exacerbated by the high price of vehicle hydrogen power units. Despite the fueling issues, hydrogen remains a viable option. With more vehicles set to enter the market, infrastructure will have no choice but to catch up with the demand.
Hydrogen Offers A Clean Alternative Fuel Source Without The Charging Time Fuss
One of the main benefits of hydrogen is the limited time necessary for charging. Similar to a gas-powered car, hydrogen fuel cells only need a few minutes to charge back up. According to the Renault Group, driving a hydrogen-powered car is a “stress-free experience” that has similar attractive features to electric vehicles. Not only do cars not have long charging times where drivers would need to pull over in a parking lot for 45 minutes, but they also have the same quiet sound benefits and fall under the Clean Vehicle Rebate Project tax incentive that electric vehicles do.
HFCVs Are Efficient And Capable
Additionally, the Renault Group notes that hydrogen cars have no lag time in acceleration, also enhancing performance. Most hydrogen fuel cell vehicles on the market today, like the Hyundai NEXO with 413 miles of range, have a range of over 300 miles. Some electric vehicles available, in comparison, haven’t unlocked the ability to reach 300 miles in range. While cold weather driving is often a tick against electric vehicles, as range is depleted, hydrogen vehicles like the NEXO are increasingly being put to the test in the Arctic Circle to ensure all-weather driving is available.
If infrastructure can increase and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles have even greater advantages compared to electric cars, the opportunities for hydrogen-powered cars to carve out a space in the market seem promising. After all, electric vehicles reached sky-high levels last year with a 55 percent jump in sales to hit 10 million worldwide, according to the International Energy Agency. Only time will tell how large of a share of the market hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will take up.
China Aims To Have One Million Hydrogen Cars By 2035
It isn’t just the U.S. that has its sights set on hydrogen. In fact, the very same countries that are leading the electric vehicle market have lofty goals for where and how hydrogen fits into their national vehicle fleet and decarbonization benchmarks.
China and Norway, for example, lead the world in electric vehicles. China, already the largest producer of hydrogen, boasted roughly 60 percent of the electric car registrations in the global market last year and plans to have one million hydrogen-powered cars on the roads in just over 10 years, according to China’s national media outlets.
Many Governments And Automakers Are Heavily Invested In Hydrogen Tech
In September, Bloomberg reported that China sees the potential for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles to surpass electric vehicles in some regions, but that first a green infrastructure must be in place to sustain the fleet of eco-friendly cars. As the Renault Group argues, in order for hydrogen to catch on and be a viable long-term option, hydrogen must be “pure” in its processing: through the electrolysis of water instead of from another, less sustainable mechanism. Toyota aims to lead the way will 200,000 fuel cells by 2030.
The debate over hydrogen seems to be over, with a flurry of fuel cell vehicles well on their way. As hydrogen vehicles become a more common occurrence, the impact of their net-zero identity will become clearer. If the cars are anything like hydrogen buses — one hydrogen bus operating for five years removed over one million pounds of carbon from the atmosphere which is the equivalent of planting 13,189 trees — the future of decarbonization looks viable.
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