One of the most talked about and hotly debated topics in contemporary times, is environment protection. We often hear how natural resources are depleting and how harmful pollution is for the environment as well as our personal health. Conventional vehicles that are used widely run on finite fossil fuels like gasoline or diesel and emit harmful chemicals as by-products on combustion. Hence the need for alternative fuel is on the rise and the automobile industry is on the path to hybridization. Among the many substitutes, a notable term making the rounds is “hydrogen economy”, and one of the primary objectives will be fuelling automobiles using hydrogen energy.
The Fuel Cell Hybrid vehicle uses an electric battery as well as a fuel cell for automotive power, and hence it is termed as a “Hybrid.” Most commonly used fuel is hydrogen which acts as a power source for the battery. There is an electrochemical reaction wherein molecular hydrogen reacts with oxygen and the chemical energy is converted into heat and electricity. Hydrogen does not exist in molecular state; it can be produced through complex processes from natural gas, electrolysis of water, etc.
Let’s first understand the benefits of using fuel cell as energy for automotive power:
- Hydrogen is available infinitely. It is not limited; quite unlike the fossil fuels we are currently depleting. Petroleum takes millions of years to naturally be created from compressed residues of plant and animal remains in the earth. Depending on such fuel sources will lead to major issues when they are going to be unavailable in the future. However hydrogen will be always available and can be produced from multiple sources by modern technologies.
- Hydrogen energy source is clean and more environment friendly. Burning petroleum products results in emission of greenhouse gases and toxic gases like carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, among others. These can ultimately cause depletion of ozone layer, acid rain, smog and global warming. However, in an electrochemical cell like a hydrogen fuel cell, the only by-products are heat, electricity and water. Hence, it is pollution free and there is no effect on the environment or human health.
- Hydrogen fuel is much more effective than gasoline. It is estimated to contain three times more energy and engines powered by hydrogen fuel are 25% more efficient than those powered by petroleum products. These fuel cells are more energy efficient as well, producing more energy per pound of fuel, since around 90% energy generated is converted into electric energy. The expected mileage is 60 miles for one kg of hydrogen, which is very resourceful.
So far hydrogen fuel cell seems eco friendly and extremely efficient; in fact too good to be true. Then why are we not going ahead with this on a large scale? Let’s stop and take a look at the other side too. Here are some of the disadvantages:
- Hydrogen is not freely available in the atmosphere in isolated state. To procure hydrogen, methods like electrolysis of water are used, which are extremely expensive and complicated. Manufacturing hydrogen on a large scale needs a lot of energy for the extraction process; estimated to cost billions of dollars. Natural gas is also used to obtain molecular hydrogen, but the here too, the technology required for fuel processing is not cost effective and would be problematic.
- Storage and transportation of hydrogen is another issue that is left to be addressed more efficiently. Hydrogen is risky as it is a very powerful fuel and is highly flammable. It has to be compressed and stored in liquid form; if the gas escapes from tanks while being transported or when kept stored, it can cause fire or explosions. Proper infrastructure needs to be developed to deliver it safely to the required fuelling locations.
Currently many companies are researching and developing demo models for commercial hydrogen vehicles. Many big names in the automobile industry are quick to jump in on the bandwagon but the cost factor is holding some back. Here are some of the hydrogen cars on the roads and some expected to release soon:
- Honda FCX Clarity is the hydrogen fuel cell car manufactured by Honda. It can be leased (not purchased) in the US, Japan and Europe for $600 per month which includes fuel and maintenance costs.
- Hyundai Tuscon Hydrogen (Fuel Cell) is a hydrogen powered vehicle by Hyundai. It is available at southern California Hyundai dealers. The price is $499 per month, for a 36-month term and $2,999 down payment which includes unlimited refueling and servicing.
- Toyota had revealed the Toyata FCV, its hydrogen car concept version in July this year. It is expected to go on sale to the public in 2015. The Japan government is working on building enough additional fuelling stations before the vehicle can release commercially.
The pros of hydrogen fuel cell are numerous and alternative fuels are the need of the hour. It is true that refueling stations need to be built, storage and transport needs to be regulated and the cost needs to be brought down. But with time and more research, improved technology and infrastructure is expected which will eliminate the cons. Hybrid vehicles like battery operated electric cars have had a good run, but now it is time for hydrogen vehicles. Soon, the automobile industry will be swept up in the switch to zero-emission hydrogen cars, and conventional vehicles will be left behind.