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Kate on Cars - Mar 2014 - Hydrogen-Powered Cars

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Kate on Cars - Mar 2014
Hydrogen-Powered Cars

by Kate Jonasse

Well, it looks like mass-produced fuel-cell vehicles are really coming. Toyota plans to start offering them in 2015, and California intends to help build the network of hydrogen refueling stations needed to support them starting this year.

What are fuel-cell vehicles (FCV)? They are basically electric vehicles that make their own electricity. They have a hydrogen gas tank that you fill up similar to the way you fill up your gasoline- or diesel-powered vehicle. The vehicle has technology built into it to combine the hydrogen gas with oxygen from the air to produce electricity, which is stored in its on-board batteries.

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe by weight, making up about 75% of the visible universe. Most of the US’s hydrogen is currently produced from natural gas, but cleaner methods can be used to capture hydrogen gas as well. Hydrogen can also be generated and captured using water electrolysis and by using the metabolic products from algae and bacteria. Because hydrogen is so abundant, it can be obtained by many methods and from countless sources.

The hydrogen can be stored as a liquid or a gas, but since it takes a considerable amount of energy to cool hydrogen to the -423F that it takes to make it liquid, most hydrogen is stored as a high-pressure gas.

Why hydrogen? Mainly because of lowered emissions - the only emissions that come out of a fuel-cell vehicle are water. And we already have facilities that make hydrogen for other uses. While hydrogen is still “dirty” if it’s made in coal or natural gas plants, there are other ways to make hydrogen. If the hydrogen is made in a facility that uses solar, wind, geothermal or water power (as opposed to coal or natural gas), then total emissions are kept to a minimum. This keeps our air and water cleaner than our normal gas- and diesel-powered vehicles do. While pure electric vehicle sales are on the rise, and electric vehicles are great, fuel-cell vehicle offer some benefits compared to clean pure electric vehicles. For example they can be filled up within 5 minutes (versus a standard 10-hour battery charge for a plug-in vehicle), and they get about 3 times the driving range.

Where would you refuel a hydrogen vehicle? California approved a plan last year to fund the creation of 20 hydrogen refueling stations by the end of this year, and another 20 next year. It will cost about $20 million a year to start create this infrastructure, and while every gas station in town isn’t likely to offer hydrogen, there will be enough stations for fuel-cell vehicle owners to get by while more are being built.

What would it be like to refuel your hydrogen-powered vehicle? Refueling would be similar to refueling your gasoline- or diesel-powered vehicle. You’d go to the pump and put the nozzle in the gas tank. You’d have to click or twist the nozzle in place to get a good seal since you’re now pumping a gas, not a liquid. The pump also will probably have a way to communicate with your car to help get the right amount of hydrogen gas in it – like an electrical or infrared connection built into the pump nozzle. With a high-pressure refueling pump, the fill-up should only take about 5 minutes or so.

So mass-produced fuel-cell vehicles are on their way. This means auto repair shops like mine need to stay on top of new technology and keep our staff trained so we can properly repair fuel-cell and other alternative-fuel vehicles. It’s an exciting time for personal transportation.