Culture 4 min read

Why Hydrogen Fuel Hasn't Gone Mainstream Yet

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

When the first cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells hit the market back in 2015, we were all excited. And that’s understandable.

Unlike the millions of gasoline-powered vehicles in the United States today, cars that run on hydrogen fuel don’t emit any greenhouse gas. In fact, fuel burns to produce water.

Along with promising clean air, using hydrogen as an alternative to gasoline engines promises a healthier planet.

In a statement to the press, professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering at the University of South California, Paul Ronney, said:

“They don’t emit greenhouse gases from the tailpipe. So they can reduce pollution in urban areas with poor air circulation, like Southern California in the U.S. and many large cities in India and China.”

This makes you wonder; why aren’t we all driving hydrogen-fuelled cars?

Well, according to Ronney, hydrogen must overcome some barrier before it to become mainstream. Some of these obstacles include efficiency and cost of production.

Then there’s also the issue of greenhouse gas emission.

Yes, although burning hydrogen in vehicles does not produce greenhouse gases, creating it does. In other words, hydrogen is only as clean as the energy used to produce it.

Here is why.

The Production Process of Hydrogen Fuel

Hydrogen is so reactive that it only exists in molecular forms such as water or organic compounds like natural gas. Simply put, the most abundant chemical substance in the universe does not exist in a pure form.

As a result, most scientists create hydrogen from methane in a process that also produces carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

Another way to make hydrogen is through the electrolysis of water. Since this process requires electrical energy, it takes us back to fossil fuel burning.

Wait, there’s another option. Instead of burning fossil fuels for the electrolysis process, we could use solar energy.

Even that is not good enough.

Solar-based electricity accounts for only a fraction of power generated in the United States. According to reports, renewable energy sources accounts for only about 17 percent of electricity generated in the United States in 2018. And a measly 1.6 percent came from solar energy.

So, right now, diverting solar-based electricity to hydrogen production doesn’t actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions, says Ronney. The professor, however, admitted that this could change as we generate more power from solar sources.

Even if we found a clean, efficient way of creating hydrogen, the gas must be compressed in high-pressure tanks to be useful in vehicles. Once again, this requires – you guessed it – energy.

Although current hydrogen vehicles convert chemical energy to power, Ronny noted that it’s not very cost-effective. Not only are fuel cells pricey, but they also require expensive materials to create.

Will Hydrogen-Fuelled Vehicles Ever Go Mainstream?

Well, yes. The appeal of hydrogen-powered vehicles is undeniable. It’s no wonder that manufacturers are moving in that direction.

According to a report from Hydrogen Mobility Ireland, cars using hydrogen fuel cells could be on Irish roads by 2023. The report suggests that fuel could power most vehicle types, including trains and ferries.

Last year, the first hydrogen-powered train launched in Germany. Earlier in the year, Toyota announced the release of hydrogen-fuel powered delivery trucks.

Be that as it may, hydrogen fuel cells will only become mainstream when they become more practical. In other words, these type of vehicles won’t become popular until we:

  1. Invent a low-cost, efficient way of producing hydrogen
  2. Develop a safe, high-density method of storing the gas in cars
  3. Create an infrastructure for ample refueling option
  4. Improve the capacity of the fuel-cell systems

At the moment, researchers are exploring ways to create cheaper fuel cells. But Ronny is considering a different approach: improving the feasibility of internal combustion engines that use hydrogen.

According to the researcher, internal combustion engines are inexpensive to make and easy to modify to run on hydrogen fuel. And like fuel cells, the primary waste product is water.

Read More: Researchers Create Hydrogen Fuel From Seawater

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Sumbo Bello

Sumbo Bello is a creative writer who enjoys creating data-driven content for news sites. In his spare time, he plays basketball and listens to Coldplay.

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