About a month ago, Wired ran an article teasingly titled, “Honda will do Nearly Anything to Get You in a Hydrogen Car.” The article described all the bells and whistles packed in the Honda Clarity—from efficient fuel cell tech to sleek Apple CarPlay. Meanwhile, Honda’s competitor, Toyota, is running a big marketing campaign for its hydrogen-powered Mirai, which launched in 2015. On the streets of California, which is the state leading with the most number of hydrogen fueling stations, hydrogen cars look surprisingly common. You’d only notice they are powered by the same technology that fuels NASA’s spacecraft if you read their little “Hydrogen Fuel” label.
Rocket fuel: coming soon to power your drive to soccer practice. Photo courtesy of NASA on the Commons.
Like the surprisingly quick arrival of the autonomous car, the hydrogen car is here without much fanfare or people taking notice. In October 2016, Business Insider ran a review of the existing and soon-to-come hydrogen vehicles noting, “A lot of work is being done behind the scenes to make hydrogen-powered cars a reality.” Also like the self-driving car, the technology to make hydrogen vehicles possible was many decades in the making. Hydrogen has come a long way since the 1960s when NASA first started using it to power its missions—especially in the last decade.
First Came the Hydrogen Technology
Hydrogen cars have been in the news regularly over the past several months. In April, Digital Trends wrote an article explaining in layman terms how the hydrogen car works. Their article explores the historical obstacles to the adoption of hydrogen, like producing it through methods such as natural gas reforming and electrolysis. It also covers the traditional difficulties and costs associated with storing and transporting hydrogen while making sure it does not mix with the oxygen in air.
Some of the recent technology advances that now make hydrogen cars possible include electricity produced by solar energy. The Digital Trends article concludes that the hydrogen car is here to stay: “Hydrogen power bridges that gap [between quick gas fueling and slow electric recharging], giving you a zero-emissions vehicle that you can refuel like a gasoline-powered car, provided there is a hydrogen station where you need it. Within that context, there’s a place for hydrogen-powered cars in our world.”
The two most important features that make nearly every large automobile manufacturer—from Toyota, Ford, and Honda to BMW, Lexus, and Mercedes—excited about launching their hydrogen cars are the efficiency of hydrogen fuel and the fact that it produces zero carbon emissions. After all, hydrogen is the most energetic of all elements (check out the Sun), which when combusted, produces only water vapor.
Then Came the Infrastructure
Making fuel available for the sleek, new hydrogen cars has also been an effort that has taken more than a decade. Currently, the U.S. has 35 fueling stations countrywide to support drivers of hydrogen vehicles. An initiative called the California Fuel Cell Partnership is working on a “day-to-day basis to move fuel cell electric vehicles closer to market.” The program has resulted in a network of 20 stations between LA and Reno, with another 20 coming online later this year.
Wired writes, “California has already put $100 million into this project, and it plans to spend another $20 million to support the installation of more than 100 stations by 2020. Hydrogen suppliers are working with automakers to make the stations more accessible and efficient.” The article quotes Stephen Ellis, Honda’s manager of fuel cell marketing as saying, “Station costs are down, their capacity in terms of how many cars they can fuel at once is up, and the technology is improving. They can fuel at twice the pressure now, further extending range, and both the car and the dispenser now talk to each other to optimize each fill for consistency and speed.”
Next Comes Available and Truly Clean Hydrogen
Making clean hydrogen universally available to ensure this new breed of car has staying power is the next challenge for the industry. As Business Insider notes in their review, “There are 14,618 electric stations in the United States, and hydrogen stations are really only available in California.” Also, like the electric vehicle, much of the hydrogen that powers cars today (except the one produced with electricity from solar or wind) is produced with methods that emit CO2.
The next technological frontier will address availability and sustainability. At Joi Scientific, the work we are doing with Hydrogen 2.0 technology focuses on these two fronts. Hydrogen 2.0 will enable clean hydrogen fuel to be safely produced on-site and on-demand from water. Furthermore, this technology will leverage existing liquid fuel infrastructure, making it affordable for society to adopt at scale.
The future where rocket science makes cars intelligent enough to self-drive, and rocket fuel makes cars clean enough to be sustainable is upon us. The challenge now is to make these amazing new technologies available and affordable at scale.
As the Hydrogen 2.0 ecosystem gains momentum, we’ll be sharing our views and insights on the new Hydrogen 2.0 Economy. We also update our blog every week with insightful and current knowledge in this growing energy field.