Hydrogen fuel cell cars have more than three times the standard range of plug-in electric vehicles (EVs), can be refueled in minutes rather than hours and look and handle more like traditional cars — so why are there still only a few hundred hydrogen-powered vehicles on the road? The answer is a lack of hydrogen refueling stations, according to a new segment released today by QUEST, an Emmy Award-winning multimedia series with a new focus on exploring the science of sustainability. See the segment below:
In 2013, California, Oregon and six other states pledged to put over 3 million zero-emission vehicles on their roads by 2025. With the nation’s largest car market and tough air quality standards, California is critical to the success of fuel cell cars and the infrastructure required for the cars to take off. That same year, California Governor Jerry Brown also signed a new law that provides $20 million a year to build at least 100 hydrogen refueling stations in California by 2024. Some 19 new stations are already in development. This is good timing, as this year Hyundai will release a new fuel cell-powered SUV in California, followed by new fuel cell models from Toyota and Honda in 2015.
Some argue that the government is making a mistake in investing so much money in a technology that is not guaranteed to catch on. After all, former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s bid to build 100 hydrogen fueling stations by 2010 failed.
But this time things could be different, as the technology has dramatically improved over the past decade.
“What’s very different now than several years ago is that we are able to store a lot more hydrogen onboard the vehicle because we have gone to higher storage pressures that are now giving us a driving range of 250 or even 300 miles," Tim Lipman, co-director at the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at UC Berkeley, explains in the QUEST segment.
Hydrogen cars contain fuel cell stacks similar to those found in EVs. Each cell has a special membrane in the middle that splits the hydrogen molecules into protons and electrons. The charged particles are now called ions that can go through the membrane material but the electrons cannot. The electrons go around the membrane and generate electricity. Oxygen from the air flows in and binds with the electrons and ions to produce water and heat — the only tailpipe emissions.
On a per-mile basis, hydrogen costs roughly the same as gasoline. While hydrogen is flammable, it disperses quickly because it is lighter than air, and tanks are located in the middle of the vehicle, reducing likelihood of combustion. At the pump, filling up is similar to doing so at a regular gas station and only takes 4-5 minutes.
Fuel cell cars are called zero-emission vehicles since they emit not pollutants or carbon dioxide. However, as QUEST notes, they can only truly be zero emissions if renewable sources of hydrogen are used, such as from solar or wind. Currently, most hydrogen in the US is made with methane, which emits 50 percent less carbon dioxide than regular gasoline.
Hydrogen fuel cell and EVs are not the only route to a sustainable transportation future. Rethinking how we utilize vehicles and improving on designs with existing technology can also help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Elio Motors last week unveiled a compact, 3-wheeled commuter vehicle capable of achieving 84 mpg fuel efficiency and engineered for an anticipated 5-Star Crash Test Safety Rating. Walmart also recently showcased a prototype tractor designed to increase airflow and cut fuel consumption to dramatically increase the efficiency of one of the largest commercial truck fleets in the world.