“Hydrogen fuel cell is so bullshit…it’s suitable for rockets, but not for cars.”
Elon Musk – 2013
These eloquent words from the world’s premier tech pioneer, entrepreneur and Tesla tech founder typify the opinions of many on hydrogen as a fuel source. The old joke goes that hydrogen is the fuel of the future, and always will be – but is this really the case?
Despite misgivings from some quarters, hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (HFCEV), like the Toyota Mirai, Honda Clarity and Hyundai ix35 are already on the roads. Many of the world’s biggest automakers are investing heavily in future hydrogen car development, as the industry looks for more sustainable, environmentally friendly options for future transport.
In this article, AMS Composite Cylinders Director Steve Langron examines hydrogen fuel cells, looking at the how HFCEVs work, and the pros and cons of the technology in the automotive industry.
How Hydrogen Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles Work
Modern cars are powered in a handful of ways. First, there is the traditional internal combustion engine, where fuel is burnt to generate energy. Second, there are electric vehicles, which utilise batteries to power electric motors, which then drive the wheels directly. Hybrid cars utilise both systems in tandem.
Many people mistakenly believe that hydrogen powered (HFCEV) vehicles work like internal combustion engines – but this isn’t the case. Whilst HFCEV vehicles do carry pressurised hydrogen gas, the fuel cells do not burn the hydrogen. Instead, the energy comes from an electrochemical reaction.
Put simply, the hydrogen combines with oxygen from the air in the fuel cell, and energy is formed in this process that’s used to power a motor. The only by-products from this reaction are heat and water – making it, at this stage at least, very environmentally friendly.
Sourcing the hydrogen
Hydrogen is the single most abundant element in the universe, and the only by-product of generating energy from it is water. Whilst this might make it seem like the perfect energy source, the reality is more complex.
Although hydrogen is abundant, it doesn’t typically exist by itself. You can’t simply pump it out of the ground, so before it can be used in a fuel cell, it needs to be extracted, either from water, through electrolysis, or by separating the hydrogen from the carbon in fossil fuels. Both these processes require energy.
Detractors of the technology say that we’ll continue to use fossil fuels to power these processes, and by using hydrogen, all we’re doing is displacing the carbon use. Supporters would say that by using renewable energy for the electrolysis process (or spare capacity from traditional power plants in the short term), it can be a sustainable, environmentally friendly fuel source.
Distribution and refuelling
One of the biggest positives of HFCEV vehicles is that they can be refuelled relatively easily – it’s a simple case of refilling the carbon composite gas cylinders with pressurised gas. When compared to battery electric vehicles, it’s significantly quicker, and can be completed in minutes, rather than hours.
However, one of the other potential downsides or challenges is one of distribution – getting this hydrogen to the fuel stations in the first place. Using trucks as we do today is just creating more pollution, whilst laying hydrogen pipelines is far too difficult, time-consuming and expensive.
One potential solution would be to create small hydrogen processing plants at fuel stations (or at home). However, the development of this kind of refuelling and distribution network will take time and significant investment.
Proponents of battery powered electric vehicles point out that the electricity network already exists, and creating charging stations is easier and more cost effective. The counter argument is that the current national grid simply couldn’t cope with the increased demand for electricity.
Perhaps one of the biggest misconceptions about HFCEVs is that they are unsafe. Whilst having big tanks of pressurised hydrogen in a vehicle might seem unnerving, and bring back memories of the Hindenburg disaster – in reality, the risks are very low.
In fact, hydrogen isn’t quite as dangerous as you might imagine. It’s significantly lighter than air (hence its use in airships and blimps), which means it quickly disperses if there are leaks.
Another reason HFCEVs are safe is the way the hydrogen gas is stored – in durable, lightweight carbon composite cylinders. These long life-time cylinders are extremely durable, and are designed to outlast the vehicle itself.
So does hydrogen have a future, or is Elon Musk right?
Only time will tell. Currently, there simply isn’t the refuelling network for hydrogen vehicles to be a mainstream alternative to fossil fuels. At the same time, battery powered electric vehicles have a significant head-start in terms of both the charging network, and adoption.
However, the technology is moving forward quickly, and HFCEVs do offer some significant real-world advantages over battery powered electric vehicles. With the world’s biggest manufacturers investing billions in hydrogen vehicles, and new methods in efficient electrolysis and hydrogen extraction being developed all the time, it would be foolish to write off hydrogen.
Lightweight Carbon Composite Cylinders from AMS
AMS Composite Cylinders is the exclusive continental European and UK distributor for an advanced range of lightweight gas cylinders from Advanced Material Systems (AMS).
Products include carbon composite cylinders for a wide variety of breathing air and oxygen therapy applications, including healthcare, respiratory, SCBA (Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus), laboratory, emergency and environmental uses.
Our light composite gas cylinders offer high pressure (300 Bar), NLL (Non-Limited Life) performance, and are accredited for use worldwide – holding a wide range of quality assurance accreditations, including: ISO 11119-2, UN-TPED Pi, DOT (USA) and TC (Canada).
Additional information about AMS Composite Cylinders and our products can be found at www.ams-composites.com.
This blog was written by, Dr Steve Langron, Director of AMS Composite Cylinders