Will New Hydrogen Cars Get Traction?

Beginner

Inside this Article

Toyota Mirai
The Toyota Mirai, a fuel-cell vehicle that runs on hydrogen, is scheduled to hit the streets this fall.
Toyota Mirai
The Toyota Mirai, a fuel-cell vehicle that runs on hydrogen, is scheduled to hit the streets this fall.
Hydrogen Marai, under the hood.
The 2015 Mirai also can generate electricity to use as backup power for a home. When full, the Mirai’s hydrogen tanks hold about 150 kilowatt-hours of energy.
Mirai components
H2 components
Mirai interior
The Mirai’s interior is well-appointed, providing digital feedback about the car’s operation.
Filling the H2 tank
Hydrogen fill-ups are straightforward—not much different than refueling with gasoline. However, for now, filling stations are scarce.
H2 filling station
Hydrogen fill-ups are straightforward—not much different than refueling with gasoline. However, for now, filling stations are scarce.
Audi A7 h-tron
Audi A7 h-tron
Honda FCV concept car
Honda FCV concept car
Hyundai Tucson
Hyundai Tucson
Mercedes-Benz B-Class F-CELL
Mercedes-Benz B-Class F-CELL
Mirai cabin
The Mirai’s cabin isn’t much different than any other modern vehicle—all of the basic instruments are present.
Marai port
The PTO’s CHAdeMO port is located in the trunk.
Toyota Mirai
Toyota Mirai
Hydrogen Marai, under the hood.
Mirai components
Mirai interior
Filling the H2 tank
H2 filling station
Audi A7 h-tron
Honda FCV concept car
Hyundai Tucson
Mercedes-Benz B-Class F-CELL
Mirai cabin
Marai port

Despite few fueling stations to support a fuel cell vehicle, Toyota is scheduled to release its Mirai FCV this fall. Will hydrogen cars hit the highways or remain a (tail)pipe dream?

Driving an electric vehicle (EV) has advantages over a regular gasoline-engine car. EVs are quiet and smooth and they deliver more torque. But battery-powered cars present a greater ideal: You can fuel them from household current, ideally supplied by an on-site PV array, to allow you to “dump the pump.”

A major drawback to pure EVs is their relatively limited driving range—about 85 miles per charge for the most popular electric cars like the Nissan Leaf. (Note: Upcoming models, like the Tesla Model 3 and the Chevrolet Bolt, are expected to get up to 200 miles per charge.) Despite the fact that the average U.S. motorist travels less than 40 miles a day, limited range keeps some consumers on the sidelines. And many apartment dwellers and others without a dedicated 240 V supply of electricity at their residence likely wouldn’t even consider an EV. These obstacles have pushed several car companies to pursue a different approach to tailpipe-emissions-free electric driving—cars powered by fuel cells.

Enter H2

From the outside, there’s no difference between a hydrogen fuel vehicle and a gas-powered car. But most hydrogen-powered cars toss away an internal combustion engine and replace it with electric-chemical components—a fuel cell and an electric motor, plus (usually) a high-output battery that can provide supplemental power to the motor.

Think of a fuel cell as a different kind of battery—one that is fed with reactants and spits out electricity. An internal combustion engine is similarly fed with gasoline or diesel, which gets burned or combusted. But with a fuel cell, nothing is burned. That’s why it’s more efficient. There are no combustion losses or wasted heat. Instead, it transforms a chemical form of energy (hydrogen and oxygen) into electrical energy.

Hydrogen gas stored in a tank travels through the fuel cell’s channel (or plates) until it hits a membrane covered with a platinum catalyst. It then splits apart into protons and electrons. The protons pass through, but due to the properties of the catalyst, the electrons can’t advance from the hydrogen side (the anode) to another plate on the other side containing oxygen (the cathode). So an electrical path is provided for them, handily routing them as electrical current to a motor. Meanwhile, on the cathode side, protons and electrons are reunited and, together with the oxygen, form water.

