It takes tons of money, time, and brains of scientists and engineers to develop hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV). And yet, we still made them. Capabilities or economics of FCEV does not clearly explain why we made them. Now let’s begin with ‘What exactly is hydrogen energy?’.
The Era of Fossil Fuel is Over
Currently 85% of the energy we use is produced from fossil fuel. Its effectiveness has been proven for centuries, and without doubt fossil fuel has made our lives more convenient.
But, a number of environmental problems and its substantial depletion are calling for a post-carbon world. Many countries are interested in eco-friendly renewable energy such as wind or solar energy, and South Korea is also planning to produce at least 20 percent of its electricity from renewable energy sources by 2030, according to the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy.
There is also a downside to renewable energy sources. Climate condition affects solar or wind energy production greatly, or sometimes they are simply not suitable for some regions. Intermittency of renewable energy causes unexpected imbalance between energy supply and demand, and hence makes it not controllable. We need means to store surplus renewable energy to deal with this variability issue, and this is where we pay attention to hydrogen fuel cell.
Hydrogen and Fuel cell
Think back to when you were in high school. Combining hydrogen and oxygen produce water, and the chemical reaction generates electricity. On the contrary, when an electric current is passed through water, it changes back into hydrogen and oxygen. This simple chemical formula is the essence of hydrogen energy. Surplus electricity can be used to transform water into hydrogen, and this hydrogen can transform back into water and reproduce electricity. Hydrogen can be stored in a high-pressure tank or as a liquid, making it effective for storage and distribution. Clearly hydrogen could compensate for the flaws that eco-friendly renewable energy has.
Of course this is not an easy task. Mankind would have been freed from energy problem long ago, if it were as easy as high school chemistry class. We need an advanced technology for producing, storing and distributing hydrogen, and also we have to develop an electric motor powered by a fuel cell, which transforms hydrogen into electricity.
Fuel cell as an electric-power generating device first drew attention when used on the spacecraft Gemini 5, where its fuel cell used hydrogen to generate electricity and drinking water from its byproduct. Though fuel cell was subsequently used in various other space programs, it has been a high barrier to entry in other industries. But the development of fuel-cell technology has made it run various types of vehicles on the road and water, from marine vessels and trucks to public transport.
FCEV, the Right Response to Environmental Regulations
The primary reason for car companies to invest on FCEV is because of environmental regulations. EU, US, China, and others are setting bigger mandatory emission reduction targets, along with eco-friendly car sales system. So, for those companies, manufacturing eco-friendly cars has become a must.
Various types of eco-friendly vehicles such as hybrid electric vehicle(HEV), plug-in hybrid electric vehicle(PHEV), or electric vehicle are widely available on the market these days. And electric cars are becoming popular for being zero emission vehicles and having relatively low barriers to entry into the market.
While having electric vehicles as an option, still motor manufacturers are investing in FCEV. Hyundai, Toyota, and Honda have proven their capability to produce FCEV. Also, partnerships have emerged between Hyundai and Audi, Toyota and BMW, and between Honda and GM to jointly develop FCEV, which clearly is one of the two primary candidates to survive environmental regulations.
How far has FCEV come? Currently existing mass-market FCEVs (passenger cars) are Hyundai Tucson ix(2013) and NEXO (2018), Toyota Mirai (2014), and Honda Clarity (2016). The latest NEXO has a driving range of 600km, followed by Toyota Mirai and Honda Clarity of 500km. So technically, they have a range that is almost equal to that of internal combustion. Especially Hyundai NEXO FCEV has earned one of the ten spots in WardsAuto 10 Best Engine competition, showing the world the potential FCEVs have.
Can FCEV Be the Future of Cars?
Advancement of FCEV can powerfully accelerate the energy transition. The fuel cell technology for FCEV is much more complicated than those used for other fields of technology, and this means it could transform the other industries much more easily. FCEV will increase demand for hydrogen, and its production, storage, and distribution systems as well, hence the hydrogen-driven society. Though we cannot be so sure FCEV will be used for the whole urban mobility, we do know that it will become a key player.