Hydrogen Fuel Cell Cars: Are They the Future of Green Transportation?

Finding alternatives to transport is one of the crucial changes we need to adopt today. Studies show that the carbon emissions released from our means of transportation are the main culprits in the formation of heat-trapping gases. These gases prevent the CO2 from being released back into space. This is why we’re confronting with the greenhouse effect and the global warming which is affecting the planet’s biosphere.

As a result, industries have been looking at ways to reduce the emissions that have already passed 400 parts per million. Hybrids and electric cars have been on the market for some time but the electric vehicle technologies are not yet as advanced to fully substitute their gas counterparts.

A new addition to the clean alternative is the fuel cell vehicle. A fuel cell car needs a combination of hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity to power the motor. This electric vehicle has a better range than other EVs and needs refueling from hydrogen refueling stations.

Hydrogen Fuel Cell Cars – How Do They Work?

blue Toyota hydrogen fuel cell car

Blue FCV (Fuel Cell Vehicle) Toyota concept on display at the 84th International Motor Show Palexpo – Geneva on March 13, 2014 in Geneva, Switzerland

The combination of hydrogen and oxygen that powers the motor produce byproducts as well, such as heat and water. As a result, these do not pollute like the exhaust fumes from a conventional car. However, producing the hydrogen itself can create greenhouse emissions but fortunately, hydrogen fuel cell cars would cut the total amount of emissions from conventional cars by 30%. This shows the great potential of this particular EV alternative.

Current hydrogen fuel cell cars are similar to their gas counterparts in that they perform just as well. A hydrogen refueling station would sell pressurized hydrogen and the refueling process might take less than 10 minutes. A full tank would permit hydrogen fuel cell car to drive for 200 – 300 miles. These performances make it a strong contender for gasoline or diesel vehicles. Compared to the battery electric cars that need to be plugged in to recharge, a hydrogen fuel cell car would only need the refueling stations to perform at long ranges. That is why the implementations of hydrogen refueling stations would be a good step towards shifting from gas and diesel without many economic disruptions.

In addition, like other EVs, hydrogen fuel cell cars have the feature to shut down the fuel cell during heavy traffic or at stop signs to reduce wasting energy and regenerative braking, which converts the vehicle’s kinetic energy into electricity and stores it in the batteries for later use.

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Collecting Hydrogen

Hydrogen fueling

Hydrogen fueling dispenser for vehicles

Mainly, collecting and processing the hydrogen will have an impact on the levels of carbon emission. Hydrogen comes from water or natural gas. Natural gas is converted into hydrogen gas and carbon dioxide. That is why there is still the issue of releasing carbon into the atmosphere. A low-carbon alternative is collecting the hydrogen from methane gases released from landfills and sewage treatment facilities. The cleanest alternative would be splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen through electrolysis.

The Union of Concerned Scientists published a study in 2014 that compares the emission of a gasoline powered vehicle with Hyundai’s hydrogen fuel cell car, the Tucson model. According to the study, the global warming emissions per mile of a gasoline car is of 436g CO2eq/mile. Based on the source of extraction, fuel cell cars emit 286g CO2eq/mile if the hydrogen is extracted from natural gas, 202g CO2eq/mile if 33% of the hydrogen is extracted from renewable sources and an astonishing 173g CO2eq/mile if 46% of the hydrogen is extracted from renewable sources. The study highlights the amazing results of fuel cell cars, with a possible reduction of over 60% of global emissions per mile if authorities will widely implement the proper method.

Are Other EVs Better Options?

As a concept, electric vehicles will always be a better alternative to gasoline based ones in terms of environmental impact. While hybrids are a cleaner choice than conventional cars, their engines still need to be powered by diesel or gasoline. They are the closest to conventional vehicles in terms of operation but have a lower impact on the environment.

On the other hand, plug-in hybrids make use of both their conventional engines and electric batteries. As a result, a plug-in hybrid will work on short distances, running on the electricity produced by the battery and can switch to its fuel resources for longer distances. The emissions are still lower than the conventional cars.

Finally, battery electric vehicles can produce zero emissions if the electricity comes from renewable sources. The current advantage of battery electric vehicles is the fact that the infrastructure is already in place that allows them to recharge anytime. The disadvantage is that recharging takes quite some time to complete. So long distance drives will deplete the battery faster.

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What Happens If We Switch to Cleaner Vehicles?

green car with eco icons set

According to the latest report of the Union of Concerned Scientists, if all U.S cars and light trucks were electric, it would amount to only 25% of the annual electricity demand nation-wide which is of 4 trillion kWh. This means that charging these vehicles will use only 1 trillion kWh per year. Deployment of electric vehicles will prompt the change into the national power grid. We would need a supply on demand frame of mind needs to accommodate the use of electric vehicles. If the current structure is shifted to accommodate both day time and nighttime demands, it would make a great positive impact on the environment.

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Final Words

So far it seems hydrogen fuel cell cars have the immense potential to replace conventional transport. However, related infrastructure needs to be implemented in order to benefit from this cleaner alternative. Experts argue in favor of EV technologies as a way to reduce the current environmental issues and ensure a greener future. We can shift towards smarter options and safely enjoy everything our planet has to offer.

Image source: DepositPhotos: 1 and 2 and 3 and 4

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William E. Eubanks

I'm one of the main writers on the site; mostly dealing with environmental news and ways to live green. My goal is to educate others about this great planet, and the ways we can help to protect it.

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