Electric cars are increasingly becoming frequent sights on public roads. Although only a handful of manufacturers are actively researching and marketing HFC vehicles, the current global market favours electric cars increasingly.
However, have we been looking at hydrogen fuel cell cars from a wrong perspective?
Toyota is one of the few manufacturers quite ahead in its HFC goals.
Current Hydrogen Fuel Cell Technology
People against HFC vehicles often argue that the electricity used for hydrolysis has to come from somewhere, and more often than not is derived from a coal-burning thermal power plant. Furthermore, most hydrogen available for commercial use today is reformed from natural gas. That means a hydrogen car today is responsible for between twice to four times the emissions of a diesel engine of relevant power class.
Low efficiency of hydrogen also plays against the HFC brigade. Internal combustion engines are rated at 20 percent energy conversion using petrol, and close to 40 percent using diesel. Gas turbines are 60 percent efficient, more than electric cars at 54 percent.
Hydrogen is worse off with 70 percent efficiency in electrolysis and 60 percent in cells, bringing the total to 25 percent. This is not taking into account losses incurred while transport and compression of hydrogen, bringing the second point of contention into light.
Honda has also been marketing and refining HFC cars through its Clarity brand of sedans.
Hydrogen as Fuel
For combustion purposes, hydrogen is an efficient fuel. However, the biggest hurdle in the way of popularising HFC vehicles is the challenge of storing and transporting hydrogen. Being the smallest element of them all, hydrogen is prone to leaking out of metal tanks as well as reacting with and corroding metal walls of storage units. At the very least, it needs to be stored cryogenically, making long-term storage impractical and costly.
Currently, hydrogen is being mixed with methane and stored since the two entities react with each other, forming a stable compound which is also easy to transport.
HFC Cars Need a Change of Perspective
While we have been subconsciously comparing HFC vehicles to IC vehicles, the reality is that HFCVs are actually closer to EVs in principle. Hydrogen is not directly powering an engine. It is actually juicing up the fuel cells to run electric motors. We all know that an HFCV produces distilled water in the form of emissions. This water can ideally be harnessed and electrolyzed to form a virtually limitless supply of hydrogen.
Hydrogen can work wonders for the transport industry, given the right infrastructure is set up to propagate HFC technology.
Practically speaking, electrolysis apparatus adds a lot of weight, maintenance, and cost to the car. It is more efficient to fill up HFCVs from centralized outlets, much like charging stations for EVs. On the plus side, HFCVs only require as much time as a conventional IC car requires to fill up its fuel tank.
The biggest ace in the HFCV sleeve is the range of such a powertrain. Drive an EV long enough and the battery will go flat. In an HFCV, if the battery is discharging, you can start using the stored hydrogen to extend range.
It is simply a case of wring timing for hydrogen-powered cars, seeing as electric cars are on a strong, steady rise globally.
It is abundantly clear that electric cars fulfil the requirements of 90 percent of users in all imaginable terms. However, for long-distance travel vehicles like aeroplanes, ships, and trucks won’t survive on batteries alone. This is where HFC technology could be immensely useful, potentially pulling away some of the biggest gas guzzlers off the fossil fuel demand.
An ideal future scenario would be urban and private vehicles powered by electricity, while logistics, aviation, and commercial vehicles would run on hydrogen fuel cell technology. How far is such a future away? Soon, but now is not the time.