Out with electric, in with hydrogen?
WAY OF THE FUTURE: Hyundai will launch the world's first mass-production hydrogen fuel cell car in March 2014. Image: AFP
TOM KRISHER and YURI KAGEYAMA
If electric cars are not an answer for future mobility for you then perhaps hydrogen cars will tickle your fancy. They'recoming soon and will give the electric cars a run for their money.
DETROIT, Michigan - Cars that run on hydrogen and exhaust only water vapour are emerging to challenge electric vehicles as the world's personal transport of the future.
South Africa is only just being introduced to electric cars and already there are several concerns. Wheels24's SERGIO DAVIDS is currently attending the launch of SA's first electric car, the Nissan Leaf, in Johannesburg - come back tomorrow to read what he finds.
At auto shows on two continents on November 20 three automakers were unveiling hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles to be delivered to regular people as early as March 2014.
SAME RANGE AS PETROL
Korea's Hyundai will be the first to reach the mass market in the US with a hydrogen-powered Tucson SUV for lease in March 2014. Toyota announced plans, at the Tokyo Motor Show, for a mass-produced fuel cell-car by 2015 in Japan and for the US in 2016. Honda also will reveal plans at the Los Angeles show for a car due out in 2015.
Hydrogen cars are appealing because, unlike electric vehicles, they have the range of a typical petrol car and can be refueled quickly. Experts say the industry also has overcome safety and reliability concerns that have hindered distribution in the past but hydrogen cars still have a glaring downside - refuelling stations are scarce and they're costly to build. And critics say they're still a long way from mass production.
Paul Mutolo, director of external partnerships for the Cornell University Energy Materials Centre, said: "Even as battery-powered and hybrid-electric cars publicly took on conventional fuel models the past few years, automakers continued to research and develop hydrogen fuel cells. "Manufacturers were able to overcome safety and reliability concerns and now are limited only by costs and the lack of filling stations."
Hydrogen cars, Mutolo said, have an advantage over battery-powered electric cars because drivers don't have to worry about running out of electricity and having to wait hours for recharging. "It's very similar to the kind of behaviour that drivers have come to expect from their petrol/diesel cars."
Hydrogen fuel-cells use a complex chemical process to separate electrons and protons in hydrogen gas molecules. The electrons move toward a positive pole, and the movement creates electricity. That powers a car's electric motor, which turns the wheels. "You're literally ripping the electrons from inside the molecule, generating electricity," Mutolo said.
Since the hydrogen isn't burned, there's no pollution. Instead, oxygen also is pumped into the system and when it meets the hydrogen ions and electrons, that creates water and heat. Only water vapour comes out of the tail pipe. A fuel cell produces only about one volt of electricity, so many are stacked in a car to create enough juice.
Hydrogen costs as little as the equivalent of R30 for an amount needed to power a car the same distance as 3.8 litres of conventional fuel, Mutolo said.