While the whole world talks of electric cars being the transportation of the future, hydrogen power hardly gets a look-in. Yet propulsion using fuel cell technology has distinct prospects. And in fact the idea of the fuel cell already existed 50 years ago.
But how does it work? What are the benefits and drawbacks? And which country is forging ahead into a future mainly powered by hydrogen?
Hydrogen technology is an attractive powertrain concept because it has zero emissions and makes sparing use of resources. Only water vapor emerges from the exhaust pipe on hydrogen-powered cars, and that is drinkable. It is produced when hydrogen reacts with oxygen injected into the fuel cell. This process generates electricity that is used to drive the vehicle and is generally temporarily stored in a battery. What is more, the production of fuel cells consumes far less in rare raw materials (such as lithium) than manufacturing batteries for electric cars. Water as a raw material is currently available in large quantities, and every year around 50 million tonnes of it is created as a waste product in the oil, gas and chemicals industries – which could be used as fuel.
Furthermore, an electric motor powered by hydrogen has a major practical advantage over conventional electric drive: refueling is much quicker. Whereas it can take several hours to charge vehicle batteries, it takes only a few minutes to fill up on hydrogen. But there is no real advantage: at present there are only 64 public hydrogen filling stations in Germany, most of them in major conurbations. That is still not enough for the widespread use of hydrogen vehicles. In some rural areas in particular, motorists have to travel long distances to reach the nearest pump. However, by the end of the year Germany should have a total of 100 public hydrogen stations. By comparison, there are over 14,000 filling stations for petroleum products such as diesel and gasoline, according to the German automobile club ADAC.
The idea of the fuel cell was presented by General Motors as early as 1966, but just the platinum used in fuel cells made the vehicle too expensive for series production. Furthermore, producing hydrogen is a complicated process. Hardly any pure hydrogen (H2) occurs at all on the Earth. Almost all of it is bound in compounds from which it has to be extracted, which costs a lot of energy. This is not a problem as long as hydrogen gas is formed as a by-product in industry, but does become an issue if hydrogen is produced especially to serve as a fuel. This is because the energy used for production, which is generated from fossil fuels such as gas or coal, rapidly makes the climate balance of hydrogen worse than that of gasoline. It is true that hydrogen can also be produced using renewable energy, but during the process more energy is used than is ultimately stored in the fuel cell. It would make more sense to use the renewable energy to charge the batteries of electric vehicles without energy losses, instead of using it to produce hydrogen.
In Japan, hydrogen power enjoys a totally different standing. During the next 20 years, the Japanese Government and major corporations including Toyota, Honda and Nissan, will join with numerous energy companies and investors to form the network Japan H2 Mobility. One of their interim goals is to double the number of filling stations by 2020. In addition, 40,000 hydrogen-powered cars should be on Japan’s roads by that time. Toyota’s Mirai is the first fuel-cell series vehicle to be launched onto the market, and of course the company has a huge interest in expanding the project. Yet this is not solely about mobility, but also about the need for energy. In the Fujisawa Sustainable Smart Town, on a former factory site near Tokyo owned by the electronics manufacturer Panasonic, a “smart city” for 3,000 inhabitants has been constructed in just six years, where every house is equipped with a fuel cell. This means there is a supply of hot water, the lights work and the heating comes on in winter. More than 220,000 households in Japan already have such devices.