Hydrogen is being touted by automakers as the clean-energy alternative to battery-electric vehicles. But to claim the clean-car crown, the technology has to overcome one major obstacle – the way most of the world’s supply is made.
Sure, hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles emit no exhaust fumes – just heat and water vapour. Hydrogen is almost always found as part of another compound, such as water, and must be separated from those compounds before it can power your vehicle.
The most common refining process is natural gas reforming. In this process, also known as steam methane reforming, natural gas is mixed with very hot steam. This produces carbon monoxide, which reacts with water to produce hydrogen.
Because it is a relatively cheap process, about 95 per cent of the hydrogen used in North America is made this way. Yet, it involves fossil fuels that release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and the product has been labelled “blue” hydrogen because it is less clean than the less-common green hydrogen, which is produced with renewable energy, but not as bad as the dirtiest processes, which produce “grey” hydrogen.
With such a massive environmental hurdle, it might be surprising to learn that many automotive industry executives are betting on hydrogen fuel cells. A 2017 survey of 1,000 senior auto executives conducted by KPMG found that most believe hydrogen fuel cells have abetter long-term futurethan electric cars.
In June, Wan Gang, a former Audi executive who is now a vice-chairman of China’s national advisory body for policy making, toldBloomberg Newsthat his country now wants to build a “hydrogen society,” and aims to have one million hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles on the road within a decade.
Other manufacturers with fuel-cell vehicles on the market include Mercedes Benz (F-Cell), Honda (Clarity) and Britain-based Riversimple (Rasa). More than a dozen concepts from other manufacturers are also in the works.
Unfortunately, hydrogen-fuel-cell stations only exist in British Columbia and Quebec.
Pocard calls heavy-duty fuel-cell vehicles “the low-hanging fruit.” A fleet of buses in one city, for example, can be refuelled daily with just one hydrogen station. As the price of technology goes down and refuelling stations are added, he predicts light-duty vehicles will also become viable.