Are Hydrogen Fuel Cells the Wave of the Future?

Suddenly, vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells are all the rage. But are they a realistic alternative to plug-ins and gas-powered cars?

Hydrogen fuel cells

In the quest for emission-free cars, electric vehicles have been gaining speed. Currently, there are 16 plug-in models on the market (some fully electric and some hybrid) and more than 8,200 public charging stations around the country. And, on May 23, 2014, Nissan reached 50,000 sales of its popular all-electric Leaf.

Nonetheless, some big automakers think the future may lie in hydrogen fuel cells. Hyundai’s hydrogen-powered Tucson crossover, the first mass-produced fuel-cell car on the U.S. market, has just arrived in California. And Toyota recently ended a battery-supply deal with Tesla Motors, choosing to focus on fuel-cell cars instead. Their fuel-cell vehicle is scheduled to debut in 2015.

Why all the hype?

First off, let’s talk about how they work. Rather than storing energy within a battery (as hybrids and electric cars do), fuel cells combine hydrogen and oxygen to form H20, generating electricity in the process — the only emissions are water and hot air. And since hydrogen is the most abundant element on earth, there is a seemingly limitless supply of fuel.

But the fuel cell dream isn’t new. In fact, President George W. Bush announced a Fuel Cell Initiative way back in 2003.  So why hasn’t this technology taken off sooner? Unfortunately, though hydrogen is present in vast quantities in water, natural gas, and many other organic substances, it doesn’t exist in its pure state on Earth. Extracting it cleanly and efficiently has proven to be a challenge.

Fast-forward 11 years and suddenly we’re all about fuel cells again. There are 4 main reasons for this.

1.   Zero-emissions mandate
Despite the boost in year-to-year numbers, plug-ins captured only about one percent of passenger-car sales in 2014. With more states mandating an increase in zero-emission vehicles, automakers are willing to try a variety of solutions, and recent developments on the hydrogen-fuel front are making fuel cells an increasingly viable option.

2. Better production methods
Currently, most hydrogen fuel is extracted from natural gas in a process that creates large amounts of carbon dioxide. The alternative “clean” method, which involves splitting water molecules, was generally considered too costly.

But, last year, scientists at Stanford and the University of Colorado Boulder announced new, cost-efficient ways to split water using light energy — without any polluting by-products. Renewable fuel company HyperSolar has also developed a low-cost method using sunlight and water (including sources like seawater and wastewater).

3. Faster refueling
Fuel-cell vehicles have the edge over plug-ins here — for example, it takes 10 minutes for the Hyundai Tucson to refuel, while a Tesla with a 60-kilowatt-hour battery pack needs 3.5 hours to recharge. (If you take the Tesla to one of the company’s public Supercharger stations, however, you can get an 80 percent charge in 30 minutes.)

4. More places to refuel
There are currently 11 public hydrogen refueling stations in the U.S., 9 of which are in California (17 more are under construction in the state). And this past May, the California Energy Commission announced plans to fund an additional 28 stations, for a total of 54 by the end of 2015. Granted, that’s not many compared to the number of gas stations or even charging stations, but it will allow fuel-cell cars to be introduced on a large scale for the first time.

Challenges of hydrogen fuel cells

Though they’re up to 3 times more efficient than internal combustion engines, fuel cells still have a long way to go before they’re a truly viable alternative.

One of the biggest issues is hydrogen storage. Because hydrogen has a relatively low energy content by volume, it takes up huge amounts of space unless it’s compressed (often either as a highly pressurized gas, a very cold liquid, or chemically bonded with a metal hydride). This makes transporting hydrogen difficult. Creating tanks for commercial vehicles that hold enough fuel, but aren’t too big and heavy, has also been problematic.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, a fuel-cell car must have a range of 300 miles to meet consumer needs. Hyundai seems close to meeting that challenge — their Tucson can go an estimated 265 miles between fill-ups.

Will fuel-cell vehicles replace electric cars?

For the time being, electric cars have a distinct advantage — electricity is readily available everywhere, while hydrogen fuel can be found in only a handful of places. But this may change as the fuel-station infrastructure continues to grow and the costs of hydrogen fuel and fuel-cell vehicle production continue to drop.

At Esurance, we’re all about taking innovation to the next level. So we’re excited to see how the fuel-cell story shakes out. How about you? Would you consider buying a hydrogen fuel-cell car? Let us know in the comments section below.

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