Once the darling of the US administration, fuel-cell vehicles were the future of clean, green motoring. Fuel cells running on hydrogen produce only water vapor as their exhaust, and are as convenient as gasoline cars, since they can be refueled in the time it takes to fill a gas tank, and have a similar driving range.
But fuel-cell vehicles were also extremely expensive to produce, and required a massive investment in a network of hydrogen filling stations. There was also the problem of producing hydrogen cleanly and efficiently; hydrogen is mainly made from methane, in a process that releases large amounts of carbon dioxide. Hydrogen can also be made using solar and wind power, but that process is less efficient and much more expensive.
It seemed that the hydrogen economy had fizzled before it started. But breakthroughs in cheaper fuel-cell stacks, and innovative methods to produce hydrogen from natural gas and solar energy, have led to a resurgence in fuel-cell electric vehicles, or FCEVs.
The first commercially available FCEV came, surprisingly, from Korea. It’s called the Hyundai ix35 FCEV and has been put on sale in all 50 states of the USA. Eco-minded drivers love the fact that you could drink the exhaust – it’s pure water – but it only takes five minutes to refuel, with a range of 365 miles.
Toyota and GM are rushing their models to market, but have been caught napping by the maverick Koreans.
The real reason that fuel-cell cars are taking off in the US is because hydrogen is so plentiful. It’s most easily made from natural gas, and America is awash with the stuff! Since fracking unlocked more natural gas than anyone expected, producers have been looking for demand beyond power generation, and now they’ve found it in hydrogen refueling. New technology from BASF has also cleaned up the process.
Will Tesla join the hydrogen revolution, or stick to their specialized charging stations and swap-out batteries? For now, they are not saying…