The Hydrogen Car Is Here!

Our writer, LILY, finds herself breathing deeper with a piece of news that she has just read... We are going to be free from hazard...

Our writer, LILY, finds herself breathing deeper with a piece of news that she has just read...

We are going to be free from hazardous vehicle emissions very soon. Are you feeling excited or cynical about this statement? If all goes well, the exhaust pipes of cars will release steam instead of foul smelling smoke.

I know, Automology has featured many, many articles about air pollution exacerbated by cars, such as Our Air Is Not Save Anymore: Blame The Cars and Trucks, China Starts To Restrict City Car Sales and so on. Even in our daily lives, it is a frequent topic of conversation, or rather of complaint. We even talk about green fuel alternatives in Give Me Green, Give It To Me Now.

We all know about alternatives available - we have so much knowledge on this topic in our heads as we are a knowledge generation. In fact, if knowledge takes up physical space, I think all of us need to walk with a stick to balance our big heads on our puny bodies! What I’m trying to say is that I’m glad that finally a concrete solution is going to be implemented, instead of just being discussed.

After reading the press release from USA Today, Hyundai Joins Toyota, Honda In Hydrogen Car Parade,  I felt as if the air around me is already fresher. Our generation as well as the next will be able to inhale cleaner air into our lungs. We still need to endure for a while because existing models are only prototypes, even though Honda has leased a small number of its FCX Clarity, a hydrogen fuel cell car, in Europe since 2008. Honda and Toyota will only launch their production models in 2015, in the US, Japan and Europe.

The layman term to refer to such a vehicle is ‘electric car without batteries’; the industry term for the system is ‘fuel cell’. After hydrogen is produced, it functions as a carrier of energy, similar to the function of a battery, which is why we still call it a ‘cell’. Here’s a simple explanation on how the fuel cell works: the system oxidises hydrogen and converts the energy in the hydrogen into electricity; the process actually combines the hydrogen atom with the oxygen atom, creating the byproduct – water – that will be discharged through the exhaust pipes. For a more detailed explanation, see our earlier article which also illustrates why fuel cell cars have many more benefits than hybrid or all-electric cars, if the production and distribution costs can be brought down.
Besides a cleaner environment, the fuel cell also solves our problem of depleting resources. Hydrogen is not fossil fuel, like petrol or diesel.

Neither Honda nor Toyota is the first to produce the fuel cell car – General Motors is. In 1966, it produced a vehicle called the GM Electrovan. Dr Craig Marks and his team took 2 years to develop that particular, drivable fuel cell car. The original fuel cell was really big as it consisted of 2 large tanks containing hydrogen and oxygen respectively, with a 550 feet piping system. The fuel cell van converted the 6 seater van into a 2 seater, and that 2 passengers had to be skinny if they wanted to sit in the van!

It’s a pity that the GM Electrovan was drivable but not practical. Due to cost factor, the fuel cell car was not commercialised in a big way until today, when advanced technology has made it possible.

I am not surprised why it took us more than 47 years to develop this since the GM Electrovan in 1966. It has been a real challenge to produce and store, transport and distribute hydrogen; the well-to-wheel efficiency for hydrogen is less than 25%, meaning that there is a relatively large amount of energy expended before the hydrogen fuel can reach the car tank. Thanks to advancements in the technology, though, the hydrogen car will finally be ready for commercialisation in 2015.

Perhaps the next topic I will write about is how the engineers overcame the challenges, in a layman’s way, instead of the engineering gobbledygook that we see floating around.

image: Honda's Fuel Cell Car Concept - usatoday.com

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