As the world seeks alternative fuels and ways to solve our energy needs and the breakdown of biodiversity and climate stability, more and more people are looking at electric vehicles and renewable energy as one of the most promising alternatives to fossil fuels.
While there is an ongoing debate about the effectiveness and reliability of renewables as an adequate means of harnessing energy in a world that is continually developing and still seeing exponential growth in its energy demands. Some potential fuels have been discounted or ignored in favor of the rush towards renewables.
One of the fuels that looked most promising for a time was hydrogen. There have been a few different test cases and concepts for using hydrogen as fuel, such as the Toyota Mirai, the Hyundai Nexo, and the Honda Clarity, all of which use Hydrogen Fuel Cells.
There have been many other concepts too. And some companies such as BMW are still exploring the hydrogen fuel cell as an option for some of their concepts. However, Volkswagen is one of the world’s biggest car manufacturers, and they have publicly stated that hydrogen-fuelled cars have no future in the automotive space.
But if hydrogen is good enough for launching rockets into space, surely it’s good enough for heading out to the shops, right?
This is where things get tricky
There are many advantages to using hydrogen as fuel. One of the most obvious benefits is that it’s one of the most widely available elements in the universe, so there’s virtually no shortage of hydrogen we could use to power our cars, homes, civilization, etc.
In fact, this advantage is also one of the main issues with hydrogen as a fuel. It’s almost too available, like someone at the bar who’s a little too desperate and always ends up getting nowhere romantically!
The problem isn’t trying to find hydrogen. It’s that hydrogen is often stuck to other elements in various different formats, and scraping the hydrogen off from these other unneeded elements is the part that can be tricky and costly.
Additionally, hydrogen is a relatively dangerous and unstable element, which is one of the reasons why it is often bound up to other elements in nature. It’s unstable, and constantly seeks to attach to other elements to complete itself.
When held in its isolated form, it’s unstable, and this obviously comes with dangers. After all, there’s a reason that the first nuclear bombs used hydrogen to propel their reactions.
Safe storage of hydrogen is difficult, and holding large amounts of it in one place, such as a gas station or tanker, would make a full tank of gas look safe by comparison.
The process of separating hydrogen for use as fuel is incredibly challenging, and some 98% of hydrogen is produced through a process called Steam Methane Reforming. This process emits carbon dioxide, the very thing that moving away from fossil fuels is supposed to be trying to avoid.
There are other processes too, such as thermochemical or pyrolytic processes. However, these are very expensive and are not scaled anywhere near enough to be considered an adequate replacement for fossil fuels as things stand.
Another reason that hydrogen fuel hasn’t been adopted more widely is why Volkswagen doesn’t see this fuel as a sustainable or acceptable alternative to fossil fuels and cannot compete with current battery-powered vehicles.
This is because hydrogen-fuelled cars consume three times more energy than a battery-powered car for each mile driven, which is a massive inefficiency and clearly an unacceptable and exponential waste of energy that currently makes electric vehicles far more beneficial at the moment.
However, there are a few benefits to hydrogen fuel, so research is still ongoing, and concepts still exist for hydrogen fuel cells.
The first benefit of hydrogen fuel is that it has an incredibly fast fuelling time compared to battery-powered charging, and is comparable to refueling using gas or diesel. Which is a huge convenience benefit and highlights one of the main drawbacks of battery-powered vehicles.
Another benefit of hydrogen-fuelled cars is that their range on a single tank of fuel is long and again more comparable to current fossil-fuelled cars than battery-powered cars. Which is alluring due to the desire for cars to keep as many of the benefits they provide in their fossil fuel format.
Hydrogen fuel isn’t widely used because these two benefits, which are significant, don’t currently outweigh the existing issues and drawbacks in terms of efficiency in use and production.
Let’s list the main issues below:
- High carbon emissions are created when manufacturing hydrogen fuel.
- There are currently substantial capital costs in research and development as well as implementation.
- The production and compression of hydrogen are costly and can be dangerous.
- There are challenging logistical requirements in terms of storing the fuel at filling stations as well as transporting it.
While hydrogen fuel has many promising attributes and further study is certainly warranted, the current generation of battery-powered vehicles is the best compromise in terms of logistical challenges, performance, and production.
All this looks set to only become a more viable option as battery technology continues to improve, and our means of electrical generation become greener with better investment in renewables alongside the promises of nuclear fusion that could solve the energy crisis once and for all.