After 215 years, is it finally hydrogen’s time to shine as fuel?
Hydrogen is the perfect fuel. For a start, it’s the most abundant element in the universe, so we’ll never run out of it. If you burn it in a combustion engine or feed it to a fuel cell the only byproduct is water.
So why haven’t we been driving hydrogen-powered cars and flying in hydrogen-powered planes for decades? Big-oil conspiracy theories aside, there are a few issues with H2.
It may be quite literally everywhere, but extracting it isn’t that easy. The most straightforward way is to split water (H2O) into hydrogen and oxygen using electrolysis. However, to do this at any practical scale requires a lot of electrical energy, which has to come from somewhere—preferably from a renewable source such as solar, wind, or wave power. If the electricity isn’t sustainable, then the net environmental benefits of hydrogen are negated.
Next up is the problem of storage. Hydrogen is the lightest element and has a tendency to escape its confines. The solution so far has been to compress the gas into liquid form and store it in high-pressure tanks. In theory, “pellets” of solid ammonia borane, which are capable of storing hydrogen, could also release the gas in situ through a catalytic reaction.
Finally, there’s the Hindenburg effect. It may have been 85 years ago but newsreel footage of the world’s largest airship going up in flames is one of the most enduring images of the 20th century and and still conjured in the minds of many at the merest mention of hydrogen.
Nonetheless, automotive engineers have been doggedly trying to get hydrogen into cars since the dawn of driving. At the cusp of 2023, we might just be on the cusp of an H2 future with big players such as Toyota and new niche marques hoping to get us gassing up on the most bountiful element in the cosmos.
Let’s see how things have progressed.
If Swiss engineer François Isaac de Rivaz had gotten his way, then hydrogen would have fueled the motorized carriage from the very beginning.
In 1807 he patented a hydrogen-powered internal-combustion engine, with the gas contained, somewhat impractically, in a balloon. A year later he installed the apparatus in a vehicle, which was arguably the first automobile.
In 1860 Belgian Étienne Lenoir had rather more success with his one-cylinder, two-stroke engine installed in his Hippomobile. He sold close to 400 examples, almost 30 years before Karl Benz patented his Motorcar.
Around the same time, work on fuel cells had also begun, based on a concept first demonstrated by British scientist Humphrey Davy.
In 1839, Davy’s countryman William Grove, a polymath chemist, physicist and lawyer created what he called a “gas voltaic battery” which produced electricity from a reaction between hydrogen and oxygen using a platinum catalyst. The term “fuel cell” was coined a few years later by Carl Langer and Ludwig Mond.
In 1933 Norway would take the first step towards its dream of a hydrogen-based transport system when the Norsk Hydro power company engineered an H2-powered truck, with its combustion engine fueled by hydrogen extracted from ammonia.
Six years later in the U.K., Francis T. Bacon produced a 5-kW fuel cell— the most powerful to date. With gasoline in short supply during World War II, ingenious Russian military technician Boris Shelishch converted around 200 GAZ-AA trucks to run on hydrogen in just 10 days of 1941.
Two decades passed before serious consideration was given to hydrogen again, and it came from polar opposite directions.
In Texas a high-school senior named Roger Billings converted a Ford Model A to run on H2, which he stored in two cylinders in the pickup’s bed. The vehicle took first place at the 1966 International Science Fair in Dallas and would help Billings win a grant from Ford to continue his research as an undergraduate.
Meanwhile, at General Motors, the biggest car maker on the planet, engineers unveiled the Electrovan, inspired by the fuel cells that powered NASA’s Apollo program.
The converted GMC Handi-van used 32 Pratt & Whitney cells spread throughout the floor of the van, helping to generate a range of 150 miles from tanks of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen that provided power.
It wasn’t a viable daily driver, though. Not only did the Handi-van require an auxiliary power unit it to get it going, the original pressurized tanks exploded and had to be replaced with cryogenic ones. The vehicle was so fiendishly complex that only one man ever learned to master it.
