Hydrogen cars: the ultimate alternative?
Is it possible for a car not only not to pollute, but also to purify the environment? Electric vehicles dominate the transition to sustainable transport, but what about hydrogen cars? Let’s take a look at the advantages of this “green fuel”.
Leading global brands such as Toyota and Hyundai are making a strong commitment to hydrogen cars. At the moment they are still too expensive, but they promise to revolutionise global mobility. These vehicles are powered by hydrogen (the most abundant element on Earth), which is extracted from seawater through a process of electrolysis. To drive, the vehicle is powered by hydrogen and air, but the air must be pure, which is why the engine is equipped with a stringent particle filtering system. This is how the engine retains the polluting particles so that what comes out of the exhaust pipe is water vapour, with purer oxygen than it went in. Is this technology a dream, or is it the future?
Hydrogen car technology is innovative in many ways and is an engineering challenge. We generally differentiate between two types of hydrogen engines: combustion and conversion. So, while combustion engines burn hydrogen in the engine similarly to petrol engines, with the only difference being that what is expelled from the exhaust pipe is water vapour instead of polluting smoke, conversion engines convert this hydrogen into electricity, thanks to a fuel cell, to drive the car’s electric motor.
A fuel cell is therefore a device based on electrochemistry, i.e. it generates electrical energy from chemical energy. It always does so with the support of a fuel and an oxidant. In this case, one pole of the battery (the anode) contains hydrogen and the other (the cathode) contains oxygen. The advantage of this type of battery is that it does not need to be recharged and operates continuously, so users have a constant flow and consumption of reagents, which differentiates it from conventional batteries.
Electric cars vs. hydrogen cars
Precisely this autonomy in recharging is the advantage that could make the hydrogen car end up leading the ecological transition, even overtaking the electric car. In fact, according to the Department of Advanced Materials for Energy at the Catalonia Institute for Energy Research (IREC), the electric car is considered a clean means of transport because it does not consume fossil fuels. However, the drawback of electric cars, according to IREC, is that the battery needs to be recharged with electricity from the grid, and many of us know first-hand what this means in terms of expense, besides the time it takes. Despite being considered a non-polluting method of transport, for it to be truly green, the type of electricity production it requires must also be green. This is a disadvantage that, for the time being, is also present in the hydrogen engine fuel cell, since obtaining hydrogen through the electrolysis of water, still requires a lot of energy.
In contrast, fuel cell-based cars, such as hydrogen cars, combine the range of conventional (petrol) cars with the recreational and environmental benefits of electric cars. Therefore, the most obvious advantage is the absence of harmful emissions and toxic gases. Filling the hydrogen tank takes no more than five minutes, unlike the time-consuming refuelling of electric cars, which can take hours. And in terms of range, hydrogen is also in front, with a range of up to 500 kilometres.
Charging points, the big problem
In 1839, the Welsh physicist William Grove invented the fuel cell, without much fuss. It was not until the 1960s that this technology became popular because it powered NASA’s Gemini space probe, which ran exclusively on fuel cells. In wheeled vehicles, it came later, in 2008, from the automobile manufacturer Honda.
Today, the range has increased slightly, and the AutoBild portal lists the Toyota-Mirai and the Hyundai-Nexo as the best hydrogen cars, with the Hyperion XP-1 sports car and the BMW-Hydrogen Next SUV expected to be launched later this year.
In 2019, 7,500 hydrogen vehicles were sold globally, while electric vehicles accounted for 2.1 million sales. Urban transport and goods vehicles are switching to electric vehicles, and the number of refuelling points is also growing. In the case of hydrogen, there are only three points in Spain. It is a complicated moment, with few recharging points and low customer demand, which places the sector at a difficult point of progress and continues to put the focus on energy companies. In countries such as Germany, hydrogen manufacturers and producers have already joined forces to draw up a plan that will end with 130 refuelling points and 60,000 hydrogen cars on the road by 2022.
Thus, despite the current commitment of many governments and brands to hybrid vehicles, environmental requirements leave the door open to hydrogen vehicles, which are awaiting the union of manufacturers, energy companies and administrations to experience their moment of expansion.
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