Alternative Fuel Vehicles – Hydrogen Fuel Cells vs Electric Cars

Oil may still power our vehicles today, but it’s not the answer for the future. It’s dirty, requires us to depend on unstable countries, and it’s not going to last forever.Today I’m going to take a look at two of the main contenders for what will be powering our vehicles in the future – hydrogen fuel cells and electric vehicles.
Both are lauded as the way of the future.

But which of these two options are really has the better chance of being the car your children drive.

Hydrogen Fuel Cells

Let’s look at hydrogen fuel cells first. When burned in an engine, the only emissions giving off is water, so a hydrogen powered vehicle is a zero emission vehicle. Hydrogen is also a better fuel than gasoline; it actually has the highest energy content per unit of weight of any known fuel.

Hydrogen is also a very abundant element. While current methods for making hydrogen are done by using fossil fuels, such as natural gas, coal, and oil, American wouldn’t be dependent on foreign oil anymore. Also, hydrogen can be extracted from water, and we all know there’s a lot of water on this planet.

However, hydrogen is not without its share of drawbacks. Probably the biggest problem right now is that it would require an entire new infrastructure. While gas stations could be outfitted with hydrogen fueling stations that would take years. Also, the technology to store hydrogen efficiently is still not ready for prime time.

Here’s the problem – to get enough hydrogen in one place to power a vehicle you need to either compress it or make it very cold. Hydrogen doesn’t become a liquid until you get to -423.17 Fahrenheit (-252.87 Celsius) and keeping it there without using energy is impossible. What this means is that your vehicle is going to leak fuel when it’s sitting unused. You may fill up, not use your vehicle for two weeks and find that you need to fuel up again.

There are other storage technologies being worked on, but they’re all 15-20 years away from being ready to use.

Electric Cars

Then there’s the electric car. Electric cars can also be considered zero emission vehicles since they give off no emission when running. However, electric cars do require power from the electric grid, which does give off emissions. As the electric grid gets cleaner, though, so do electric cars, and electric powered cars are substantially less polluting than gasoline powered cars due to the fact that power plants are far cleaner and more efficient than an internal combustion engine in a vehicle.

In fact, electric vehicles can actually become cleaner as they get older since the power grid gets cleaner and cleaner every year.

The technology for mainstream electric cars is also not quite ready for all the major manufacturers to stop making gasoline powered cars, but it’s much closer than hydrogen currently is. The challenge with electric cars right now is the batteries. The batteries are both expensive and current models, like the Tesla Roadster, have a range of only 250 miles – great for commuting, but not so good for road trips. The other problem is the length of time these vehicles take to charge. It’s not simply a matter stopping at your local power station and plugging in for five minutes and leaving. A typical charging cycle for current prototypes is 4-5 hours – again, fine if you’re commuting, but impossible for a road trip. While technology is being developed to make charging your vehicle as quick as quick as filling up with gas, it has a ways to go before it’s ready, just like hydrogen fuel cells.

Fleets of electric cars will certainly be hitting the roads sooner hydrogen fuel cell cars, but which one ultimately ends up being the vehicle of choice for American drivers remains to be seen as both have plenty of challenges to overcome before people will readily give up their cheap gas powered cars in favor of these alternatives.

For the past several years, I’ve been a strong supporter of hydrogen fuel cells – I was convinced that it was the better solution, but the most research I’ve done into the two technologies has convinced me that electric vehicles are a far better solution both for the short term and the long term.

Here’s why:

Short term:

It will lessen our dependence on foreign oil.

The vast majority of oil used in this country powers vehicles. The power grid in America relies mostly on coal, nuclear power, and natural gas. Oil generates just 3% of power to the grid. America wouldn’t need to import oil anymore if we switched to electric vehicles.

The technology is closer to ready

While neither hydrogen fuel cells nor electric vehicles is ready for prime time as I’m writing this (January 2008), electric vehicles are much closer to being a reality. With more powerful lithium batteries being developed all the time, electric vehicles are nearly a reality.

Infrastructure

While rapid charging technology isn’t available yet (although that technology is coming), charging your electric vehicle is as easy as plugging it into a household plug. On the other hand, outfitting a gas station for hydrogen refueling is a very costly process. Also, very few places to fill a hydrogen vehicle exist right now while everybody could run an extension cord to the garage if necessary.

Efficient

Electric vehicles are efficient. Even today’s models get the equivalent of 135mpg*.

Price

Once you own an electric vehicle, it’s cheap to run – costing about 2 cents per mile to operate.

Long term advantages

From Low Emission To Zero Emissions

As the power grid gets cleaner, so will your electric vehicle. And eventually the power grid may become a zero emission grid making your vehicle a zero emission vehicle.

Near instant charging.

If you’re running low on power, future technology will likely allow your vehicle to fully charge in 60 seconds or less making it even fast than a trip to the gas station.

Conclusion

While neither technology is perfect right now, electric would seem to offer more advantages than hydrogen fuel cell vehicles especially in the short term. However, a combination of electric and hydrogen may be the best long term solution.

*data taken from Tesla Motors current production Roadster

Posted: January 5th, 2008
at 10:07pm by Fuel Saver


Categories: Alternative Fuel Vehicles,Fuel Technology,Zero Emission Vehicles

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  1. [...] And if you still aren’t amped about electric vehicles, you need to read this post – Hydrogen Fuel Cells vs Electric Cars [...]

     


 

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