In the bellies of stars, quintillions of hydrogen atoms – simple marriages of one proton, one electron – collide and fuse in a gaseous furnace of 5 million degrees Fahrenheit. Hydrogen fuels innumerable stars. Some estimate it comprises 74 percent of the universe. Why not use the abundant element to power humanity’s extra limb, the automobile?
So thought the eminent nineteenth-century scientists, Esq., who first developed hydrogen fuel cells. For two hundred years, engineers have tried to yoke hydrogen as a miracle fuel, yet all have been thwarted by the simple fact that the earth is not a star.
A fuel cell is an electrochemical energy conversion device. Most hydrogen units are polymer exchange membrane fuel cells that diffuse hydrogen to the anode catalyst where it disassociates into atomic particles. If you understand that, then close this web page and for once watch a football game, for Pete’s sake!
Simply put, a hydrogen fuel cell is a metal sandwich that spits out a river of electrons, which can be fed into an electric motor. Seduced by the theoretical benefits of fuel cells – zero emissions, zilch charge time and increased driving range – auto makers hope to power tomorrow’s vehicles with hydrogen. Ideally, this saves the earth from extinction and saves the auto makers from extra taxes.
Yet economics, not science, has always spoiled the ambitions of hydrogen cars.
Hydrogen might be everyone and his mother in outer space, but here on Planet Uno, hydrogen never walks alone. Ninety-five percent of domestic hydrogen is extracted from natural gas; the rest from biomass, petroleum, water, and a handful of other sources. Hydrogen, contrary to Hollywood’s claims, is not renewable.
Renewable energy be damned, says Toyota. In 2015, Toyota released the FCV in Japan. The car costs a paltry five percent of former $1 million-dollar prototypes and boasts a driving range of more than 400 miles. Unlike ye olde fuel cell cars, the FCV operates well in freezing temperatures, refuels rapidly and doesn’t look like the Human Centipede.
But again, economics rears its ugly head. In 2013, Japan had only 10 hydrogen fueling stations, and America only 58. Almost all are private. Creating an American hydrogen fueling infrastructure would bankrupt the Koch brothers – not that oil barons have any interest.
Hydrogen fuel cell cars are like the phoenix. Economics beats them down, and science raises them up. In 2014, hydrogen is the fuel of the future – and likely always will be.