- The example from Toyota

Can hydrogen fuel cells really be the future?

Some simple explanations of the nerdy number crunching. Oh, and the answer is also there, sort of...

Why hydrogen?

Well, because it's everywhere, literally. It's the most abundant element in the whole universe, which is cool. What's no so cool about it, is that it's never single. Think of it like that annoying hot girl who's always with a boyfriend at the party, even when there are no other guys apart from you at that same party (a bit of a wishful thinking). We all know at least one such lady who seems to find a guy out of thin air and it's never available. Sooo . . to get the good stuff (the hydrogen, you pervs), we need to end that relationship. And in a way that won't cost us too much money, energy or health. Plenty of ways to do that, but all are costly in one way or another. Getting hydrogen from natural gas gets very gassy (pun intended) - carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide are a by-product. Even worse, some very potent methane is escaping when we drill or frack for natural gas. And if that's not enough, we're still dependant on those pesky fossil fuels the world is actively running out of, which makes no sense for production. Another way is to electrocute water, so there won't be greenhouse gasses as a by-product. But it's not very efficient as it uses a lot of energy and 25% is lost. We can use green energy, produced by the sun or the wind, but even then, the efforts will be somewhat pointless, because to compress the hydrogen to a liquid and store it means another 45% loss in energy. There is a cleaner way with with a proton exchange membrane, but that's still rare, expensive, and the efficiency gains are optimistically around 11% in total. Not great, but not terrible either.

Natural gas dependency is not ideal

Natural gas dependency is not ideal

Still, why hydrogen is the good stuff?

Because it's packing some sweet looking ju . . joules! I meant joules! It's very energy dense, compared to petrol, diesel and batteries. In fact, a single kilogram of hydrogen packs 236 times more energy than a single kilogram of batteries! The difference between hydrogen and petrol is not that enormous, but it's still two and a bit times in favour of the hydrogen. And it's as sweet as petrol to fill that tank - just put the hose in, wait a bit and you're ready to go. Well, wait a bit more than a petrol, but those are just semantics, compared to charging an EV, for instance. Even the fastest chargers can't top up a battery pack in 5-10 minutes (for now). And it's easy to out-range an EV by putting a bigger tank in the car. And a hydrogen fuel cells are way easier to recycle, compared to lithium batteries. No harmful residual chemicals to think about.

A diagram of how fuel cell convert a chemical reaction to electricity and water

A diagram of how fuel cell convert a chemical reaction to electricity and water

What is a fuel cell and how does it work?

It's a very quiet place which harvest electricity from mixing hydrogen with oxygen. No V8 noise, unfortunately... But hey, it's still more efficient at turning hydrogen into kinetic energy (turning the wheels) than a petrol or diesel engine. Like nearly two and a half times more efficient. But still no match for those heavy batteries. It's not measurable in times, but 20-35% behind is significant! Think of the batteries as an Italian espresso - it turns that stored caffeine energy into a pure motion of your body (mostly your hands). Sometimes too much motion. Now compare the hydrogen to a drip coffee from a diner. It's still enough to move you, but not by that much. Now let's talk benefits. When hydrogen and oxygen mix, the by-products is a good old water. Hurray! But now think about it - to electrocute water, to get hydrogen, to mix it back with oxygen that makes electricity and water. It's a complete water cycle, minus some losses. And no batteries means no digging the earth for precious lithium.

Refuelling hydrogen is pretty straight-forward

Refuelling hydrogen is pretty straight-forward

Hydrogen? Batteries? Why not both?

No, seriously, why not both? I would love to have an answer to that, but I don't have one so far. And it makes me wonder why manufacturers don't sell plug-in hydrogen hybrids. Why not have the best of both worlds? Just imagine the punch of an EV with the range of a big-tank of H. The hydrogen will give you the freedom to go any distance and the batteries will make your neck hurts on acceleration. It's a win-win! And since both are pushing electric power to the wheels, you don't need extra motors, which would at least partly offset the extra weight of the fuel cell and hydrogen tank, on top of the batteries. Now this sounds more like a future and one without huge compromises from owners, manufacturers and fuel-producing companies. The biggest problem would be refuelling infrastructure, but it's not that big of an issue. You can install a hydrogen refuelling tank on a petrol station as easy as installing petrol, diesel or natural gas tanks.

Pictured below is a Hyperion XP-1 as a prime example of what hydrogen fuel cells can do on their own. 0-60 in 2.2 seconds, the top speed is 221 mph (356 km/h), it weighs just 1248 kg (2751 lb) and the range on a full tank is 1016 miles (1635 km). Still a concept from a small manufacturer in California, but it really shows the engineering possibilities.

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Comments (32)

  • I think it will be used for high end sports cars as they will be good for lightness

      10 days ago
    • That's the start every technology usually gets and then trickles down towards the mainstream segment, if it proves to be good and affordable to produce. Think of it like multiple cameras on a smartphone - they were exclusively aimed at the...

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        10 days ago
    • Since most hypercars are switching to electric, i think the writing is on the wall for hydrogen: DOA

        10 days ago
  • NO. Definitely not.

      10 days ago
  • I drove one, loved it. Just because I didn't have to wait for 2hrs to get 300 miles. It took 5mins hydro charge to get 400miles. How good is that? Driving feeling was like ev, but with hydro generator. But much lighter.

    If i have to choose ev or fcev, i would go for fcev. Internal combustion simply doesn't work.. it cannot get away from emission. NOx emissions are not from diesel fuel, its generated when the combustion burns air. Having H2 fuel system, engine, trans, catalysts all together is too much cost.

    Yes, battery and charging tech is improving, but it cannot get out of efficiency discussion. It looses 2-30% of energy while recharging, especially when the speed is higher. The battery and charger need cooling while charging, which means it throws more energy away!

    Infrastructure will be the biggest problem, but I think fcevs will be the future eventually

      5 days ago
  • I'm afraid Hydrogen is a complete dead-end now as far as passenger cars go. Honda, Volkswagon and Mercedes have all ended development of Hydrogen Fuel Cell powered vehicles as Battery Electric Vehicles are just simpler, more efficient and cheaper and improving all the time. Not to mention the complete lack of the expensive infrastructure and supply chains needed to actually fill up FCVs.

    As VW said: "Everything speaks in favor of the battery, and practically nothing speaks in favor of hydrogen."

      8 days ago
  • Only downside is that there are only 11 Hydrogen fuel stations in the uk and when James may brought his hydrogen car there was only 9. That isn’t very big growth for a country that big. Besides I think Synthetic fuelled car would work because all modern cars can run on it without modifications.

      10 days ago
    • If Porsche's synthetic fuel is really what they claim it is, that might be a solution. As for the infrastructure for hydrogen, it can be a pain to build it, but it's not that big of an issue. The real issue is, the world have to choose a direction...

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        10 days ago
    • I think your right and if Porsche’s Synthetic fuel is good then I think that is the direction we should focus on because it is the cheapest since you don’t have to buy a new car. I think Synthetic fuel will be easier to get everyone on board.

        10 days ago
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