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Hydrogen, the stars and cars fuel

16-10-2017 | Brenda Rodríguez López

The main automobile firms are "pulling their socks up" in the development of vehicles that respect the environment and reduce the CO2 emissions so they can achieve the long-awaited zero figure. In the fight for a non-contamination, sustainable and ecologic future, the great leading roles are the hybrid and electric cars, but, in the starting line of this race, there is another driver that, although less good-looking and distinguished, also competes in this game. Have you ever heard about hydrogen cars? How do they differ and what are their particularities? Is hydrogen a promising and efficient fuel?


When we think up the automobile future, in our collective imagination appear outlines of self-driven cars, vehicles that book us a table in our favorite restaurant while we are driving, that elevates a palm from the ground and remain suspended in mid air and that, of course, respect the environment and do not pollute. But when we think about the tomorrow's sport-utility vehicles, those who visualize them as hydrogen cars that emit water vapor through their exhaust pipe are very few. However, this chemical element also has a gap between the great bets of some automotive brands.

Hydrogen is one of the most abundant, simplest and oldest elements of the universe. One of its particularities that represents it is that, when oxidizing, it produces water. That is the reason why Antoine Lavoisier decided to name it that way; "hydro", water, and "genos", generator. Its potential is such that some have come to qualify it as the stars fuel. Both our Sun and the rest of the stars burn hydrogen. It is an essential agent in their life cycle and the stellar evolution. If stars are fed on hydrogen, will cars also do it in the future?

It is a new fuel?

The use of hydrogen in cars is not as groundbreaking as it might seem at first sight. Some vehicles already used this gas in the process of the internal combustion. An explosion engine can use  hydrogen, and not gasoline, in the development of its operation. If this is unusual, it is due to an efficiency problem. Obtaining hydrogen requires a lot of energy and, in this type of processes, its consumption is also very high. In short, this is too much expense for a similar result compared to other systems – this procedure also generates emissions–.

When we talk about sustainable hydrogen cars, we do not refer to the vehicles that use hydrogen in their internal combustion process, but to fuel cell electric vehicles –FCEV–. The name sounds  stilted and that is the reason why we chose to use its short version. These gas-fueled cars are also electric –a paradox, when their main rivals are pure electric cars–. They generate the electricity that passes to the batteries and to the engine from the mixture of hydrogen and oxygen. In this process, water vapor and nitrogen are released.

Hydrogen, the stars and cars fuel

From gas stations to hydrogen stations

Take out of your head the image of a steamboat! The hydrogen car is far away from looking like a ship. If there is something that stands out from this new type of vehicles is its resemblance to most cars that circulate on our planet, those ones which use fossil fuels –diesel and gasoline–. Although electric, hydrogen cars do not need to be plugged in, but refueled. The change that this alternative energy model involves is minimal because the user does not change their behavior patterns. They visit a hydrogen station instead of going from time to time to a gas station.

The hydrogen car enthusiasts defend that it has a great potential due to their refueling speed that offers, compared to other sustainable vehicle alternatives. Electric vehicles potential buyers experience some resistance precisely because of their slow recharge model. In contrast, these vehicles only need a couple of minutes to restart and enjoy an autonomy range between 500 and 600 kilometers.

Hydrogen over wheels

Toyota is one of the automotive companies that bet with more strength for this new alternative model. His hydrogen truck already circulates between Los Angeles and Long Beach, makes deliveries there and supports loads of 16,000 kg. This program known as "Project Portal" has shown that the acceleration capacity of this vehicle is higher than other diesel ones. The routes that this trailer carries out now serve as a test field. If the results are the ones desired, the distances will be extended and the work will be expanded.

Although the auto industry is still shy about pushing new projects related to this fuel, some discoveries, such as the one of University of Florida, might change this trend. One of the main objections in the development of this fuel is that hydrogen is not an energy source that manifests itself in nature. The required energy level to extract hydrogen is greater than the one generated by this element. A group of researchers has created a material that is capable of extracting hydrogen from sea water only through sunlight. This progress published by the scientific journal Energy & Environmental Science is great news for brands like Kia, Toyota and Mercedes that are working on the development of these automobiles, and for Hyundai and Honda which were the first in selling this type of vehicles.

In the past edition of the Frankfurt Show, only two prototypes with hydrogen as alternative fuel were presented to the audience. The development of these vehicles has become stagnated. Even still, the interest of some companies, like those mentioned before, does not fall. In order to have a future for this alternative model, those firms cannot skimp on their work. The challenges they face are many: achieving zero real emissions –if the hydrogen is obtained from fossil fuels, its sustainability is at stake–, lowering their high consumption, commercialize affordable cars, extending their batteries life or investing in hydro station installations.

Everything indicates that the electric cars future will have electrochemical batteries, but the hydrogen fuel cells have not left the competition yet. The energy of the stars could be the fuel of your tomorrow's car.