27 Jan
Could hydrogen fuel cells soon replace fossil-fuelled internal combustion engines?

Is the future bright for hydrogen power?

The world will one day eventually run out of traditional fossil fuels. While that statement may make for grim reading, it isn't quite time for fleet managers and casual motorists alike to throw down their fuel cards and reach for a bicycle.

However, finding ways to maximise the remaining petrol and diesel is certainly a must. Consequently, assessing other forms of power that can supplement the traditional internal combustion engine is a priority for many manufacturers.

The only emission from a hydrogen-powered vehicle is water vapour.

While some are firmly putting their weight behind electric vehicles (EV), there's a flaw in the plan to make those completely sustainable: Unless an EV owner has solar panels or a personal wind farm, much of the juice they use is likely to come from a traditional power station that burns fossil fuels.

Finding another alternative has been on the agenda for some time, so why not start with the most abundant element on the planet? 

A history of hydrogen

Hydrogen-powered vehicles have been around in one form or another for some time, but have failed to take off as a viable choice for business users and casual motorists alike. This is due to the fact that hydrogen is incredibly hard to harness safely, and can be inherently unstable when used in fuel cells.

However, thanks to years of work, most notably by several Japanese and South Korean manufacturers, the first hydrogen-powered vehicle entered mass production back in 2013. That was the Hyundai ix35 Fuel Cell, with the company setting itself a target of producing 100,000 hydrogen-powered cars by 2020.

Another factor that has been holding pack hydrogen-powered vehicles is the lack of infrastructure to support them. While they can be filled up at a service station in the traditional manner – and for a fraction of the cost, too – there simply aren't that many facilities that have the specific pumps owners would need.

Consequently, back when the ix35 Fuel Cell was announced, there were naysayers who believed that hydrogen simply wasn't a viable alternative to traditional fossil fuel-powered vehicles.

"It takes more energy to create the hydrogen than the energy that would normally be required to go the distance, so they are decades off," explained New Zealand's former Transport Minister Gerry Browlee in 2013, as quoted by 3 News.

The future is bright

In the here and now, however, there are many people that believe hydrogen could well be the future of transport. In fact, Honda is set to enter the space with its widely available 'Clarity'. Unveiled at the Tokyo Auto Show, Forbes reported that the biggest differentiator with this new car is that its hydrogen fuel cell costs 10 times less to produce than earlier iterations.

While the new vehicle looks set to enter the Japanese market first, the Clarity could soon to be rolled out to eager buyers across the globe if it proves popular.

For the time being, Wired explained that the government in Japan subsidises the vehicles and the infrastructure that supports them. It may take more moves like this to really drive the adoption of hydrogen-powered vehicles, and whether or not the government here in New Zealand would be willing to do similarly remains to be seen.

However, the general prospects for hydrogen look good. Simply, it's far more sustainable than any other alternative. As touched on, not only is it likely to be available in great quantities for decades if not centuries to come, the only emission that a hydrogen-powered vehicle produces is water.

While hydrogen may not usurp petrol and diesel completely, there can be no denying that it can certainly play a role in the overarching sustainability of vehicle travel, and even prolong the life of the more traditional fossil fuel equivalents.