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Our Hydrogen Situation - What's going on with the zero emission fuel?

The Green Energy Unicorn

Hydrogen fuel cell powered cars in the mass market is like a pipe dream for our renewable, sustainable energy cycle. The goal is to take water, split it with electrolysis (Separating hydrogen from the oxygen), and store the compressed hydrogen in a pump station where it will later be pushed into a car's hydrogen tank. There, the car's local fuel cell reintroduces the hydrogen with air to create electricity and water. That electricity is stored in a series of batteries which are used to propel the car's motor. And the water is the only emission coming out the tailpipe.

 By passing through a catalyst the hydrogen is split between its electrons and protons. Once at the membrane the positive electrons remain but the negative electrons run on the outside creating a circuit. Oxygen is finally combined with the hydrogen ions to form water and heat energy.

By passing through a catalyst the hydrogen is split between its electrons and protons. Once at the membrane the positive electrons remain but the negative electrons run on the outside creating a circuit. Oxygen is finally combined with the hydrogen ions to form water and heat energy.

So in an ideal situation we're using wind, solar, or hydro power to break down water to be used in cars that create water as a byproduct of their own generator. Clean in, clean out. But that's only a pipe dream. What we have instead is more of a bumpy dirt road.

The Dirty Reality

There are several gigantic hurdles both in technology and politics before hydrogen fuel cells can reach larger markets. The first is the situation of getting hydrogen in the first place. The electrolysis process requires copious amounts of energy, and that energy source depends on the type of nearby power plant - possibly including coal or natural gas. And transporting the hydrogen gas is its own perilous task as its compressed form is stored at 700 bar or 10,000 psi. If you look at it wrong it's liable to explode.

There's also the issue with infrastructure. There simply aren't any places to get hydrogen unless you live in the most populated regions of California, South Carolina, Connecticut, or Massachusetts. Electric charging stations for Battery electric vehicles (BEVs) like Teslas already have an electric infrastructure in place so building the plugs is more a matter of adoption. But hydrogen requires its own tanks, trucks, and transportation structure to operate. It's a tall order getting companies to comply with all these new requirements.

What We Get Now

2017 Honda Clarity

If you're not a resident of northern or southern California, your choice of hydrogen fuel cells is basically nil. However, if you are in those parts you do get to taste a bit of the future if you can afford it. The two leading choices right now - the Honda Clarity and Toyota Mirai both have a starting price of just under $60,000 USD though you probably won't be looking into ownership as the leasing programs are their only current offering. The Honda Clarity's lease offer is $369 a month for 36 months with $2,499 down and includes a series of benefits like a 20,000 mile annual allowance, 21 days of Avis luxury car rental, $15,000 worth of hydrogen fuel, and unlimited roadside assistance.

2017 Honda Clarity Interior

Under the hood you get a 103kw Proton Exchange Membrane Fuel Cell, 346 volt lithium ion battery, 174 horsepower synchronous electric motor, and a single speed direct drive transmission. It's even mounted on an aluminum sub frame with strut suspension in the front and multi-link in the rear. You also don't have to worry about this tank blowing up - it's burst resistant, leak proof, cycle proof, fire proof, and bullet proof as per Department of Energy standards.

Inside you'll enjoy every luxury Honda has to offer. Features included are rain sensing wipers, adaptive cruise control, head up display, LED lights, Apple Carplay, Android Auto, 540-watt 12 speaker stereo system, and much more. It's no wonder Honda will soon be releasing the Clarity as a pure electric and plug in hybrid in 2017. It's a luxury sedan with a proof-of-concept drivetrain. To top it all off its 68 mpg combined efficiency gives it a maximum range of 366 miles - plenty for everyday living.

2017 Toyota Mirai

Toyota's Mirai offers a similar package. You can either lease the Mirai for three years at $349 a month with $2,499 down or (in the undetermined future) buy the car outright for $57,500 with $8,000 federal tax credit and $5,000 in a California rebate. Do note, however, your mileage allowance is only 12,000 miles a year. Expect the same amount of gadgets and benefits as the Clarity offers barring its lower mileage per gallon at 67 mpge combined. Motor Trend's experience of both cars says the Clarity drives like an Accord while the Mirai drives and feels like a Prius. Go figure.

Hydrogen's Foggy Future

Despite doubts about the viability of hydrogen as a source of fuel, companies and universities have deemed alternatives inferior to the cleanliness and efficiency of compressed hydrogen. It's been fifteen years since Honda first released their hydrogen fuel cell FCX and every month or so since a manufacturer talks about developments in their fuel cell research. This continued research is not going to end any time soon. It's already a real car; people just have to get to grips that it works too.

Quick Updates

  • In early 2017 Toyota plans to start selling over 100 hydrogen fuel cell powered busses in preparation for the 2020 Olypmics as a sign of their improvements in technology. Because the busses have such a high battery capacity Toyota says it can be used to power buildings in the event of an emergency.
  • GM and Honda have teamed up build an $85 million hydrogen fuel cell manufacturing facility in Brownstown, Michigan. The plant will be completed by 2020.
  • In January, 2017 - Toyota, Air Liquide, Alstom, Anglo American, BMW, Daimler, Honda, Hyundai, Kawasaki, Royal Dutch Shell, Engie, Linde Group, and Total grouped up to form a hydrogen council as a means of helping convince current and future investors to support them in their hydrogen fuel cell commercialization venture. All companies combined are currently investing 1.49 billion USD in hydrogen research.
  • Since 2014 Hyundai has offered their Tuscon SUV in hydrogen fuel cell form and over 2.1 million miles have been driven with them since. Their lease offering is $500 a month.