The Pros and Cons of Hydrogen-Powered Vehicles

Nikola pickup truck 10 photos
Photo: Nikola Corporation
Nikola BadgerToyota MiraiToyota Mirai powertrainHyundai NexoHyundai NexoMercedes-Benz GLC F-CellMercedes-Benz GLC F-CellHionda ClarityHionda Clarity
As the combustion engine era is slowly ending, more and more manufacturers are shifting to fully electric vehicles. The fundamental change has gained momentum in the last few years with Battery Electric Vehicles (BEV) emerging as the favorite emission-free alternative.
Another fully electric, zero-emission alternative that has been silently gaining popularity is the Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle (FCEV).

Cars that use this technology are also powered by electric motors but use hydrogen fuel cells as a means of creating electric energy on the go.

They roughly feel the same to drive as battery-powered BEVs, they use the same high-capacity electric motors that deliver instant torque to the drivetrain and supply the same regenerative capabilities when braking or coasting.

Instead of charging the battery by plugging it into a charger, FCEVs require refueling using a pump that is somewhat similar to those found at regular gas stations.

If battery electric vehicles can take at least an hour to charge, depending of course on the type of battery and charger, hydrogen-powered vehicles need the same amount of time to refill as their conventional combustion engine-powered counterparts.

Toyota Mirai powertrain
Photo: Toyota Motor Corporation
They work by using reverse electrolysis to convert the hydrogen in the fuel cell into electricity that is used to power the electric drivetrain.

Inside the fuel cell, hydrogen reacts with the oxygen taken from the ambient air to create the necessary electric energy. The only byproducts of this reaction being water and heat that is eliminated through the tailpipe under the form of water vapor.

Depending on the vehicle and the technology used, the electric drivetrain can be powered directly by the fuel cell, which converts the hydrogen into electricity, or by a battery that stores the energy created by the fuel cell.

However, the batteries used by FCEVs are much smaller and thus lighter than those used to power BEVs, most of which have battery packs that can weigh over 1,000 pounds (454 kilograms).

This creates new possibilities for the development of lighter drivetrains and thus lighter and more efficient vehicles.

This will increase the range even further for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles which, by design, can travel longer distances while fully filled than battery-powered cars can on a full charge. Their range is comparable to that of gasoline or diesel-powered engines

Some of the current setbacks for FCEVs are caused by the costs of development and lack of refueling infrastructure.

The high costs are in large part influenced by the need for platinum, which is the best catalyst for creating electricity out of hydrogen fuel cells. Another factor that increases cost is the fact that hydrogen must be transported to refiling stations just like regular fuel.

A massive lack of refiling infrastructure is still the biggest inconvenience for hydrogen vehicles, although a similar problem arose when BEVs first started to hit the market.

Mercedes\-Benz GLC F\-Cell
Photo: Daimler AG
In the U.S., for example, there are no more than thirty such fueling stations all over the country, most of them in big cities found on the east or west coast.

The biggest state, Texas, has only one fully operational charging station in the city of Austin. Neighboring Canada has less than ten operational charging stations.

The situation is different in Europe, where Germany alone has more than eighty stations and France fifteen, with other countries rapidly expanding and building new infrastructure to accommodate hydrogen refueling.

Toyota has been the manufacturer who has been the most active in developing FCEVs, releasing the Mirai, which will already see a second-generation model start production in 2021, with other carmakers like Honda and Hyundai releasing their first versions of hydrogen-powered cars in the form of the Honda Clarity and Hyundai Nexo.

German automotive giants Daimler, who owns the Mercedes-Benz brand is selling a hydrogen-powered GLC F-Cell model in Germany since 2018 and BMW is also planning to release an FCEV version of the X5 SUV in 2022.

The Jaguar Land Rover group also announced plans of developing a hydrogen-powered SUV by 2030 while startups like U.S.-based Nikola are developing a pickup called Badger that should have a 300-mile range.

The future is looking bright for hydrogen as a means to power our vehicles and it should offer a better alternative to combustion engines than battery-powered cars once more infrastructure is developed. We will see more and more such vehicles from renowned carmakers and their costs should begin to drop as they begin to attract more interest.
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About the author: Vlad Radu
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Vlad's first car was custom coach built: an exotic he made out of wood, cardboard and a borrowed steering wheel at the age of five. Combining his previous experience in writing and car dealership years, his articles focus in depth on special cars of past and present times.
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