Hydrogen Still a Viable Alternative to EVs

The BMW iX5 Hydrogen fuel-cell electric vehicle (FCEV), to be introduced later this year at the IAA Mobility 2021 in Munich, will be used for demonstration and testing purposes next year. (BMW)

While the rest of the automotive world is jumping on the electric vehicle (EV) bandwagon to reduce carbon emissions, another alternative-fuel option remains viable but low-key and hidden. Hydrogen fuel cells have been around for the past two decades, but the renewable energy source hasn’t gotten the traction that EVs do when replacing the internal combustion engine. However, it still makes news when an automaker announces that they are pursuing hydrogen technology.

BMW announced today that it would introduce the iX5 Hydrogen, a fuel-cell version of their popular midsize SUV. BMW says that filling up this 374-horsepower vehicle with six kilograms of hydrogen will take three or four minutes at a hydrogen fuel station.

And recently, Volvo Group, the parent company of Volvo Cars, formed a partnership with Daimer Truck AG to develop, produce, and commercialize hydrogen fuel-cell technology for their commercial trucks. Volvo asserts that the batteries big enough to accommodate long-haul, heavy transportation, let alone the lack of ability to charge them, hinder the ability to electrify big rig fleets and that hydrogen fuel cells might be another piece of the puzzle to solve the challenge of climate change caused by human activity.

Hydrogen fuel cells derive energy by splitting off electrons from hydrogen ions. Its only emission is water vapor. And as the most abundant element on earth, hydrogen is a renewable resource. However, some debate exists as to the actual carbon footprint of the manufacture of hydrogen; industry experts say that suppliers can produce green hydrogen at a gas station with electricity to transform water into hydrogen, while blue hydrogen uses natural gas, using carbon capture technology. However, both electricity and natural gas emit greenhouse gases during production.

Ultimately, a viable hydrogen fuel-cell marketplace is almost entirely dependent upon governmental subsidization in creating the infrastructure to make it work. A recent Los Angeles Times report questions why hydrogen never took off even in progressive California, with one expert calling it a “legacy zombie technology,” while another expert says that it’s merely growing pains from a nascent technology.

California currently has 50 public hydrogen fueling stations, sponsored by $125 million from the state. They serve the approximately 9,000 Toyota, BMW, Hyundai, and Honda fuel-cell vehicles sold in the Golden State over the past 20 years. However, the stations are often unreliable, with broken pumps or dry on fuel. The report cites Toyota as offering free towing and car rentals for Toyota Mirai drivers who get stranded.

California has greenlighted an additional $169 million, earmarked for 111 more hydrogen fueling stations by 2027. Also, the Biden administration is ready to invest in the research and development of fuel cells, hoping the technology can be a complementary, zero-emissions alternative to the electric vehicle.

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