The gas crisis of the ’70s fueled plenty of experimentation, with Billings developing a hydrogen-powered VW Beetle that actually cleaned the air it took in, along with a Cadillac Seville which took part in President Jimmy Carter’s inauguration parade (above).
Chevrolet showed its H2-4 Chevy and BMW unveiled a 520 that could run on regular gas or on liquid hydrogen. At the Musashi Institute of Technology in Japan, meanwhile, a variety of different vehicles were also developed, dabbling in homogeneous charge ignition, direct injection, and other technologies that have only relatively recently made it into production vehicles.
Musashi pressed on into the ’80s, now trying turbos and two-strokes to perfect hydrogen combustion. In Germany, Mercedes-Benz got in on the H2 action, converting a 280 TE wagon and a TN 310 van to run on hydrogen as well as gasoline.
Hydrogen concept cars were now almost as abundant as the element itself. Mazda revealed that its rotary engine could happily run on hydrogen, showing the 1991 HR-X concept and the 1993 HR-X2. It even fitted a fuel cell to a Miata in 1994 and to a Demio in 1997.
GM produced a fuel-cell version of the Who Killed the Electric Car EV1, plus versions of the Opel Sintra and Zafira MPVs.
Mercedes-Benz debuted a series of NECAR concepts which started with a sizable MB-180 van in 1994. By 1997 the boffins had managed to shrink the tech down to fit in an A-Class known as the NECAR 3. BMW first showed a 728 sedan that ran on H2 and then went all-out with a V-12 powered 750i.
Honda began its FCX series of concepts which would actually lead to a production vehicle, but Daihatsu’s dinky Move, not to mention efforts to convert London’s famous black-cab fleet, were to no avail.
The concepts kept coming. Ford showed everything from a Crown Victoria to a Focus and Explorer could potentially be powered by a hydrogen fuel cell. VW displayed Golfs and Boras, there were Jeeps, Buicks, Hyundais, Minis, Toyotas, even Ladas.
However, only Honda actually made the leap into production as five 2002 Honda FCXs were leased to the City of Los Angeles, fitted with a Ballard fuel cell and Honda’s ultra-capacitors.
Mazda, as you’d expect, continued to go its own way, pressing ahead with H2 as fuel for the rotary engine and sending a fleet of four RX-8s to Norway, which boasted of having the world’s first hydrogen highway with a small number of hydrogen filling stations on the 380-mile route between Oslo and Stavanger. BMW also stayed true to its beliefs, sticking to V-12 power for the 2006 Hydrogen 7.
In 2007 Honda launched the FCX Clarity, making a hydrogen vehicle available to the general public for the first time since 1860. For $600 a month, buyers got 270 miles of range, zero emissions, and also next to zero places to fill their tanks. The only hydrogen stations were in Torrance, Santa Monica, and Irvine, California but Jamie Lee Curtis got one all the same.
Toyota finally unveiled its first series-production fuel cell vehicle in 2014. The Mirai was priced just shy of $60,000 and 200 were to be sent to the United States. A range of over 300 miles was slightly better than the Honda’s, but without much additional refueling infrastructure it was a car for Californian early adopters only.
The lack of practical refuelling stations remains the biggest problem today, but American hydrogen hypercar startup Hyperion is hoping to solve it—for its own customers, at least. Should buyers of the XP-1 need to exceed its claimed 1000-mile range Hyperion says it will soon have a network of mobile fuel stations across the U.S.A. which can refill tanks in just five minutes.
Toyota also continues to persevere, introducing a refreshed Mirai in 2021 and a fuel-cell version of the Hilux pickup in the U.K.
It’s showing hydrogen’s potential in motorsports with a World Rally–ready GR Yaris H2 which burns the gas in its turbocharged triple-cylinder motor. The engine is also fitted to a Corolla Cross H2 Concept car and Toyota says that it is “around 40 per cent along the path to the commercialisation,” but then adds that “it is not yet possible to say whether the technology will reach maturity for road cars.”
215 years later, hydrogen is still the fuel of the future.
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