Saturday, August 31, 2013

The hydrogen car's time has come

The most obvious irony of this latest step towards the future of the automobile is that it is based on relatively ancient technology. The hydrogen (H2) fuel cell was invented in 1839, meaning it has nearly half a century on the internal combustion engine it is intended to (at least in part) replace.
Hyundai have made it very clear that even though they have gone into mass-production with the Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle (FCEV), that it is not the panacea. The Korean Company is also producing both Hybrid (Petrol-Electric) and EV (Plug-In Electric) vehicles. Clearly though, they believe strongly in a place for FCEV. By 2020 they are planning to build 100,000 a year, numbers that will reduce the current $200,000 price tag to around $50,000.
Right now though, the hefty price tag isn't the biggest hurdle to FCEV acceptance. The car is a revelation with zero emissions, a three-minute filling time, 595km range and a 160km/h top speed. Running costs are fractionally lower than using fossil fuel, and there lies the catch.
H2 is the most abundant element in the universe; it can be found in pretty much everything. Getting it out of anything, though, is slightly more problematic. Right now more than 90 percent of the world’s H2 is derived from fossil fuels – a process that creates greenhouse gases. Effectively, this means that the FCEV isn't guilt free. That said, those harmful byproducts can be sequestered.
Electrolysis is a cleaner method, extracting H2 from water using electricity. It is a lot of electricity though – 60kWh per kg of H2 (the FCEV has a 5.64kg tank). This is four times less efficient than a pure EV. Keep in mind that on EV takes 120 times long to fill and has markedly less range.
All around the world, scientists are coming up with cleaner, cheaper ways to extract H2. At Virginia Tech they are using enzymes separated from plant sugar to produce pure H2 from water. They claim the process is better than 100 percent efficient. Solar power is another option.
It's still early days, but it's a start. Fellow car makers Mercedes-Benz and Toyota will have their own FCEV's on the road in the next two years. Conversely VW have stated that it is not the time for H2.
Whether it is or not, the technology is now for sale. Now can the technology catch up?