It sounds like the ideal car: Hydrogen-powered vehicles run on Earth’s most abundant element, fuel up quickly, get great mileage and produce only water vapor instead of harmful emissions. Why isn’t everyone driving this futuristic type of EV? Here are the benefits of hydrogen vehicles, as well as some reasons you might think twice about buying one.
Current Hydrogen Vehicle Use
Odds are you’ve never seen a hydrogen-powered passenger car. That’s because, as of 2020, there were fewer than 26,000 of them in the world. There are only 250 hydrogen refueling stations in China, and all the hydrogen stations in the U.S. — around 60 of them — are located in California. Why hasn’t this technology taken off?
Although hydrogen is technically the most abundant element on Earth, it’s always found attached to another, not in its pure form. Manufacturing pure hydrogen requires separating it from the larger molecule. This process uses a massive amount of energy, and right now, most of it comes from fossil fuels.
Theoretically, if people could use only renewable energy sources to manufacture hydrogen, it would be 100% green. However, it’s simply too expensive to split without fossil fuel input. Plus, most hydrogen is itself derived from fossil fuels like natural gas. That’s why very few of these vehicles are on the road and the hype is all about EVs that use battery power.
Benefits of Hydrogen-Powered Vehicles
If pure hydrogen is so hard to obtain, why do hydrogen-powered vehicles still look so promising?
1. They Produce No Harmful Emissions
An internal combustion engine (ICE) car emits carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane. These air pollutants are harmful to people and contribute to climate change. In contrast, a hydrogen vehicle produces only water vapor from its fuel cell.
2. Driving Them Is Smooth and Quiet
Like all EVs, hydrogen cars offer a smooth, easy ride with no engine noise, since they don’t have one. A highway populated by hydrogen vehicles would be barely louder than the breeze.
3. They’re Lightweight
A hydrogen fuel cell is basically a battery, but because hydrogen is so energy-dense, fuel cells are exceptionally light compared to traditional EV batteries. This makes hydrogen-powered vehicles more energy-efficient. This may not make a huge difference when it comes to cars, but hydrogen-powered airplanes would have a significant advantage over battery-powered electric planes.
4. Fueling Is Quick and Easy
When it comes to refueling times, hydrogen cars win out over traditional EVs — they recharge in just minutes. Depending on the charger, conventional electric vehicles can take hours to fully charge. Refueling a hydrogen car doesn’t take any longer than filling an ICE car with gas.
5. They Offer Excellent Range
Hydrogen cars can drive farther than a battery EV. They get between 300-400 miles on a full charge, compared to the average 250-mile range EVs offer. Plus, they have regenerative braking capabilities, which gives them another edge over ICE cars.
Downsides of Hydrogen-Powered Vehicles
Here are the main reasons hydrogen technology hasn’t caught on yet:
1. Fueling Stations Are Almost Nonexistent
Hydrogen-powered vehicles get great range, but the lack of fueling stations means you’re relegated to a very limited area. In the U.S., hydrogen-vehicle owners essentially can’t leave California because there are no fueling stations anywhere else. This could be solved by installing a larger network of refueling stations across the country, but with EVs already so popular, this may cost more than it’s worth.
2. Hydrogen Is Expensive
Producing hydrogen is a complicated, energy-intensive process. Consequently, hydrogen gas is expensive, roughly the equivalent of $5-$8.50 per gallon of gas. Hydrogen car manufacturers offer buyers free fuel for a limited time to offset some of the cost. However, when the period is up, drivers are on their own.
3. Producing Hydrogen Isn’t Green Yet
Most hydrogen currently comes from fossil fuels, and even more is required to manufacture pure hydrogen. While it’s true that the metals in EV batteries come from mining, it’s a one-time event rather than an ongoing process.
4. Fueling Stations Have to Repressurize
Hydrogen fueling stations can only serve two to five vehicles before they shut down for up to 30 minutes to repressurize. This would have to change if hydrogen cars became more common.
5. Hydrogen Cars Can’t Be Charged at Home
Perhaps the biggest disadvantage hydrogen vehicles have compared to battery EVs is you have to charge them at a fueling station, just like ICE models. In comparison, EV owners can recharge their cars overnight in the garage.
The Fuel of the Future?
Technology has a long way to go to make hydrogen vehicles viable. Although battery EVs have cornered the passenger car market, hydrogen is promising as a fuel source for planes and other commercial automobiles. It just needs some help getting off the ground.