Hydrogen Cars: So Near Yet So Far

“If we build it, they will come.”

This is what General Motors and the U.S. Army are telling each other as they join forces to research and develop hydrogen fuel cell technology to power the cars of tomorrow. One of their priorities is improving the safety of the high pressure hydrogen tanks. After all, no one wants to hit a bump with fragile cells full of pressurized hydrogen beneath the seat. But the real pressure stems from the insufficient number of hydrogen fueling stations for the hydrogen cars that will soon be roaming the roads.

From Drawing Board to Open Road

The 2014 auto show season is upon us, and Toyota has unveiled the FCV concept car, powered by hydrogen fuel cells at the Tokyo Motor Show. It plans to bring a similar model to market in 2015. Meanwhile, at the Los Angeles Auto Show, Hyundai presented a hydrogen-powered Tucson SUV which will be available for lease at $499 per month next year.

Photo by Mariordo via Wikimedia Commons

Hydrogen, a colorless, highly flammable gas, is the lightest and most abundant element in the universe. And as fuels go, it has the distinction of having the highest energy content by weight. The aerospace industry has been using hydrogen fuel cells in spacecraft since the 1960s.

Think of each hydrogen fuel cell as a non-polluting electrochemical plant where, at its negative end, hydrogen molecules are separated into electrons and protons. As the negatively charged electrons move toward the positive pole, they produce electricity which will ultimately move the car. Oxygen, pumped-in from the atmosphere, combines with the hydrogen ions and electrons to create water and heat – or in other words – steam. That’s it – no polluting by-products! Since each cell is presently capable of producing only one volt of electricity, many must be stacked if they are to move the car.

On the Hydrogen Highway

If you’ve been researching new cars to find out how hydrogen fuel cell cars stack up against electric and gasoline powered cars, you’ve probably found that, like a vehicle powered by an internal combustion gasoline-powered engine, the hydrogen cell engine will continue to generate power as long as fuel is supplied. And unlike electric-battery powered engines that can take anywhere from three to 15 hours to recharge, a fuel-cell powered car’s tank can be filled up with hydrogen in the time it takes to gas up a hybrid.

Photo of Hyundai hydrogen-fuled SUV by Bull-Doser via Wikimedia Commons

While it’s impressive that Hyundai expects its hydrogen-fueled SUV to cover 300 miles per fill-up, what if you can’t find a filling station? Hydrogen stations are proving to be more expensive to build than charging stations for EVs because while electricity is virtually everywhere, ways to produce, store and transfer hydrogen are costly and elusive. Even California, historically on the forefront of reducing greenhouse gases has only nine public and 13 research hydrogen stations with an additional 18 funded and expected to be operational in the next few years.

Photo by EERE via Wikimedia Commons

However, there is good news. The California Energy Commission has awarded $18,690,000 in grants in hope of expanding the number of fueling stations to 68 statewide. Still, that’s not impressive, considering the size of California. And what about the rest of the country?

Hey guys, keep building, we’re coming!


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