If produced sustainably, Earth’s most abundant element could be one piece of the green transportation puzzle, providing immense energy in a dense package.
Here’s everything you should know about using hydrogen fuel for transportation and why it could be the next big thing for sustainable driving.
How Hydrogen Vehicles Work
Using hydrogen fuel for transportation isn’t a new concept. François Isaac de Rivaz invented the first hydrogen-fueled internal combustion engine in 1806 and the idea has been gaining ground ever since. Here’s how modern hydrogen vehicles function.
Two Power Sources
There are two types of hydrogen vehicles. The first — a fuel cell vehicle — employs a hydrogen fuel cell to power an electric motor. It emits nothing but water vapor.
The second type is a hydrogen internal combustion engine vehicle, which doesn’t quite roll off the tongue. Although it doesn’t use carbon-based inputs, it still emits nitrogen oxides into the atmosphere, making it a less-than-eco-friendly choice.
Three Types of Hydrogen
Green, blue and gray hydrogen are the same chemical but refer to different production methods. Green hydrogen uses electrolysis to separate water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen. Steam reforming combines water and fossil fuels to produce hydrogen and carbon dioxide. If the manufacturer releases the carbon into the atmosphere, the byproduct is known as gray hydrogen — if they bury the carbon instead, the resulting fuel is called blue hydrogen.
810 Fueling Stations
There are only 810 hydrogen fueling stations in the world as of 2022 and China leads the way with 250 stations. That number will need to increase dramatically to make hydrogen a viable competitor to electric and petroleum-based vehicles.
The Benefits of Hydrogen Fuel
In 2021, 38% of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. came from the transportation sector, so getting more hydrogen vehicles on the road would have many benefits for drivers and the environment. What’s so special about hydrogen fuel?
Hydrogen-powered trains use around 29% less energy than diesel trains. That’s because hydrogen vehicles convert hydrogen into electricity better than batteries convert chemical energy into electricity.
Because hydrogen is so energy dense, it packs a lot more power into a smaller, lighter-weight fuel source. Its lightweight nature makes it a promising option for eco-friendly airliners, which currently can’t use batteries because they’re too heavy.
Can Be Sustainable to Produce
Creating hydrogen fuel for transportation the traditional way — a process called steam reforming — requires large amounts of oil or natural gas inputs and emits carbon dioxide. However, electrolysis is a green method of hydrogen production. The only input is water and electricity, which can come from solar panels or wind turbines to make it indeed climate friendly.
Creates No Harmful Emissions
Traditional internal combustion engine vehicles emit particulate matter, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, hydrocarbons, benzene, formaldehyde and nitrogen dioxide. These chemicals are bad for the environment and human health.
The only input in a hydrogen fuel cell is hydrogen and oxygen. These elements combined create water molecules, so hydrogen fuel cell vehicles only emit water vapor through the tailpipe. They don’t produce any harmful atmospheric emissions. As a result, they’re an excellent choice for environmentally conscious consumers looking to lower their carbon footprint.
Charges Vehicles Quickly
One of the downsides of electric vehicles is their long charging times. Even the fastest chargers in the world take at least 10 minutes to recharge a car fully. Residential chargers can take around 40 hours.
In contrast, refueling a hydrogen vehicle only takes a few minutes. It’s comparable to the time drivers spend getting a tank of gas.
Offers Increased Range
Current electric vehicles on the market can travel around 200 miles before needing to recharge. As a result, many drivers experience range anxiety — the fear of being unable to find a charging station if they stray too far from home.
Hydrogen vehicles usually get anywhere from 300 to 400 miles on a single tank of hydrogen fuel. Plus, many of them can also recharge their electric motors directly at an EV charging station or outlet. With a more robust hydrogen fueling station network, hydrogen vehicles — especially hybrids — could help reduce range anxiety.
Fosters Energy Independence
Not every country has abundant fossil fuel reserves, but water is everywhere. With the proper infrastructure, any nation could produce hydrogen fuel for transportation, allowing for decreased dependence on foreign oil and gas. Amidst an unstable geopolitical climate, hydrogen fuel is an attractive option for any country trying to become more energy independent.
Hydrogen Fuel for Transportation: A Unique Solution
Hydrogen can be a sustainable fuel choice when produced via solar- or wind-powered electrolysis. It’s energy dense, lightweight and releases no harmful emissions, making it far more eco-friendly than petroleum.
Although current production methods are expensive, hydrogen fuel is fast becoming a viable alternative to fossil fuels for the transportation sector.