Hydrogen cars are essentially a different type of electric vehicle—one that uses electricity from the fuel cell for power. These vehicles are often considered hybrids, because they also have a small battery pack. That’s part of the vehicle’s efficiency strategy—like a Prius that uses a combination of gas and battery-derived energy, a car like the Toyota Mirai uses a blend of energy from both fuel cells and a battery pack.

Understanding what happens under the hood is less important than the driving experience. Fill up the tanks with about 300 miles’ worth of gaseous hydrogen. Jump behind the wheel, step on the accelerator, and the car quietly zips forward like an electric car, emitting only water vapor from its tailpipe.

Comments (14)

craigmerrow's picture

It's interesting and exciting to see advances in battery and hydrogen technologies. While each has their respective advantages and drawbacks, it's great to see that both are being developed; I think at some point they will end up complementing each other in numerous applications.

ericvfx's picture

Tesla designs their own batteries that Panasonic builds. Originally in the Tesla Roadster they used stock laptop/powertool 18650 batteries but now as one of the biggest battery purchasers on the planet they spec the batteries for automotive use. The Tesla Gigafactory under construction will have them producing more cells than the entire world battery production today.
Toyota came to Tesla to help them electrify the newer Toyota RAV4 for California CARB requirements. it's a Toyota on the outside and a Tesla inside.

Tesla cars are warrantied for both powertrain and battery for unlimited miles and 8 years.

Alex Reeser's picture

If you think about a fuel cell as essentially a battery that takes fuel (which is what it is) then the conversion loss makes sense. instead of going from one electrical potential to another, which is the case when going from battery to motor, you are now adding in a "middle man": the hydrogen conversion to electrical potential first. Efficiency wise it isn't great, but I like the fuel cell battery hybrid idea assuming the hydrogen is produced sustainably that is.

H2 O.'s picture

I've been converting medium heavy vehicles to run on H2 for the U.S. Air Force for two years, technology has come a long way, prices for electrolysis are dropping as are fuel cells becoming smaller, cheaper and more efficient. If you want to get an up to date "State of the technology" picture, visit http://www.toyota.com/mirai/fueledb...
Toyota helped Tesla design their batteries, but they are looking to fuel cells as the growth sector over pure battery storage. They're not into R&D, they've done that for two decades or more. They're now in production. They've done the cradle to grave math. There's no doubt that electric cars are the future, and there's not doubt batteries will be a part of that, but if you ignore hydrogen as a technology, you're limiting your vision in electric transportation. Batteries don't make electricity, they just store it....hydrogen stores energy and makes electricity (or heat, or fire), and NASA and the US Navy have safely used hydrogen in manned space travel and submarines for decades, so the Hindenburg crowd can put the protest placards away. All energy has the potential for trauma (have you seen a Tesla burn?) There have been at least two rail car fires in the past 45 days. When was the last hydrogen disaster in California or Europe, where hydrogen is piped under the streets? There is no source of harmless energy, we learn to minimize the risks. I feel safer with a tank of hydrogen at my house than a half full tank of gasoline.

pcg's picture

I agree that hydrogen is a great fuel. The problem is that we don't have any. The cost to produce hydrogen is greater than the cost to produce electricity.

Frank Heller's picture

Checked out Toyota's website; and it was pablum for marketing reps, glossing over all kinds of problematic areas and endless cost factors.

Anaerobic digesters have been promoted as a panacea for several decades. An expert said you can drive from Seattle to San Diego and pass thousands of defunct ones; Vermont, same story...a handful working in partially automated (calves fed via computer tags and automated feed troughs) corporate dairy and beef farms, Many started, few succeed.

Those that are working burn dewatered, desulphured methane in generators to make electricity . Some is stored. Sep. out hydrogen at the farm is yet another untested concept and doesn't meet the 'another thing I have to take care of' test or the impact on insurance coverage.

You want batteries, then you want Lithium or some untested exotic...and Lithium comes from where again?

Hydrogen explodes---hey, I had one in chem class, so I'm a bit 'gun shy'.

Fuel cells....yet another technology that has yet to mature......how well will they work at (-) 12?

Sorry you got teary eyed over the Toyota video; but the reality is vastly different.

