Hydrogen has the potential to remake transportation

The most apparent advantage of hydrogen fuel is that it helps decarbonize transportation.

Photo: Pixabay/pixel2013

Green transportation is a crucial part of the fight against climate change. While most of the attention on alternative cars focuses on electric vehicles (EVs), hydrogen fuel is another promising technology.

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe and fuel cells can convert it into electricity. Fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) use this to drive without fossil fuels, much like more familiar battery electric cars, but they have several unique advantages.

The most apparent advantage of hydrogen fuel is it helps decarbonize transportation. Fuel cells’ only waste products are water and heat, so vehicles running on them don’t produce greenhouse gas emissions.

Since hydrogen does not appear by itself in nature, you have to separate it from other elements, which often uses fossil fuel-derived electricity. However, green hydrogen uses renewables to power this process, bringing hydrogen fuel’s total emissions down to zero.

FCEVs are also highly efficient. Driving range is one of the biggest obstacles for electric cars — and FCEVs can travel longer between refueling stops than standard EVs. They can even go farther than conventional cars, being up to three times as efficient as gasoline-powered combustion engines.

Another benefit of hydrogen fuel in transportation is FCEVs refuel quickly. Electric vehicles can be inconvenient because their batteries take a long time to recharge, even with high-end charging stations.

FCEVs refuel much like a conventional vehicle, so it only takes a few minutes to refill them and get back on the road. This convenience could help encourage electric car adoption.

While fuel cells operate differently than combustion engines, they feel very similar. You refill hydrogen tanks at a pump much like you would gasoline or diesel, making them more familiar than battery-powered cars. This familiarity will appeal to drivers uncertain about EVs, helping to decarbonize transportation faster.

Like battery electric vehicles, FCEVs need more refueling infrastructure to see mainstream adoption. While there were just 120 large-scale hydrogen stations in 2019, the number could skyrocket to the thousands before long. FCEVs require comparatively less infrastructure than battery-powered cars.

FCEVs wouldn’t need at-home refueling stations, thanks to their efficiency. Since hydrogen pumps have similar electrical needs to gas pumps, they also don’t require the vast electrical grid changes that battery EVs do.

Another key asset of hydrogen fuel cells is they can serve a more versatile range. It’s easier to power large vehicles like ships or airplanes with fuel cells than batteries, thanks to their efficiency and lower weight. As a result, hydrogen fuel could help decarbonize sea and air travel — not just cars and trucks — leading to more substantial emissions reductions.

Similarly, hydrogen fuel has potential beyond transportation. It can also store energy for backup power more efficiently than batteries. This storage can help scale renewable energy, things like solar and wind power don’t produce electricity on demand.

This flexibility helps scale up hydrogen infrastructure without waste. Whatever doesn’t go to transportation can go to the grid for energy storage.

Hydrogen fuel also has some safety benefits. Unlike fossil fuels, hydrogen is non-toxic, so the spill wouldn’t endanger the environment. Hydrogen will also dissipate faster in a crash since it’s 57 times lighter than gasoline vapor, which reduces the risk of an explosion.

Similarly, it has a lower radiant heat than gasoline, minimizing secondary fire hazards.

Another advantage of hydrogen in transportation is fuel cells’ lower material needs compared to batteries. EV batteries require a lot of metals like lithium that come with environmental and energy concerns around their mining process. Fuel cells don’t need as many rare earth minerals, mitigating these concerns.

Moving towards hydrogen fuel would also help the US become less reliant on other nations for energy sources. The US imports more petroleum than it exports, so shortages and price fluctuations in different places affect domestic transportation heavily. Since the country can produce all the hydrogen it needs domestically, using FCEVs would help avoid these scenarios.

Thanks to all these advantages, hydrogen fuel has vast potential for transportation and beyond.

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