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Transportation Transportation Hydrogen

DRIVING ON HYDROGEN: FUELLING THE FUTURE?

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by: Sharai Hoekema
DRIVING ON HYDROGEN: FUELLING THE FUTURE?

According to the US publisher Ward’s, the number of motor vehicles in use around the world crossed 1 billion somewhere during 2010. A mere four years later, in 2014, it was recorded that there were more than 1.2 billion vehicles crowding the earth’s roads. Predications are made that within two years, by 2020, the unbelievable threshold of 2 billion vehicles will be crossed.

Combining these staggering numbers with the growing concern about the harmful emissions of cars and other motor vehicles, it only makes sense that a great deal of attention is paid to ways of making them less harmful for the environment. As such, more and more emphasis is placed on the reduction of scarce fossil fuels. As an alternative, automobile manufacturers are turning to cars that are powered by biofuels or by electricity. One of these alternatives is hydrogen.

THE HYDROGEN ECONOMY

Green hydrogen meter with word #hydrogen

Hydrogen vehicles are basically electric cars that use hydrogen (H2) as its source of energy, instead of the battery that is commonly used in other hybrid- and electric vehicles. The goal of fuelling transportation with hydrogen is a key element of the so-called hydrogen economy. This concept, first drafted by British geneticist and scientist J. Haldane, encompasses a system that has the entire transportation industry - including boats, cars and planes - using hydrogen as their fuel of choice.

WHY HYDROGEN?

Hydrogen as a chemical element is the most abundant one in our universe, as it makes up 75% of normal matter by mass and more than 90% by number of atoms (Wikipedia, accessed August 2018). Furthermore, it is a welcome alternative for the automobile industry, that is hard-pressed to find cheap and clean alternatives for their gasoline and diesel ‘addiction’. 

Quite a number of well-known producers, including Hyundai, Toyota and Honda, have already brought cars to market of which the fuel tank and combustion engine have been replaced by a hydrogen container and fuel cell. Oxygen is led to the fuel cell and reacts to hydrogen, to create energy and water. The electricity feeds the engine, whereas the water vapour - completely harmless - is released through the exhaust. 

CLEANER, SMOOTHER, QUIETER

It is a clean, durable way of producing energy that largely relies on natural components. On the contrary, ‘common’ electric and hybrid cars use a battery that requires lithium and cobalt. This raw material is dependent upon child labour in developing countries, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Chili. This makes its production highly questionable and possibly ethically indefensible. As such, hydrogen proves a better and more sustainable alternative.

To further prove its sustainability, hydrogen does not lead to air pollution. Its combustion does not bring any polluting chemicals into the atmosphere.  The only by-product is water (vapour). It is also virtually inexhaustible, as hydrogen can be found in water, plants, and fertiliser - and can easily be generated. 

Its use provides benefits for the car’s driver as well. The vehicle is very quiet, as there are no mechanical parts in the fuel cell. This will reduce noise nuisance in populated areas, improving the overall quality of life. Secondly, fuel cell vehicles guarantee a smooth drive, with instant power and intuitive controls. Running out of fuel? Then it will only take a few minutes to fill up the car with fresh hydrogen, without any nasty scents or spills.

Blue sky #hydrogen factory, windmills and solar panels

DISADVANTAGES

For the production of hydrogen, a significant amount of energy is needed. This process is costly and brings along a whole new problem for the world as a whole, as we need energy to provide a fuel that should require less energy. A paradox if I have ever seen one. And one that has significantly pushed up the car’s price. A hydrogen-powered car can be yours from “only” as little as € 60,000. Definitely not an amount that most of us will budget for or have lying around.

This car is therefore only reserved for those with deep pockets, for now. This means that there is a relatively low penetration of hydrogen-fuelled cars on the market, which makes it largely unfeasible to set up sufficient hydrogen-stations needed for refuelling. These stations are remarkably expensive, also due to the high costs of producing and storing hydrogen, which has made it a tough sell.

Similarly, the absence of sufficient hydrogen-stations around the world acts as another deterrent for prospective buyers: why would you spend so much money on a car if you cannot fuel it wherever you like? The industry seems to be stuck in this vicious circle, with insufficient cars on the road to justify the construction of a station, and insufficient stations available to persuade prospective buyers to choose this car.

Ignoring this dilemma for now, as I am sure that this will work itself out eventually, the central question remains. Can hydrogen fuel be used all around the world, to feed the soon to be 2 million cars, if it requires this much energy to produce? Some have called for a solution that involves using the excess capacity of wind parks, that are now often temporarily stopped once too much energy is offered to the grid. Feasible, yet it requires a change of mindset for many - and increases the pressure on wind park owners to deliver sufficient energy. 

Will the world be running on hydrogen soon? It would certainly be better for our environment, yet the simple fact that it is decidedly not better for our wallets yet, means that there is still a long way to go.

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