Alex Reeser's picture

My hope is that as battery tech improves, recyclability of the raw materials will increase. a lead acid battery is already 98% recycled including the plastic enclosure. hopefully lithium (or whatever the next gen tech will be) adopts the same approach.

Frank Heller's picture

Having one of the few certificates to work with hydrogen powered devices given by the Hydrogen Education Center of Maine; I've watched a lonely group of crusaders advocate for hydrogen power for nearly 40 years and they've proven several things:

o hydrogen is highly explosive, but the explosions are brief and you can protect yourself from them, i.e. many say the Hindenburg's cabin would have protected passengers had they not panicked and escaped outside;
o a small microhydro or wind turbine can power an electrolysis unit to sep. water into hydrogen and oxygen; both gases have value; but sep. units require constant attention;
o In order to be useful, hydrogen has to be compressed to 10,000 psi and that not only takes a lot of energy, but a tank doesn't last very long.

I remember Chewonki's solar powered system had approx 50 tanks trailing down a hill to a fuel cell array in a large closet which was the backup power system. I learned that the fuel cells were quite expensive and required constant maintenance and replacement, while only providing about 3 days backup power for their central administrative building.

...The entire hydrogen backup system cost well over a million dollars and a lot of expensive 'volunteer' labor from scientists and engineers. It was tended by a well trained technician.

Pieces of the system are still in place, but it's not working.

p.s. there was a car running around Maine with several hydrogen tanks in the trunk and a feed line to a fuel injector. Home made, some value as a DIY project. Not sure I'd go with hydrogen >>>fuel cells >>>electric for propulsion;

H2 O.'s picture

I wonder how much electricity it takes to mine and refine the raw materials to build a battery big enough to store 154 kWh... every 5-7 years, as opposed to building a composite tank to store hydrogen that will last a human lifetime? I wonder what the raw materials will cost when 3billion people are all using batteries to store energy? Making hydrogen will get more efficient (it is every day). Making batteries may not scale up well.

pcg's picture

Nailed it... Rudolf Krebs, Volkswagen’s chief of vehicle electrification, agrees with Lipman.. “Hydrogen mobility only makes sense [from an environmental perspective] if you use green energy [as a source],” says Krebs. That means using renewably made electricity, then converting it to hydrogen. But this conversion process is inefficient, with losses of about 40%. And then you have to compress the hydrogen to store it in the vehicle—and that reduces efficiency further.”

Frank Heller's picture

More efficient and less costly to make electricity and store it directly in batteries than use it to make hydrogen, etc.

ericvfx's picture

Look who's name is on the hydrogen station. Shell oil. They just want to keep selling you wasteful fuel.
With a PV system charging a pure battery EV you say goodbye to the wasted electricity that it takes to make Hydrogen or the MASSIVE amount of electricity it takes to make a single gallon of gasoline. No one ever talks about that.

Michael Welch's picture
Here is an article on how much energy it takes to get fuel out of oil. Add to that how much it takes to reform gasoline into H2, and it's over-the-top in comparison to an electric car. http://greentransportation.info/guide/energy/electricity-to-refine-gallo...
Frank Heller's picture

Interesting question re equivalency.

Lets take the cost of a TESLA's power consumption vs cost of gasoline for an equivalent mileage.
EPA rates its energy consumption at 237.5 Wh per kilometer (38 kWh/100 mi). At $0.15/kWh from CMP,
that would cost about $5.70. A gal. of regular is $2.53, so using my Crosstrek or VW Beetle both of which
get 33 mpg it would take about 3 gal. to go 100 mi., which would cost $7.66.

There are all kinds of externalities, the least of which is the replacement of the battery pack...my Millenium ed. is 15 yrs. old.
So the initial analysis of the Tesla's savings may, in the long run be offset by other expenses. Electric cars are being charge road taxes in Ill?? Calif?? and that is adding quite a bit to the cost of each kWh.

Enjoy the free ride, while it lasts.

Show or Hide All Comments

Advertisement

X
You may login with either your assigned username or your e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.
Loading