Hydrogen cars: a future that is approaching

They are fast-charging, and some cars are already available on the market, but there is no network of dispensers

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Hydrogen cars: a future that is approaching

Fewer harmful substances, less noise: all eyes (and many hopes) are set on electric cars. When it comes to electromobility, almost everyone thinks of vehicles that can be charged by connecting them to an electrical outlet and which have a good battery. But there is also another technology, which proves extremely promising according to some experts, that solves the issue of lengthy charging times. We are talking about hydrogen, also known as fuel cell power: the acronym used to designate them is FCEV, which stands for Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles, to distinguish them from battery-powered electric cars, i.e. Battery Electric Vehicles, or BEVs. A fundamental difference compared to other electric vehicles is that hydrogen vehicles produce energy themselves and do not draw it from an integrated battery like full electric cars or hybrid plug-ins, which can be charged by connecting them to an external outlet. Hydrogen cars have, so to speak, their own very efficient power station on board. And this power station is the fuel cell.

A chemical reaction

A special process takes place inside the fuel cell, referred to as reverse electrolysis, during which hydrogen reacts with oxygen. The hydrogen is taken from one or more tanks in the car, while the oxygen comes from the surrounding air. This reaction generates only electrical energy, heat and water, which flows out of the exhaust pipe as water vapour. A hydrogen car is therefore free from local emissions, and this is not the only advantage. The current generated in the hydrogen engine’s fuel cell can choose between two paths, depending on the requirements of the specific driving situation: it can reach the electric motor and directly power the vehicle and/or charge a battery that acts as an intermediate accumulator until energy is needed for traction. This so-called traction battery is smaller and therefore lighter than the one fitted on an exclusively electric car, because it is constantly powered by the fuel cell. It should be noted that, like purely electric cars, hydrogen cars can recover energy when braking. The engine converts the kinetic energy moved by the car into electrical energy and powers it in the buffer battery.

Lightning-fast charging

There are numerous advantages. Hydrogen cars have an exclusively electric traction and therefore the driving feel is the same as behind the wheel of an electric car: an almost completely silent engine and lively starts. In addition, the charging time is brief: depending on the charging station and battery capacity, exclusively electric cars take between 30 minutes and several hours for a full charge. The hydrogen tank of a fuel cell car, on the other hand, fills up in less than five minutes, just like a classic car. At the moment, there is also another advantage compared to full electric cars: hydrogen cars have a greater range, a full tank is sufficient to cover a distance of about 500km. Electric models only achieve this value if they are equipped with very large batteries, but this results in increased vehicle weight and longer charging times. It is true, however, that the size of hydrogen cars is considerable because hydrogen tanks take up a lot of space while an electric battery drive train can even fit in a compact car: hence its presence in every market segment.

Refuelling difficulties and high costs

Currently, the biggest disadvantage of hydrogen cars lies in the limited refuelling possibilities. Hydrogen must be drawn from special dispensers that, in the future, will be located in regular service stations but there are currently only still very few around. In Germany, there were about 80, 40 in the USA, and only three in Italy at the end of 2019. So there is absolutely no comparison with the network of electric car charging docks, which despite the many complaints are much more widespread. In addition to the limited presence of dispensers, there is another reason why demand is not soaring: the purchase price is relatively high. The few hydrogen vehicle models already available on the market cost around EUR 70,000 for a medium or medium-high segment car: that’s almost twice as much as an electric or hybrid car with similar characteristics. Why are they so expensive? In addition to the small number of models in circulation and the level of industrialisation still lagging behind, the need for platinum, which is already considerably reduced, plays a specific role: this noble metal is necessary as a catalyst for generating current. In addition to the purchase price, the running costs are also steep and are certainly holding back the dissemination of this technology. For FCEVs, the cost of fuel is high: one kg of hydrogen costs about 13 Euros in Italy and about 14 dollars in the USA. With one kg of hydrogen, a fuel cell car can travel about 100km: that’s not insignificant, but much more work needs to be done on this as well as other issues.

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