The fuel cell had often been regarded as the solution to the world’s energy problems since the idea sprang into William Grove’s head in 1898.
However, time and time again it is a technology that has failed to live up to expectations. Now a new initiative demonstrates once more the continuing belief within the car industry that hydrogen really may hold the ignition key to a new driving future.
In February 2013, Daimler, Ford and Nissan announced plans to work together on a common fuel cell system, with a view to having affordable fuel cell powered cars on the road in just four years.
So what will be the benefits for motorists of a fuel cell car?
First, they accelerate faster than their electric counterparts, which take a laid back approach to getting anywhere fast.
Second, in terms of emission-free travel, there’s little on the road that beats them - apart from skateboards and bikes. When a fuel cell car sets tyre onto tarmac, it’s only H20 that comes out of the exhaust and not a noxious chemical cocktail.
Third, just like electric vehicles (EVs), fuel cell cars aren’t noisy, compared with the internal combustion engine’s cacophony.
Fourth, fuel cell cars gain efficiency because they don’t have to carry the heavy batteries that EVs do. The early Tesla roadster sports car, the first production automobile to use lithium-ion battery cells, had to cope with their hefty 1,000lbs (450kg) weight. While battery technology is improving, performance is only doubling every decade, and in technology terms that’s very slow progress indeed.
Fifth, with an efficiency of around 50%, fuel cell cars are far more efficient than standard internal combustion engine vehicles, which can only muster a paltry 15%, wasting most of their energy through dissipated heat.
Sixth, fuelling a fuel cell car takes much less time than with an EV. There’s no overnight charging, with hydrogen refuelling taking just a few minutes - pretty much the same as filling up with petrol or diesel.
All of these are very positive take-aways for hydrogen, suggesting that a new hydrogen dawn may be peeping over the horizon.
But there are still challenges.
Creating hydrogen in the first place is the primary one. Currently most chemical companies crack methane to do it, but this releases large amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, a major issue at a time when we’re grappling with climate change.
There’s also the practical everyday requirement to supply hydrogen to motorists wherever they are. This means having to create a safe, effective and widespread hydrogen infrastructure that frees fuel cell cars from urban centre-only driving. That will bring it with it all manner of challenges, not least the inherent difficulty of sending hydrogen down pipelines, something it can be reluctant to do.
Add to this that the most crucial element of the fuel cell, the catalytic membrane, is prone to fouling and failing, and the ‘H Age’ is far from a done deal. Nevertheless, could this particular hydrogen dawn breaking over the horizon finally herald the day of the hydrogen car?
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