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A Case for Hydrogen-Powered Cars

What’s to like about hydrogen, and hydrogen-powered cars?  We cannot see taste or even smell hydrogen, yet hydrogen makes up over 90% of matter.  The stars and the sun are made up of hydrogen gas.  Here on earth, hydrogen forms compounds; compounds are a mixture of elements that we find on the Periodic Table (That’s the big poster found in every science lab at school, which has 120 – or so – little squares with letters that make up the organised Periodic Table with all the known elements in our world.).  Hydrogen is found in almost every living thing.  Hydrogen gas is used to make chemicals such as ammonia and methane.  Hydrogen is in the water that we drink (H2O).  Some car manufacturers and scientists have been beavering away developing what is known as hydrogen-powered cars.

Before the car was even invented, hydrogen power had been around and in use in various forms since the 1800s.  It was used widely for gas streetlamps back in the day.  It was a Welshman, Sir William Robert Grove, who invented the first fuel cell back in 1839.  When you use hydrogen in a fuel cell, the only thing you produce is electricity and water!

So, hydrogen-powered cars are vehicles that contain tanks of hydrogen fuel that then combine with oxygen from the air in a process that delivers power to the car for motion.  The beauty of the hydrogen-powered vehicle is they produce only water as a waste product.

In a little bit more detail, a hydrogen fuel cell inside a hydrogen-powered car works like this…  The fuel cell has a proton exchange membrane that uses compressed hydrogen and oxygen from the air to produce electricity.  The hydrogen goes into the membrane at one end called the anode, while oxygen goes into the membrane at the other end called the cathode.  A platinum catalyst, which is positioned on the anode end of the membrane, splits the hydrogen into positive protons and negatively charged electrons.  The proton exchange membrane takes only the positive ions, while the electrons are fed into a circuit to make electricity.  It’s this electricity which is used to drive the car’s electric motor[s].  These electric motors are what provide the driving for the hydrogen-powered car to give them speed and power!

At the cathode end, the positive ions are travelling along the membrane and combining with oxygen from the air to make water (H2O).  This water drips out of the car’s exhaust/tailpipe.  If you are driving your hydrogen-powered car through a desert and need some water, then you could believably drink it.  Now, how green is that!

How can we produce hydrogen for vehicles?  Without going into too many details here (I’ll save that for another blog), hydrogen can be produced in mass from a renewable electricity system that uses generation plants like hydro dams, solar power and wind power generators.  This purpose-made hydrogen is known as green hydrogen.  Australian mining company, Fortescue, has been talking with government recently regarding the creation of a hydrogen production system for Australia as early as 2023/24.

Tiwai point, which you’ll find on the Southern-most tip of New Zealand (NZ makes up Australia’s two biggest islands!), is currently being used as an aluminium smelter.  The NZ government is in talks for designing and consenting to converting this smelter into a green hydrogen production plant even as early as 2023.

I think the hydrogen-powered vehicle makes a lot of (green) sense.  It would cut down on the need for an endless supply of new battery packs that EVs require, which are made from preciously rare earth’s resources (e.g., lithium, nickle, cobalt…), and the energy and space to dispose of the spent battery packs would be a problem.

Of course, we would need to build up a network of hydrogen refuelling stations across Australia to power this new type of vehicle.  This network-building will be easy enough and relatively cheap compared to the massive and costly EV network/upgrade.  Green hydrogen fuelling stations could simply be added onto any petrol/diesel refuelling station currently in operation across Australia.  This would also ease the changeover period for the general public.

If you are wondering what hydrogen-powered cars might look like, do take a look at the new Toyota Mirai, for an example.

Toyota Mirai


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