Look back a decade, and hydrogen was the fuel of the future, and a not-too-distant one at that. “Hydrogen fuel cells represent one of the most encouraging, innovative technologies of our era,” President Bush said in a 2003 speech announcing a $1.2 billion initiative aimed at making hydrogen fuel a competitive energy source.
Almost anyone who has switched to a vehicle running on something other than gasoline or diesel since then, though, has bought a hybrid or electric car. Hydrogen hasn’t been an option, and it’s dropped off the radar for many of us.
But hydrogen cars didn’t really go away, and they are finally starting to hit the road. Honda already leases a limited number of the hydrogen-powered Clarity (price: $600 per month), and the company has teamed with GM to further develop hydrogen technology. Earlier this year, Toyota announced that it will begin selling a $50,000 hydrogen fuel-cell-powered car in 2015. Hyundai, Ford, Daimler, and Renault-Nissan are all investing in the technology.
In hydrogen cars, the hydrogen isn’t so much a fuel as an energy-storage device. It’s comparable to batteries that store energy in electric cars, but hydrogen wins out over batteries in a few key areas. Hydrogen fuel-cell cars are more efficient than electric vehicles, in part because they’re a lot lighter. The batteries in an electric car add about 1,000 pounds. Moving all that weight requires more energy. Also, electric batteries lose a little bit of energy when they’re not being used, and they take a long time to recharge. Hydrogen doesn’t have the waste problem, and refueling takes just minutes.
Still, the public isn’t clamoring for hydrogen fuel-cell cars. The development of these vehicles has been driven in large part by California’s zero-emissions mandate. To meet the mandate, car companies will need to sell about 1.4 million new vehicles that are powered by electric batteries or hydrogen fuel cells in California in the 2025 model year. If other states follow California’s lead, manufacturers will need to produce an additional 600,000 zero-emissions vehicles.
Electric vehicles already on the market, such as the Tesla Model S and the Nissan Leaf, have been a hard sell. They are expensive, run out of juice quicker than a gasoline car, have a more limited range, and take a long time to recharge. Plus, finding a place to charge up—by plugging into an electrical outlet—can be difficult, and it can be nearly impossible for city dwellers who park on the street.
For many people, hydrogen fuel cells might be a better option than electric batteries. To convert the hydrogen to energy, a device called a polymer electrolyte membrane fuel cell first strips electrons off the hydrogen atoms, creating positively charged hydrogen ions. Those ions combine with oxygen from the air to form water as a waste product. The electrons provide the energy that drives the car’s electric motor.
One of the major selling points for hydrogen technology has been that it produces no pollutants, just water. There’s no soot to create smog, no hydrocarbons or nitrogen oxides that would combine to form ozone, no poisonous carbon monoxide and, best of all, no carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases. Electric cars can also be green, but only when the electricity that runs them comes from sources like wind and solar. With much of the nation’s energy still coming from coal and natural gas, hydrogen could be the greener fuel. Plus, as the technology’s supporters are quick to point out, hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe.
The problem with this last point, though, is that none of that hydrogen is easy to get. It’s tucked away in the molecules that make up living things, in fossil fuels and in water, and it’s fusing into helium in the cores of stars. It’s possible to split water into its components, hydrogen and oxygen, but the process is energy intensive. Because of this, only a small fraction of current hydrogen supplies comes from water. About 95 percent comes from fossil fuels, mostly natural gas, and this is not a green process. In addition to the environmental toll of natural-gas extraction, pulling the hydrogen out of hydrocarbons creates carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide.