Are Hydrogen Powered Cars the Future?

Are Hydrogen Powered Cars the Future?

By: Harrison Nelson

February 5th, 2022

In recent years, swarms of auto manufacturers began adopting electric powertrains into their vehicles. General Motors, one of the largest car makers in the world, has pledged that their entire lineup will be electric by 2035. Ford has made their own entrance into the segment with the all-electric Mustang Mach-E SUV and the all new F-150 Lightning pickup while new companies like Rivian have also made some truly spectacular entries to the electric car market. The current electric leader, Tesla, has quickly become a cultural icon with their revolutionary cars. With all of this excitement around electric cars, another environmentally friendly alternative may be attractive for some: hydrogen.

With the popularity of Tesla’s fully electric vehicles, the big three U.S. automakers—Ford, GM and Stellantis (formerly Fiat Chrysler Automobiles)—have decided to dive into the fully electric segment. Though Tesla did not make the first electric car, they made them more popular and accessible. Electric car technology actually existed long before the gas engine Model T came to be. Since the first mass production car, gas combustion engines have been the standard powertrain in all automobiles.

Due to limits in technology at that time, electric motors could not compete with gas powered cars. In 2022, the future of electric cars and trucks is beginning. The same excitement of early gas powered cars around the turn of the century is mirrored today with electric car technology. With anything, there are limitations to fully electric cars. Where electric options fall short, hydrogen is an intriguing option. 

Hydrogen powered vehicles, also known as fuel cell electric vehicles, are not very well known. At the moment, there are only three FCEVs sold in the U.S.: The Honda Clarity, the Hyundai Nexos and the Toyota Mirai. For many, these names are unfamiliar; these models are only sold in California.

This is because hydrogen stations are only found in southern California and Hawaii in the U.S. Before getting into what a hydrogen station looks like, it is important to understand how hydrogen powered cars work.

FCEVs use the electric power created by a reaction between hydrogen and oxygen. These two elements want to combine to create water, but this reaction has to go through an electrolyte membrane. The membrane captures the electrons that are stripped away during the reaction. This energy goes to an electric motor, similar to a traditional electric car. The only emission from a hydrogen powertrain is water.

Going back to the fueling stations, the hydrogen is pumped into the car as a gas at a very high pressure, 10,000 psi. This may sound intimidating, driving around with a highly pressurized, flammable gas, but Toyota’s fuel cell is multilayered and bullet proof. The filling process is similar to that of a gas car.

The nozzle attaches to the high-pressure gas connection and fills the tank. While the process is similar to that of gas, the price of hydrogen is not. As of 2021, hydrogen costs $16.70 per kilogram. The Toyota Mirai has a 5.6 kg tank that has a range around 300 miles, meaning a full tank would cost $93.52. While this makes hydrogen look like a terrible option, Toyota helps out by providing Mirai owners with three years of free hydrogen. While the current price is high, the cost of hydrogen fuel is likely to drop by half in the year 2025.

An advantage to the hydrogen stations is that they can fill up a tank in about five minutes. This time is similar to that of gas cars but a huge advantage over electric cars. A Tesla Supercharger can charge a car up to a 200 mile range in 15 minutes. For those who do not have the Supercharger and plug into a household 120 volt outlet, it can take a whole day.

However, even though electric cars take a long time to charge, there is no way to travel with a hydrogen car in the United States. Stations are not spread out throughout the country to allow for long drives or to serve customers in other states. While there are promises of more hydrogen infrastructure, it is not likely to happen for a long time. The stations are expensive to build and hydrogen is a new player in the market, so it will take some time for buyers to gain interest.

There are three ways to create a hydrogen fueling station. The first way is similar to a fossil fuel station, in that trucks deliver the hydrogen gas to the station, where it is pumped into storage containers underground and then transferred into the vehicle via the pump. This is the least expensive method of the three.

The second way is to transport liquid hydrogen that is then vaporized into its gas state on site and stored underground. The advantage with this method is that it doubles the amount of hydrogen at a particular station.

The third method of creating a hydrogen pump is to make the hydrogen gas on site from scratch. This requires an electrolyzer that creates hydrogen, making it the most expensive option. But If this machinery could be solar powered, it would severely reduce the carbon dioxide emissions that the transportation of the hydrogen emits with other two methods.

At the moment, any American outside of California and Hawaii will not be seeing FCEVs anytime soon. However, there may be a more exciting future for hydrogen powered vehicles.

Recent developments in construction equipment have sparked the creation of hydrogen powered excavators and dump trucks. Engine manufacturer Cummins is striving to create zero emission power trains for heavy duty equipment. Hydrogen fits well within this segment because of the quick fill time. However, a jobsite hydrogen electrolyzer needs to be developed to fill the equipment. 

It may take years or even decades before hydrogen powered vehicles make a reasonable entry into the car market. But there is a hope for hydrogen in construction equipment. From there, consumer sedans, SUVs and trucks may follow. 

Hydrogen is a very environmentally friendly alternative fuel that is finding its uses in other industries. While now is not the time for consumer hydrogen cars and trucks, it may be a strong competitor to fully electric vehicles in the coming decades.

Harrison Nelson is a fourth year undergraduate student with a major in professional and public writing and a minor in entrepreneurship and innovation. He has been playing guitar for twelve years and enjoys classic cars.