6 questions about hydrogen fuel cell cars you were too embarrassed to ask

Contributor Phil Torres previews the future of hydrogen powered vehicles.

We recently toured the Toyota Technical Center in Gardena, CA to learn all about Toyota’s HFCV and the future of cars powered by hydrogen.

Is that really water that comes out of the exhaust?

Believe it or not, yes. Out of the exhaust comes water so pure you could drink it (but shouldn’t).

The fuel you pump into these cars is hydrogen gas.  The energy is created in the fuel cell by reacting the hydrogen in the tanks with oxygen from the air over what is called a “proton exchange membrane” and the end result is electricity and water. Water is made up of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom (hence H­­2O) and is the only remnant from this fuel-air interaction.

For the record I would have taken a drink of this water, but Toyota’s people didn’t allow me to for legal reasons. The exhaust pipes can pick up dirt and pollutants while driving around, so it was hard to trust what else besides water could be in that glass.

It still takes energy to make Hydrogen fuel from natural gas, isn’t it just as bad for the environment as a normal car?

Fortunately, no, and especially not in the future. While the production of hydrogen fuel does generally produce carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, it still has a much smaller carbon footprint.

Currently, the majority of hydrogen fuel is made from US natural gas.  It can certainly aid in a more energy independent future but still isn’t our best long-term option.

Engineers are working on methods of using solar power, wind, and bacteria to produce hydrogen fuel from water or waste, which will allow for an even greener future.

Hydrogen is a flammable gas and was responsible for the explosive Hindenburg blimp disaster. Why would you want a few tanks of that under your car?

I too was skeptical at first but these hydrogen gas tanks are safe, probably safer than what you currently drive.

Demonstrating its strength, Toyota shot their gas tanks with bullets. In fact, they couldn’t break through the tank until they shot it with an armor-piercing bullet. Twice, in the same spot.

Even in the case of a leak, the hydrogen gas is lighter than air so gas should go up and out fairly quickly and would not leave behind a pool of fuel like a normal gas tank might do.

So is it like a Tesla?

Not quite. One downside of upcoming hydrogen fuel cell cars is they don’t have the speed and flash of a Tesla and other electric cars, which are notable in their superior acceleration and torque when compared to gas or diesel cars.

Filling up the hydrogen tanks is currently around the same price of filling up a normal gas car; and they run at about 300 miles per tank. This means it is more expensive than a hybrid car like a Prius and less fuel efficient, but it does get more miles per tank/charge than electric cars.

But still it is a zero emissions vehicle, so if you’re looking to lessen your impact on the environment it is a great place to start.

Speaking of electric cars, doesn’t the energy we charge it with have to come from coal plants which are just as polluting as cars?

This is a common argument against electric cars.  The electricity used to charge the car comes from a power plant that is doing its own fair share of polluting. But it all comes down to energy efficiency and pollutant output.  It is much more efficient to produce a lot of energy from a larger power plant than it is to produce a small amount of energy in your car.

So yes, the power plants used to charge an electric car may be polluting the air, but less so than a normal gas combustion engine in a car.

Where could I even fill up my hydrogen fuel car?

This appears to be the biggest hurdle for they hydrogen fuel cell car industry.  There simply aren’t many stations to fill up a hydrogen car, much less than for an electric car. As the number of hydrogen fuel stations increases, the price of the fuel and overall lifetime cost of the car should decrease significantly.

California is definitely ahead of the game for hydrogen cars with a map of available stations here. They’ve also set aside up to $200 million for the creation of more stations, aiming at over 50 stations in the state by the end of 2015.


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