Science fiction author Harlan Ellison was quoted as saying “The two most common elements in the universe are hydrogen and stupidity.” And while there’s no sign of a stupidity-powered vehicle anywhere in sight (although considering how some people drive, it may be the closest we come to perpetual motion), Toyota appears on the verge of releasing the first hydrogen-powered mass-market automobile in 2015, unveiling it in November of 2014.
You Asked For It, You Got It, Hydrogen-Powered Toyota!
While there’s been considerable interest in low-emission vehicles of late, hydrogen fuel cells take automobile propulsion to a whole new level. A hydrogen fuel cell hybrid burns hydrogen as fuel, producing water vapor as exhaust, essentially resulting in an emission-free automobile, or so its proponents claim.
Toyota engineers have been using hydrogen fuel cell hybrids for the past six years. Now they seem to be in the lead in terms of rolling out the first commercially available hydrogen fuel cell car, although other companies are jumping on the hydrogen-powered bandwagon.
Where Have American Auto-Makers Been?
The United States downplayed hydrogen fuel cell research in the early years of the Obama administration, instead choosing to focus on battery-powered cars and the manufacture of lithium-ion batteries. But now, GM and Honda have entered into an alliance with the intention of producing a hydrogen cell car by 2020. And this is not the only American auto maker alliance in the works. Ford Motor Company is teaming up with Daimler and Nissan Motor Company to produce their own hydrogen vehicle by 2017.
How It Works
A hydrogen fuel cell generates electricity in an electro-chemical reaction of air and hydrogen. Hydrogen gas passes through a series of plastic membranes and metal plates, creating electricity, which in turn runs the engine. There are different ways the hydrogen can be produced by water that’s put through the electrolysis process, although currently a lot of hydrogen is produced from natural gas, a process that results in a high production of carbon.
One of hydrogen’s biggest disadvantages, and indeed a major impetus behind America turning its back on the technology back in the early 2000’s, is the production of hydrogen gas, which results in emissions, thus diminishing the claim that a hydrogen fuel cell automobile is truly emission-free. Also, fuel cell stacks and high-pressure hydrogen tanks are still expensive to produce. To top it all off, there needs to be power to actually compress the hydrogen gas into the car’s tank.
The creation of hydrogen using natural gas is also a rather counter-productive process. Natural gas is a valuable energy source in and of itself, and using one fuel to simply create another seems a waste. However, recent breakthroughs may end up solving this particular problem.
It’s A Gas!
Whether or not hydrogen fuel cell technology becomes a cost-effective, viable means of propelling an automobile remains to be seen. But it seems that the first company to offer an answer will be Toyota, and we’ll only need to sit tight for a little more than a year to find out.
John Terra has been freelancing since 1985, and has done a lot of work in the world of paper and dice gaming. His eclectic writings cover everything from computer games to exercise tips to personalities such as Steve Wynn.
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