08 Feb 2018 16:31 IST

Is the next gen hydrogen?

A new car race seems to be in the offing — electric car versus hydrogen car

Recently, there was a noteworthy announcement by Hyundai about its plans to bring a new car into the market. Hyundai Nexo is a hydrogen-powered car, or, to be precise, a fuel-cell powered car.

That it is an all-hydrogen car is new, and what’s more, it can run more than 500 km on a tank-full of the gas. Check out the vehicle’s video on YouTube.

Nexo joins a tiny group of hydrogen-powered, ‘fuel-cell vehicles’, the members of which include the Honda Clarity and Toyota Mirai.

Last month, The Guardian newspaper brought out an article titled, ' It’s a no-brainer: are hydrogen cars the future?' . The article discusses the story of a car racer of the 1990s, Hugo Spowers. Now in his late-50s, he has developed a hydrogen-powered car for himself and has been going to town with it, literally and figuratively!

Shell, for some time now, has been harping on hydrogen vehicles. Last September, it cut the ribbon of a large plant in Germany to produce hydrogen. The gas from the plant is for non-automotive applications, but it underscores the company’s mindset towards hydrogen.

Reading from left to right, it becomes clear that hydrogen mobility is on the horizon; perhaps even ready to blaze.

EV vs. H

So, will it challenge electric vehicles? A new car race is in the offing — electric car versus hydrogen car!

My heart is on the hydrogen car. It is clean. After all, electric vehicles too have to be charged and the electricity has to be produced somewhere. Who knows if the source of the electricity is clean enough? Batteries have to be disposed of. Charging still takes too much time, and EVs do not go very long before running out of charge.

Mano a mano, hydrogen wins on all these counts.

~ Emissions — Hydrogen is the clear winner.

~ Source of energy — The gas ranks on par with electric.

~ Disposal — No chemical batteries to dispose of.

~ Charging — Hydrogen is pretty fast, and loading a full tank takes only as much time as filling petrol or diesel.

~ Range — You just read about Nexo — hydrogen cars can run for more than 500 km.

Money on EV

Still, my money is on electric vehicles. Elon Musk, now more famous for Tesla than for several of his achievements and grand projects, puts the difference between hydrogen and EVs rather neatly: “You take a solar panel and use the energy to charge a battery pack directly; or you use the energy to split water, take the hydrogen and dump the oxygen, compress the hydrogen at extremely high pressure or liquefy it, and then put it in a car and run a fuel-cell — it doesn’t make sense.”

Hydrogen — with the technologies available today — is far less energy efficient than EVs. The latter is said to be three times better. Hydrogen is also leaky (difficult to store), explosive, dangerous and expensive. You can strip hydrogen (H2) off methane (CH4), but you will end up with CO2, which is exactly what we want to avoid. You can strip H2 from water (H2O), but that is too expensive.

Because it takes some work to make, a kilogram of hydrogen costs in the US as much as a gallon of petrol.

Do we have a verdict?

While the hydrogen-EV race has only just begun, the EV has a huge head-start. But you never know with technology. In the late 19th century, telegraph companies dismissed a new invention with a laugh, calling it a child’s toy. But the telephone wiped out all the telegraph companies clean, and had the last laugh instead.

The scene will change drastically if somebody were to come up with a cheap, clean method of producing hydrogen. A lot of people are researching about it, so a breakthrough cannot be ruled out. For example, an Australian company called Environmental Clean Technologies Ltd. (ECT) is working on producing the gas in a cost effective way from brown coal (lignite). ECT says it is still ‘early stage, fundamental R&D’, but the aim is to come up with ‘reliable hydrogen from Victorian brown coal’.

All this aside, the greenest energy is the one that is not produced. Environmentalists advocate a lifestyle change to suit green living. Don’t talk of green mobility — just don’t move unnecessarily. Live close to your place of work, bicycle down to a shop or mall and if you have to travel, use public transport. That’s the way to go.