Archive for February, 2014

What Could Be Greener than Water to Fuel Your Next Car?

By Steven Walter

Under evaluation, fuel cell vehicles from Honda and Mercedes delivered 60 and 53 mpg, respectively. Other companies have fuel cell SUVs, like the Hyundai Tucson. A boon for drivers interested in sustainability, this nearly doubles the mpg of a gas car. While hydrogen fuel cell cars have long been called “the car of the future,” automakers hope to have models to market as early as 2015. Learn how these cars use simple hydrogen and oxygen to produce power.

Understanding the Hydrogen Fuel Cell

Though hydrogen fuel cell cars look like a traditional vehicle, much is different underneath the hood. Instead of a gas tank, these vehicles have a large hydrogen storage tank. An electric motor and a high-output battery, which regenerates through braking, utilize similar technology to other hybrids. Electric motors deliver quieter operation, a smoother ride and more efficient performance than internal combustion engines. Through the vehicle lifetime, they tend to require less maintenance as well.

Photo of the 2015 Tucson Fuel Cell via Hyundai Scottsdale

Most importantly, the car’s fuel cell stack converts the stored hydrogen gas to power. In hydrogen fuel cells, the molecules of hydrogen gas, which is stored in the car much like gasoline is presently stored in a traditional car, are split into positive and negative ions. Negative ions are passed through a circuit to a cathode, where they pick up electricity. Then the positive ions combine with the electricity, powering the car and creating only water as a byproduct. Running on a naturally-found element, and emitting only water vapor, the hydrogen fuel cell promises to revolutionize cars.

Hydrogen fuel cells reduce dependence on fossil fuels and emit far fewer gases into the air. While some gases are still emitted when the hydrogen used to power these vehicles is produced, the overall figure is low.

The Future of Hydrogen-powered Vehicles

Photo by ideowl via Flickr

Hydrogen itself is a renewable and abundant resource, and one that can be produced in part from renewable energy. At present, hydrogen is made from non-renewable resources, creating CO2 gas in the process. To really become a viable solution, automakers must develop an infrastructure and supply-chain mechanism that will support alternative energy drivers. Plus, consumers will need to be educated on the advantages of renewable energy, the reliability and performance of these cars and the specifics of using a new fuel type. Cars powered by a hydrogen fuel cell will not become widespread until several challenges are met. These include:

  • Infrastructure – At present, no network of hydrogen refueling stations exists. Until the underlying infrastructure of refueling stations and fuel providers develops, there is limited potential for these vehicles.
  • Cost – While automakers have made strides toward creating an affordable hydrogen-powered car, cost estimates for most of the first-generation hydrogen cars are above the $50,000 mark. According to Hyundai Scottsdale, Hyundai is hoping to release their first hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle for under $50,000, helping to break this barrier.
  • Fuel cell reliability – As automakers prepare hydrogen fuel cell cars for the market, they must address the underlying reliability of hydrogen fuel cells. At present, fuel cell engines underperform internal combustion engines in humid climates and in temperature extremes. Additionally, fuel cells are unlikely to be commercially viable unless they can last for up to 150,000 miles. At present, they last approximately 75,000 miles.

February 3rd, 2014


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Welcome to Hark Upon the Green! This blog is a shared space for members of the sustainability community at William & Mary to write about sustainability topics on and beyond. If you would like to contribute to the blog, contact Madeleine Boel, Committee on Sustainability Web Assistant, at mgboel@email.wm.edu.
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