Is hydrogen the future of automobiles?

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Hydrogen vehicle technologies are, supposedly, the future of the automobile. But since the hydrogen vehicle was invented, it has always been the vehicle of tomorrow, never the vehicle of today.

Several car companies are striving to mass produce hydrogen-powered vehicles; GM and Honda are currently collaborating to develop hydrogen cars. Hyundai is claiming to be the first manufacturer to mass-produce a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, with plans to have 1,000 vehicles in Europe by 2015. Toyota wants to have a hydrogen vehicle in the United States by 2015 that will cost around $50,000.

But there have been a few bumps in the road for the hydrogen initiative.

Hyundai ix35 hydrogen car
Hyundai hopes to have hydrogen vehicles for sale in Europe by 2015 but are hydrogen vehicles really the future of the automobile?

Cleaner emissions are one of the strongest selling points for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. Oxygen and water are the only emissions from hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. There’s a problem, though: producing hydrogen for fuel cells actually emits carbon dioxide just like gasoline cars do today.

“There are no natural sources of hydrogen in sufficient quantities that could be used directly as an energy supply; there is no analogue of the oil well for hydrogen,” said William Evenson, a former BYU professor of physics. “Therefore, hydrogen is best regarded as an energy carrier rather than as a new source of energy. Producing hydrogen inevitably requires another source of energy.”

While hydrogen fuel cell vehicles only emit oxygen and water, the process whereby the majority of hydrogen itself is produced burns fossil fuels and contributes to global warming. While hydrogen-powered vehicles come across as “green” at face value, they might actually be a detriment to the environment in the long run.

Green hydrogen vehicles are possible, but they would first need to be converted from non-hydrocarbon sources of energy. Excess nuclear and wind power could be the answer for green hydrogen production since neither come from burning hydrocarbon or fossil fuels.

Excess energy is created by nuclear power plants and wind turbines at night when populations use only a fraction of the energy they use during the day. That excess energy could be converted into hydrogen without using any hydrocarbon or fossil fuels. Current nuclear power plants and wind turbines, however, don’t produce enough hydrogen to fuel all of the nation’s vehicles, so green hydrogen vehicles wouldn’t be plausible until more nuclear and wind power are being produced.

Worrying over the technical problems may be useless, as car buyers aren’t buying eco-friendly alternative fuel vehicles currently on the market. Being both green and independent of foreign oil may be important for the U.S. and its residents, but alternative fuel vehicles like CNG and electric cars haven’t made much of a dent compared to gasoline vehicles. The price premium on alternative fuel vehicles make them less appealing options compared to their traditional, lower-priced gasoline versions; hybrids have sold somewhat better than alternative fuel vehicles. High prices in new hydrogen vehicles would likely push car buyers to more traditional vehicle types, just as high prices of hybrid and electric cars have.

Dale Tree, a BYU professor of mechanical engineering, said alternative fuel vehicles and hybrid cars haven’t sold better because consumers don’t like paying more money for a car.

“Automotive companies could make engines cleaner and more efficient, it would just cost more upfront,” Tree said. “Would you buy a car that’s $20,000 or $24,000? The price of gas hasn’t been high enough that you could really make up the cost.”

In addition to the technological issues and market challenges hydrogen vehicles would face, the distribution of refueling stations would also be problematic since there are currently only 53 hydrogen fuel cell refueling stations in the entire country, according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s website on alternative fuels.

So why the big push for hydrogen vehicles?

Ten years ago, President George W. Bush announced the $1.2 billion Hydrogen Fuel Initiative. Additionally, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and the Advanced Energy Initiative of 2006 added further support for hydrogen research and development by auto companies. Automakers have been quick to cash in, as the policy has pumped millions of dollars into the industry each year.

Government officials thought hydrogen vehicles would be the future, though no hydrogen fuel cell vehicles have been available for sale to the mass U.S. market since President Bush announced in the initiative.

Tree said he attended a meeting of automotive engineers about five years ago where three major automotive companies and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) shared thoughts about the future of automobiles.

“All three automotive companies got up and said, ‘Honestly, it’s going to be more efficient diesels and gas engines.’ The EPA person got up and said, ‘It’s going to be a hydrogen fuel cell car.’ Who’s been right? The car companies,” Tree said.

Hydrogen hopefuls are plentiful despite the technology’s market challenges. Roger Billings built one of the first hydrogen vehicles as a high school student in Provo in 1966 and drove a hydrogen-powered Cadillac Seville in President Carter’s inaugural parade in 1977. Billings believes that the advantages of hydrogen power will overcome the technical problems.

“The technical problems associated with hydrogen have held back its wide-scale commercialization,” Billings said in an email. “It is such a perfect fuel system, it will come.”

The future of the automobile is full of variables and uncertainty, but the many technological challenges surrounding hydrogen and the historical lack of demand for alternative fuel vehicles can be a knockout combination for hydrogen vehicles.

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