Many believe hydrogen to have the greatest potential of all alternative fuels, not only for vehicles but as a primary energy source for all aspects of life. Used in fuel cells to electrochemically create electricity for powering a vehicle’s electric motors, hydrogen produces no emissions other than water vapor and heat. There are no CO2 or other greenhouse gases.
While hydrogen is largely extracted from methane today, there are bigger things on the horizon. Hydrogen is a virtually unlimited resource when electrolyzing water using solar- or wind-generated electricity, a process that splits H2O (water) into hydrogen (H) and oxygen (O) molecules. Water covers much of the Earth’s surface and is the most abundant compound on the planet.
This has been on the mind of auto manufacturers for years. In fact, editors have experienced many test drives of prototypes and concepts running on hydrogen power for years, like our time behind the wheel of a Mazda MX-5 Miata concept more than two decades ago, along with others from BMW, Ford, GM, Honda, Hyundai, Mercedes-Benz and more.
Along with their own independent hydrogen vehicle development programs, some automakers like GM and Honda are working cooperatively to develop next-generation fuel cell systems and hydrogen storage. Others are working with hydrogen fuel suppliers and state governments to develop an expanded hydrogen fueling network.
In recent years, Honda has been leasing its FCX Clarity fuel cell sedan to limited numbers of consumers in California and Hyundai has recently followed suit with its Tucson Fuel Cell crossover vehicle, also available to limited numbers of consumers in California where hydrogen refueling is more readily available. Both Honda and Toyota have announced plans to introduce next-generation production fuel cell vehicles for consumers shortly.
As with any game-changing technology, hydrogen vehicles come with their challenges. Hydrogen vehicles are presently quite costly to produce, although their cost to consumers who lease them will surely be subsidized by manufacturers until this field matures. The production of ‘green’ hydrogen through electrolysis and other means is also presently limited and costly, plus the nation’s hydrogen refueling infrastructure is extremely sparse, although growing.
The hydrogen vehicle field continues to evolve. A recent study by Sandia National focused on 70 gas stations in California – the state with the largest number of existing hydrogen stations – to determine if any could add hydrogen fueling based on requirements of the 2011 NFPA 2 hydrogen technologies code. The conclusion is that 14 of the 70 stations explored could readily accept hydrogen fuel, with an additional 17 potentially able to integrate hydrogen with property expansions. In this light, expanding the network of hydrogen stations may be more straightforward than previously thought.
Even amid these challenges, with major commitments from automakers like Honda, Toyota, GM, and others in Europe and Asia, hydrogen vehicles are a very real and exciting possibility for the road ahead.