Last week Toyota, Honda, and Nissan shook the automobile industry: The three Japanese car manufacturers (together with eight big Japanese energy companies) formed Japan H2 Mobility (JHyM) with the goal of making a competitive hydrogen fuel cell engine. While the rest of the world still focuses on electric cars as the best means of transportation for the future, this Japanese alliance brought hydrogen as a fuel back into the conversation. But are hydrogen-driven cars truly the most climate-friendly option for the future?
Local, Emission-Free Travel with Fuel Cell Driven Vehicles
A simplified explanation of how fuel cell hydrogen propulsion works is as follows: The hydrogen is saved in fuel cells and gets oxidized through the addition of oxygen. This reaction produces electricity, which drives an electric engine and forms water vapor (but no exhaust gases, soot or particulate matter) as a side product. The biggest benefit of fuel cell cars is their ability to travel free from emissions locally (for now). Furthermore, the production of fuel cells requires significantly less rare resources (Lithium for example) than the production of electric car batteries. Additionally, hydrogen is a resource that is readily available: Hydrogen occurs as a by-product in the oil, gas, and chemical industry. They produce almost 50 million tons of hydrogen each year. Besides the benefits of hydrogen as a resource, there is also a huge practical benefit of fuel cell cars, especially when compared to electric cars – their shorter charging times. While the charging process of an electric car can take hours, hydrogen tanks can be refueled within minutes.
Problematic: Hydrogen Production
Unfortunately, Hydrogen as a fuel is not without its own problems. It starts with the high costs of the technology. The production of the fuel cell alone costs nearly 50% of the car’s final price. Additionally, the infrastructure of hydrogen service stations worldwide is spread too thin. Especially outside of the larger cities, hydrogen car owners may need to travel great distances to the next hydrogen fueling station.
But the biggest problem is hydrogen itself. Or, to be more precise, the production of it. Hydrogen rarely occurs as a pure gas on earth. Most of the time it is bound to other substances from which it needs to be separated in an energy-consuming process. As mentioned, this happens daily in a lot of industries, so the hydrogen gets produced irrespective of hydrogen fuel cell driven engines.. But it becomes a problem if the hydrogen needs to be separately produced as a fuel. If the electricity needed for the production of hydrogen is gained from the conversion of coal or gas into electricity, the climate footprint of hydrogen is worse than that of gasoline. This can be avoided by using electricity from renewable energy sources, but only leads to another problem: During the production of hydrogen, too much energy gets lost. As a result, it makes more sense then to charge the batteries of electric cars directly with the renewable energy and without the loss of energy that would result from hydrogen production.
Hydrogen has the Potential to be an Intriguing Concept
The hydrogen technology is an intriguing concept for the mobility of the future. But the costs, the insufficient infrastructure, and the current production problems still prevent the possibility of mass production. Though the newly formed alliance, which has the support of Japanese politicians, some of these problems could be solved. If they do, hydrogen driven cars could be a useful alternative in the future.
Hero image source: chuttersnap on Unsplash