by Alexander Flores
The main alterative for gasoline fuel and battery electric vehicles is one involving the utilization of hydrogen fuel cells. Just how do these hydrogen fuel cells work? Essentially, each fuel cell is an anode and cathode with a proton exchange membrane sandwiched in between. Hydrogen from an onboard tank would enter the anode side of the fuel cell, while oxygen in the atmosphere would enter the cathode side. Once the hydrogen molecule encounters the membrane, a catalyst forces its split into proton and electron. The proton would then move through the fuel cell stack as the electron follows an external circuit, delivering an electric current to the motor and other parts of the vehicle. The proton and electron would join again at the cathode side and combine with oxygen to form water as the main emission. This fascinating science and technological application has many automakers relieved since sales of electric cars and plug-in hybrids are slow.
Even Toyota, creator of the Prius gas-hybrid, will opt to utilize hydrogen fuel cells rather than batteries to power its next generation of green vehicles. The main issue of concern regarding hydrogen-powered cars is that they are expensive, just like electric cars. This is why we’ve yet to see such vehicles on the market, especially due to the lack of fueling stations for them. One of the few early investors in hydrogen stations, Dan Poppe, claims that a much higher number in sales of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles needs to be reached prior to the building of more fueling stations. Fueling stations would allow a driver to refill his or her hydrogen tank within minutes versus having to recharge a battery pack for hours. Unfortunately, according to Poppe, there are approximately 250 hydrogen fuel cell vehicles on the road to date and that just won’t cut it for exponential growth. So, California intends to have 1.5 million zero-emission cars on the road by 2025 along with 15% of all new cars being sold to be zero-emission vehicles. At this point, automakers will be rewarded more environmental credits by California for building hydrogen fuel cell cars than for battery electric cars or plug-in hybrids. Dan Poppe is currently feeling the pressure after receiving a $3 million from the state to build a station in Chino along with $500,000 from the energy commission and air quality district to operate a station in Burbank. In order to receive grants to cover operational expenses, Poppe must reach specific performance goals – specific number of pumps open, operation at certain capacities, by specific dates – or face disqualification of his projects. Toyota intends to launch a hydrogen fuel cell sedan in Japan early this year and in the U.S. by the summer, while Hyundai has already began leasing a hydrogen fuel cell version of its Tucson sport vehicle. Honda, Ford, and GMC all intend to be a part of this new technology as well to ensure progression and ultimately the greenest vehicle possible. Since fuel cell cars have approximately the same range as many gas-powered vehicles (300 miles), it is quite easy to see why some of the biggest automakers may just turn away from the typical 80-mile range, battery-powered cars. California’s state Legislature passed AB 8 last year and has dedicated $20 million a year through 2023 to finance the construction of approximately 100 hydrogen fueling stations. If automakers and scientist are able to maximize sources of hydrogen (hydro-electric or wind generators, nuclear power plants, natural gas) then this would be revolutionary to our world of transportation.
Fleming, Charles. “Carmakers prepare to shift to hydrogen fuel cells.” Los Angeles Times. October 26, 2014.