The Future of Hydrogen Vehicles

By Deeti Shrotriya

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are a new and upcoming domain in the automobile industry. In India, its introduction and development is recent. The Minister of Road Transport and highways in India, Nitin Gadkari, was recently spotted traveling to the Parliament in a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. This is highly significant as it represents the trust and potential of hydrogen based fuels. It also reassures the population about its safety and development as a fuel in India. The consideration of shift from non-hydrogen based fuels to hydrogen based fuels is due to the unsustainable nature of currently used fuels based on natural gasses and the increasing impact they are having on the environment. A major question that comes up in the context of hydrogen being utilized as a fuel is if it is a worthy fuel in comparison to cars running on petroleum, diesel  and other alternatives. By holistically understanding the properties of hydrogen fuel, a comparison between hydrogen fuel and other alternatives can be drawn which will help to further understand the best and most sustainable option in the world today.

Introduction 

Vehicles powered by hydrogen are not a recent thought. Hydrogen has been studied as a fuel source for decades; in fact, former US President George W. Bush launched a US$1.2 billion hydrogen-fuel effort in 2003 to create commercial fuel-cell vehicles by 2020. There is no doubt that there has been introspection in the field of hydrogen fuel, however, in recent years, more corporations have begun to invest in hydrogen fuels in all modes of transportation, particularly air and road. For example, United Airlines intends to buy up to 100 hydrogen-powered engines as a step to achieve zero-emission aircrafts. These kinds of investments give hydrogen a new lease on life as a green and clean fuel. With rising investments, there has to be further inspection into the capability and technologies revolving around hydrogen fuel and FCEVs. 

How do hydrogen fuel cell vehicles work?
The production of hydrogen as a fuel in the vehicles will be through hydrogen fuel cell stations. Hydrogen fuel cells work in a way where the stored hydrogen in the vehicle is transferred into the fuel cell where it is combined with oxygen from the atmosphere to generate electricity. Apart from a fuel cell, hydrogen fuel can be made in a variety of methods, including combining it with oxygen to convert its chemical energy to mechanical energy, or incinerating it in an internal fuel cell rather than a combustion engine to power a vehicle. Colors are used to categorize different kinds of hydrogen and the processes that produce it. As mentioned, usually, in a fuel cell, electrolysis takes place where hydrogen is combined with oxygen in the atmosphere and the only emission is water. This type of production of hydrogen produces what is known as “green hydrogen” as the process is fairly climate neutral. The reason it is not completely climate neutral is due to the fact that water is released; water vapor is one of the most dangerous greenhouse gasses that contributes to global warming and hence climate change. 

Though the concept seems both convenient and simple, there are various obstacles that need to be avoided while using fuel cells for transport. First, a consideration for the compatibility and durability of the fuel cell needs to be made. This is highly important as hydrogen only acts as an energy carrier. In addition to this, the fuel cell should be powerful enough to accelerate the vehicle as needed and should be capable of powering every part of the vehicle including lights, radio and air conditioning. It also needs to be ensured that with its production, fuel cell costs for both production and purchase drop. 

How efficient is hydrogen?

When examining substitutes to vehicles that use nonrenewable energy sources, like a hydrogen vehicle, one of the most important questions to evaluate are the fuel’s efficiency and practicality. In comparison to electric vehicles and cars that operate on fossil fuels, hydrogen automobiles may theoretically be refueled rapidly and require less fuel storage when traveling long distances. With increasing market and fuel investments, hydrogen technology has a long-term potential to evolve and compete as an environmentally benign alternative to vehicles that run on gasoline and other natural gasses. This bodes well for hydrogen vehicles’ long-term viability. 

How sustainable is hydrogen?

Though hydrogen powered vehicles are more productive and environmentally friendly than natural gas vehicles, they are significantly less efficient in terms of performance than electric vehicles, making hydrogen powered vehicles a gray area between fossil fuel vehicles and electric vehicles. When the energy source used to make hydrogen is renewable, hydrogen can be utilized as a “green fuel” with little or no environmental impact. Environmental concerns mainly occur during the hydrogen production process, when gasses such as methane are emitted. This can be avoided if hydrogen is produced using sustainable energy sources such as renewable energy. As a result, this contributes to answering the previous issue about the optimal method of producing hydrogen for fuel production. This also addresses a common aim shared by many governments throughout the world: achieving a carbon-free future. 

Where are we right now?

At the moment, there are just about two hydrogen-powered road vehicles in the market. Creating market options so that buyers have a choice when purchasing a vehicle. Without a doubt, governments and large corporations should increase their efforts to make more hydrogen-fueled vehicles available on the market, giving customers more options and making hydrogen cars more accessible and convenient. This will result in more awareness and promotion of hydrogen vehicles promising a more sustainable future. In addition to this, establishing hydrogen cell stations all around the world is critical. With a higher number of cell stations around the world, there is higher convenience of owning the vehicle, promoting potential customers to make the shift. 

What does the future look like for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles?

As discussed in this article, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles have extremely high potential to grow and become the “next big thing” in the automobile. However, this does not come without its challenges. Looking at this from an environmental perspective, hydrogen when sourced from a renewable source, can be considered a clean fuel. Changes like these, especially in the automobile industry are important to grow sustainably. As of now, there are not various convenient and efficient options available in the market that are completely climate neutral, hence it is important to make the small shifts, as they come our way to be sustainable and environment friendly.

Deeti Shrotriya is a first year undergraduate student at Jindal School of Environment & Sustainability.

Image credits – Hindustan Times

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