Gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles emit greenhouse gases (GHGs), namely carbon dioxide CO2, that contribute to global warming. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) powered by (you got it)- pure hydrogen and do not emit GHGs from their tailpipe but rather water vapor. However, in order to produce the hydrogen used to power FCVs, energy is consumed and GHGs are emitted but to a lesser extent than analogous technology for conventional gasoline and diesel vehicles, according to the US Department of Energy. FCVs could make a major impact on America’s dependence on foreign oil, since hydrogen can be derived from domestic sources, such as natural gas and coal, as well as renewable resources such as hydropower. The current movement of major US automakers to increase the fuel consumption from 30 to 40 miles per gallon will only be a drop in the bucket in that respect.
Hydrogen is the simplest element in nature; an atom of hydrogen consists of only one proton and one electron. It happens to be the most abundant element in the universe too but is primarily found combined with oxygen to form water. Hydrogen exists in numerous organic compounds such as the hydrocarbons in fuel sources including gasoline, natural gas, methanol, and propane. This element can be separated from hydrocarbons through the application of heat in a process known as reforming. In addition, an electrical current may also be used to separate water into its components of oxygen and hydrogen through a process known as electrolysis.
Hydrogen is high in energy content, but remarkably, an engine burning pure hydrogen generates almost no pollution. NASA has used liquid hydrogen since the 1970s to send the space shuttle and other rockets into orbit. Hydrogen fuel cells have powered the space shuttle’s electrical systems, producing a clean byproduct, pure water, which the crew actually drank while in flight.
Fuel cells are often compared to batteries, since both convert the energy produced by a chemical reaction into usable electric power. The most obvious difference for FCVs versus automobiles with conventional gasoline engines is the fuel cell stack that converts hydrogen gas stored onboard with oxygen from the air into electricity to drive the electric motor that propels the vehicle.
Fuel cells are a promising technology for use as a source of heat and electricity for buildings, besides just their automobile motor applications. Fuel cells typically operate best utilizing pure hydrogen, but fuels such as natural gas, methanol, and even gasoline can be reformed to produce the hydrogen required for fuel cells.
Some FCVs store enough hydrogen to travel as far as gasoline vehicles between fill-ups, but this must be achieved across a wide variety of vehicle makes and models, without compromising customer satisfaction with respect to space, performance, safety, or cost, in order to gain major market adoption. What’s more, FCVs are outrageously expensive, over $100k in some cases, compared to conventional vehicles and hybrids. Thus, in order to reduce cost, manufacturers must focus on the key components, which are the fuel cell stack and hydrogen storage, to compete with conventional market alternatives.
However, most countries and automakers have put their money on electric battery-powered vehicles for next-generation technology. Regardless, Toyota, Honda, Daimler and Hyundai have been evaluating hydrogen fuel cell technology for future vehicles and several have plans to release new FCVs in the next few years.
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