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What are Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles?

Most experts agree that the next generation of vehicles won’t run on gasoline, but disagreement exists in the community over what the dominant fuel will be. Many believe that hydrogen is a major contender. Hydrogen is the simplest, lightest, most abundant element in the universe. Hydrogen is also environmentally friendly when burned, because the byproduct of hydrogen combustion is water. If hydrogen’s abundance, combustibility and lack of pollution make it seem like an ideal fuel source, then why are we still using fossil fuels? To find out, let’s look at the mechanics, advantages and challenges of creating a hydrogen-powered car.

How does a hydrogen-powered car work?

While hydrogen-powered cars may seem like science fiction, the technology to build one has been around since the early 19th century. The mechanical concept behind a hydrogen car is simple:

  • Compressed hydrogen is stored in the vehicle’s holding tank.
  • The gas is piped to a hydrogen fuel cell stack, where it is used to produce electricity.
  • The electric current powers an electric motor, moving the vehicle.

The concept of a hydrogen fuel cell is based on a variation of electrolysis, a process by which oxygen and hydrogen are released when water is exposed to an electric current. Using the same principles, the hydrogen fuel cell works in the opposite direction, combining hydrogen and oxygen, and outputting electricity and water.

What are the advantages and challenges of a hydrogen-powered car?

In many ways, hydrogen-powered cars sound like the definite future of automotive technology. Hydrogen, while rarely occurring on Earth in a pure state, is found abundantly in elements such as water. The byproduct of hydrogen combustion is steam rather than toxic exhaust, and it is already used as fuel in rocket ships.

So what’s the hold up? Here are some of the challenges preventing the mass adoption of hydrogen-powered cars:

  • Hydrogen production: While hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, it is difficult to come by in its pure form. Hydrogen can be extracted from substances such as water and natural gas, but the process requires energy, lowering the net energy output. Until an efficient, renewable method of hydrogen production is devised for large-scale use, hydrogen cars will have a difficult time catching on.
  • Hydrogen infrastructure: Even if hydrogen could be produced efficiently on a large scale, there is still the problem of getting it to drivers. Gas stations would have to be refitted to house hydrogen refueling stations, a process that could cost billions of dollars and take decades to complete.
  • Hydrogen fuel cell costs: Hydrogen fuel cells use platinum as a catalyst in the electrochemical process that produces electricity. Platinum is a rare and expensive material, making the cost of one hydrogen fuel cell around $100,000. Until a less-expensive catalyst is developed, the average person will not be able to afford a hydrogen-powered car.

How can I save money on fuel today?

While you’re waiting for cheap hydrogen fuel to be developed, there are ways to save money on vehicle costs. To reduce your fuel consumption, consider buying a fuel-efficient or hybrid vehicle. Taking public transportation a couple times a week also can reduce your fuel expenses. And don’t forget about vehicle savings that aren’t related to the gas tank; look for affordable car insurance by comparing the car insurance rates of several companies.

We can’t be certain what will replace fossil fuels as the dominant fuel source, but the many benefits of a hydrogen fuel cell make it a top contender.