Why Hydrogen Is Better

Who wants to spend time cooling their heels at a charging station?

By Gary S. Vasilash

Although there is something to be said for electric vehicles (as in the previous post below), one thing that is a bit of a nuisance with EVs is not the driving but the charging.

Not even the fastest fast-charger is going to stuff electrons into a battery as quickly as gasoline goes through the nozzle at your local gas station.

What’s more, there is a bit of a problem with the whole notion of fast charging in that the faster you stuff those electrons in, the more the battery is affected, and not in a good way.

One of the alternatives to a battery electric vehicle is a hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle.

Yes, a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle is an electric vehicle, too, with the battery being replaced by a fuel cell stack and a cylinder (or two or more) of compressed hydrogen. The hydrogen goes into the stack, is turned into electricity, and that powers the motors that drive the wheels.

And refueling a hydrogen vehicle is quite analogous to pumping gasoline.

As for time:

A 2021 Toyota Mirai went to a hydrogen pump at the Toyota Technical Center in Gardena, California, on August 23, 2021.

The tank was filled. It took five minutes. The tank was sealed with a sticker by the observer from the Guinness World Records.

Toyota evp Bob Carter, a Guinness certificate and the Mirai that earned it. (Image: Toyota)

Over two days of driving the two drivers drove around SoCal under a variety of conditions (yes, including the legendary traffic jams). When they returned to the start point, they had traveled 845 miles on that single tank of hydrogen.

A tank that was filled in 5 minutes.

Admittedly, the drivers are hypermilers (Wayne Gerdes and Bob Winger). Their driving techniques are not those that most of us—not even the most diligent of us—are likely to use with any consistency.

But it underscores the fact that hydrogen can get you much further with less time spent at a station than electricity can. Even for those with a lead foot.

Can Hydrogen Carry the Freight (and Commuters)?

One of the things that people probably don’t think too much about is the extent of the U.S. freight rail network: approximately 140,000 miles of track, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Also according to the US DOT, as of 2016 (its most recent number) there were 26,716 Class 1 freight locomotives hauling 315,227 Class 1 freight cars. And Amtrak had 434 locomotives and 1,402 cars.

As for transit rail, 7,190 vehicles for commuter rail, 10,775 for heavy rail, and 2,553 for light rail.

All of which is to say that there are a lot of goods and people being transported by rail.

2021 Toyota Mirai. It is powered by hydrogen. Can trains be, too? (Image: Toyota)

So it was interesting to note that two firms have announced the signing of a memorandum of understanding in which NextGenPropulsion (NGP) is going to be purchasing solid-oxide fuel cell (SOFC) systems from Fuel Cell Enabling Technologies (FCET), which developed the system.

Odd are you have not heard of NGP or FCET. We hadn’t.

But it is interesting to know that on the NGP team there are people who had worked with people at the University of Birmingham and the University of Warwick in the U.K.—and as you may recall, the steam locomotive had its start in the U.K., as George Stephenson is credited with developing the world’s first successful locomotive. Apparently there are prototype hydrogen-powered trains on the rails in the U.K.

However, those locomotives are using PEM fuel cells and the NGP tech is SOFC, which, according to Dr. Keith Baarson, a founder and a chief engineer of NGP, says represents “a high-efficiency ell at a price point that will make the commercialization of hydrogen-powered rail not only a possibility, but an obvious replacement for current, century-old technology.”

Sure, fuel-cell powered Toyota Mirais and Hyundai Nexos may be sexier, but things like this is where there can be return-on-investment for users, so it is undoubtedly an area where hydrogen is going to achieve a significant presence.