A hydrogen car or hydrogen fuel cell car is an automobile that uses hydrogen gas as its energy source. This type of vehicle generates power through the conversion of hydrogen fuel to electricity.
The process involves either combining hydrogen and oxygen in a fuel cell to turn on electric motors, or burning hydrogen in an internal combustion engine.
Developed by Francois Isaac de Rivaz, the first hydrogen internal combustion engine started its life in 1807. Then in 1965, there was the second generation designed by Roger Billings that powered a Model A.
Paul Dieges came up with another type of hydrogen engine technology in 1970, which allowed modified gasoline engines to run on hydrogen.
Fast forward in 2014, Toyota launched the Mirai as the first mass-produced hydrogen fuel cell electric car in the world, then there’s Hyundai with its Nexo which hit the market in 2018.
Honda also released the Clarity Fuel Cell in 2016, although slow sales prompted the company to end the model’s production in 2021.
Mazda has built Wankel engines driven by hydrogen, which power the Mazda RX-8 Hydrogen RE. With the use of Wankel, retooling time and cost can be minimized.
Forklit trucks have also been merged with hydrogen fuel cell technology, thus unlocking its zero emission potential.
Despite these developments, the majority of automakers that had been experimenting with hydrogen technology have now shifted their focus to the expansion of all-electric vehicles.
That’s due to the fact that hydrogen is deemed futureless in the automobile industry. Among the carmakers that hold this view is Volkswagen.
The reason is a fuel cell electric machine requires much more energy than an all-electric vehicle to cover the same distance, thus making it a less-efficient solution for future transportation.
While there are already tens of thousands of hydrogen-powered cars in the world, automobile companies don’t seem interested in sticking with the technology for the longer term, especially with the rise of more efficient electric cars.
One of the common ways to produce hydrogen is through steam methane reforming, which also generates carbon monoxide. The production can involve pyrolytic or thermochemical process, which remains too costly to undertake.
With various hydrogen technologies under development, companies want to lower production costs while increasing quantities at the same time. Their main goal is to reach maximum efficiency.
Among the things that make hydrogen technology likeable is the fact that it can refuel quickly. In addition, it allows a car to drive long distances on a single tank.
The main downside, however, is the high carbon footprint resulted from the production of hydrogen with natural gas. It’s also worth noting that hydrogen has a low volumetric energy density, hence it needs to be compressed to achieve a long driving range.
It’s challenging to adopt this technology widely, since it would require a large investment to build filling stations worldwide. Not to mention that there’s the lack of ability to produce hydrogen at home.
Efforts to apply the technology are also carried out by modifying regular cars so they can run on hydrogen. The engines of these cars are designed to burn fuel in the same way gasoline engines do.
But unlike their regular ICE counterparts which produce carbon dioxide (CO2), hydrogen combustion engines only emit water vapor.