A hydrogen fuel cell

Alternative Fuel: Hydrogen Fuel Cells Pros v Cons


It sounds simple, right? Hydrogen emits only water. The most pressing issue on the planet today is dirty emissions, which en masse are responsible for a huge proportion of the heating of the planet. Doesn’t it make sense, then, to throw our hearts fully into hydrogen power for our vehicles? Well, as with so many of these issues, the answer is yes, and also, no. It is one of the pressing dualities facing humanity. How can we navigate this issue?

Hydrogen Pros

Renewable and readily available: Despite it being very difficult and energy-expensive to extract from water, hydrogen is a uniquely abundant and renewable source of energy. In fact, hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe. If we can work out a clean way to capture it, our emissions problems may be over.

An efficient and clean energy source: Hydrogen doesn’t require large areas of land to produce. A demonstration of this fact is that space agencies like NASA have been working with hydrogen tech to produce clean drinking water for astronauts – in the confines of a spacecraft.

Potentially more powerful than fossil fuel: Hydrogen has the highest energy content of any common fuel by weight. According to scientists, high pressure gaseous and liquid hydrogen have around three times the energy density of diesel and a similar energy density to natural gas.  

More essentially efficient than other energy sources: A conventional combustion-based power plant generates electricity at 33-35% efficiency compared to up to 65% for hydrogen fuel cells. The same goes for vehicles, where hydrogen fuel cells use 40-60% of the fuel’s energy while also offering a 50% reduction in fuel consumption.

An internal view of the hydrogen cell power

Drive shafts and rockers replaced with high pressure hosiery. Image: TOYOTA

Almost zero emissions – reduced carbon footprints: While in operation hydrogen fuel cells do not generate greenhouse gas emissions. This reduces pollution and improves air quality.

Fast charging times: The charge time for hydrogen fuel cell power units is similar to fuelling up conventional internal combustion engine vehicles. Much quicker, in other words, than charging electric vehicles (EVs). 

No noise or visual pollution: Hydrogen fuel cells do not produce noise pollution like other sources of renewable energy, such as wind power. This also means that, much like electric cars, hydrogen powered vehicles are much quieter than those that use conventional internal combustion engines – and producing hydrogen doesn’t mean wind or biofuel plants, either – which for some are an eyesore.

Extended usage times: A hydrogen vehicle has a similar range as cars that use fossil fuels. This is superior to that currently offered by many EVs, which are increasingly being developed with fuel cell power units as ‘range-extenders’. Range and efficiency is not impacted by outside temperature either.

Off-grid access: Local generation and storage of hydrogen could prove to be an alternative to diesel-based power or grid electric and heating in remote areas. This will reduce the need to transport fuels and offer a non-polluting fuel obtained from a readily-available natural resource.

Democratisation of power supply: The development and deployment of hydrogen fuel cell tech could reduce dependency on fossil fuels – which could help reduce the impact on geo-politics of the oil industry.

The inner workings of a hydrogen fuel cell

Not quite a V8, but the Mirai’s fuel cell and converter has a certain aesthetic appeal. Image: TOYOTA

Hydrogen Cons

Hydrogen needs to be extracted: It needs to be taken from water, via electrolysis, or separated from carbon fossil fuels. Both of these processes require a significant amount of energy to achieve. This energy can be more than that gained from the hydrogen itself as well as being expensive. In addition, this extraction typically requires the use of fossil fuels, which undermines the green credentials of hydrogen.

Investment is required: The infrastructure to efficiently deploy hydrogen fuel cell tech requires massive investment and political support to make happen. In the competing infrastructure market, electric battery tech is far ahead of the game.

Precious metals: Platinum and iridium are required as catalysts in fuel cells and some types of water electrolysis. This means that the initial cost of fuel cells can be high – and the environmental cost of extraction of these metals cannot be ignored.

Storage and safety: Storage and transportation of hydrogen is more complex than that required for fossil fuels – it is highly flammable too (but then again, so of course is fossil fuel). 

Cost per unit: The CPU of power from hydrogen fuel cells is currently greater than any other energy source. Even though it is more efficient than other forms of power once operating this is the fundamental problem facing roll-out of hydrogen fuel cell tech.

As you can see, the pros outweigh cons as we have laid out here – but underlying it all is that old devil called costs. Until the system of profit and margin changes (as it may have to), hydrogen fuel tech is up against it in the race to become the dominant clean technology. But then again – why does this have to be a race? All earthly beings are winners in the race toward lower emissions. How then can there be any losers?

The frame and inner workings of the Toyota

Nerd out. Be an early adopter. Drive clean. Image: TOYOTA