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Are Hydrogen Cars The Need Of The Hour?

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The world is moving towards BEV, but many companies are working towards hydrogen tech as well. Is hydrogen the fuel we need today?

Electric cars have made the leap from exotic rarities to ordinary commuter cars. This is a crucial tipping point in the electrification of traffic. The people in the “I just want to get from A to B” crowd, also known as “most people,” are beginning to trust electric cars. Tesla’s success may have marked the beginning of the mass-market electric car, but economy hatchbacks like the Nissan Leaf are the point when people who were not car enthusiasts were willing to “go electric.” At this early stage in the proliferation of electric cars, two fuels are competing to power the traffic jams of the future: batteries and hydrogen. It’s worth keeping in mind that while battery-electric cars are currently the hottest growing sector of the car market, only a few years ago they were still a silly curiosity that showed no promise. Hydrogen could undergo a similarly abrupt market ascent.

The Current State Of Hydrogen Cars

Toyota was the first car company to find any real success with a hydrogen car. Its Mirai sedan, introduced in 2014, has become the de-facto hydrogen flagship. Of course, the Mirai isn’t the first mass-market hydrogen car (General Motors sold a hydrogen-powered Chevrolet Equinox for fleet use in 2007, and they weren’t the first either). But Toyota is the first company to get a steady foothold in the barely-existent hydrogen car market. Following Toyota’s success, Hyundai and Honda have put out their own hydrogen-powered vehicles.

Honda produced the Clarity sedan from 2016 to 2021, which was similar in look and feel to the Toyota Mirai. For a while, it looked like the Toyota Mirai and Honda Clarity might have a similar rivalry with the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. However, Honda discontinued its hydrogen-powered sedan in 2021 and replaced it with a hydrogen plug-in hybrid variant of the CR-V. The CR-V’s hydrogen powertrain is the result of a collaboration between Honda and General Motors. It’s worth pointing out that since the CR-V is a plug-in hybrid instead of a purely fuel-cell-powered vehicle, it is the first hydrogen car that can drive beyond the few cities that have hydrogen fuel stations. Granted, one would have to plan out the charging stops very carefully, but this is nevertheless a first in the history of hydrogen vehicles.

Hyundai has introduced the Nexo hydrogen SUV. While the proliferation of hydrogen SUVs and crossovers may not bring thrills to automotive purists, SUVs are where the money lies at present. Opinionated gearheads will have to wait for hydrogen to become profitable before fuel cell “enthusiast coupes” appear. In addition to fuel cells, Toyota and Ford have been developing hydrogen-powered internal combustion engines. Toyota even put a hydrogen-burning engine into a Corolla. However, the grand plans to introduce the world to a hydrogen-burning car on a racetrack were foiled when the car caught fire. Flaming foibles aside, hydrogen combustion engines remain controversial. Whether they supersede gasoline engines or turn into a technological dead end remains to be seen.

Hydrogen has shown a lot more promise in the world of commercial trucking than it has for domestic passenger vehicles. It is easier to establish a hydrogen fueling network for commercial trucks than it would be to put hydrogen pumps in every town. Hydrogen fuel cell systems also weigh substantially less than the batteries required to power a commercial truck, which allows for more cargo weight.

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What Are The Advantages Of Hydrogen Cars?

The most obvious selling point of hydrogen cars is that you do not need to wait for them to charge. As anyone promoting hydrogen cars will point out, you can refuel a hydrogen car as quickly as pumping a tank of gasoline. Additionally, hydrogen cars don’t draw on power grids the way batter-electric ones do. As summer approaches and brings with it the annual pleas to ease up on the air conditioning before the grid fails, it becomes easier to see the advantages of a car that is not subject to municipal blackouts. Hydrogen fuel cell systems also weigh less than batteries, which literally lightens the load on the vehicle’s motor. Furthermore, hydrogen cars do not require the copious amounts of lithium demanded by batteries. As electric cars take up a bigger share of the road by the day, the demand for lithium threatens to slow down the parade of progress. While other battery technologies have shown early promise, so far lithium-ion remains the only viable technology for use in cars.

What Are The Disadvantages Of Hydrogen Cars?

The most obvious problem is that you can only refuel a hydrogen car in a small handful of cities. Anyone wanting to drive far from a hydrogen fueling station would need to tow a trailer loaded with hydrogen tanks. The hydrogen supply problem would not be solved by simply building hydrogen fuel stations in every town. All of that hydrogen gas must come from somewhere. Right now, the industry can’t produce enough hydrogen to fuel a hypothetical highway powered entirely by fuel cells. Furthermore, despite all the PR copywriters gushing about sustainability and “going green,” most hydrogen today is derived from natural gas. While only steam comes out of the tailpipe, a hydrogen car is as dependent on fossil fuels as a gasoline one. It’s true that more sustainable processes exist to derive pure hydrogen gas from renewable sources, but at present most hydrogen comes from fossil fuels and therefore is hardly a victory for the environment. Lastly, the catalysts and electrodes in hydrogen fuel cell systems use rare earth metals. While hydrogen fuel cells don’t demand as much lithium as battery-powered EVs, they don’t eliminate the problem of an ever-shrinking supply of rare metals.

Should Automakers Work Towards Hydrogen Tech? 

No single fuel is going to solve the problem of sustainably powering all the traffic in the world. Hydrogen is a vital part of broadening the range of fuels on the road today. At present, only three fuels exist for mass-market cars: batteries, gasoline, and diesel. Hydrogen barely counts as a fuel option because it is so scarce. (Hydrogen may be the most abundant element in the universe, but pumping stations for pure hydrogen gas are very rare on Earth.) With all that said, hydrogen almost certainly will have a place in powering vehicles of the future.

But while the Toyota Mirai may be a snazzy sedan, hydrogen likely will not take over the roads. Rather than powering every family SUV and enthusiast coupe, hydrogen will likely prove more useful in excavators, tractors, and other construction equipment. The trucking industry may also find hydrogen fuel cells better than battery-electric power systems as the diesel engine gradually rumbles into the past. Hydrogen will not magically solve the fuel-and-emissions problems hanging over the roads today, but it will be an important part of the solution.

About The Author

James O’Neil(15 Articles Published)

Writer and occasional reluctant perpetrator of engine swaps, James O’Neil is a malaise era enthusiast and also fascinated by the many ways the auto industry has since recovered from those dark days. Cars of choice: Toyota Corolla (any year) or 1982 Chevrolet Caprice.

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