Hybrid & Hydrogen – Exploring A New Wave In Car Technology
The days of fuelling your car with petrol are coming to an end. Not only are petrol prices rising, but scientists have also surmised that we are reaching ‘peak oil’ – a point after which the world’s petroleum supply is expected to go into a terminal decline. Luckily, the development of alternative fuel vehicles has accelerated (if you’ll excuse the pun), and the use of alternative fuel technologies is a high priority for car manufacturers. Hybrid cars are more and more common on our roads, and emerging hydrogen fuel cell technology, while in its infancy, is often touted as the technology of the future. Let’s take a look at why.
What is a hybrid car?
Hybrid cars, while not strictly an alternative fuel option (but makes much more economical use of petrol) have been available since the late 90s. However, they surged in popularity in the mid-2000s as petrol costs spiraled, and now are a cornerstone of the car market. They work by combining a traditional combustion engine with an electric drivetrain, which increases efficiency and performance.
What is a hydrogen fuel cell car?
A hydrogen fuel cell car works by generating its own fuel, rather than using fuel stored on board. It does this through a series of chemical reactions which generate electricity. These reactions take place in the fuel cell ‘stack’, where hydrogen which is stored onboard reacts with oxygen flowing into the car from outside, and the resulting electrons power the motor.
Cost & Efficiency
Hybrid cars have quickly become a major part of the automobile industry, accounting for a growing percentage of the market worldwide at the expense of petrol cars (especially those that run on diesel). As a result, the cost of buying a hybrid car is falling. It’s possible to get on the road in a new hybrid for less than $25,000. The fuel efficiency is much better than a regular petrol car, and if you opt to charge the battery from flat to full, it will cost roughly the same as running a domestic air conditioner for five or six hours.
The main criticism of hybrid cars is based on their range. Most can manage 50-100 miles before switching to the fuel tank, so while they are ideal for city driving, they aren’t as well suited to the highway.
As this technology is relatively new there are only a handful of hydrogen fuel cell models on the market, all of which are quite costly. The high cost is due to the expensive rare metals required to generate chemical reactions, as well as the limited appeal due to lack of infrastructure (see below). Costs are expected to drop down as the technology is developed and streamlined to make it cheaper and more durable, but this could take some time.
At present, there is an extremely limited infrastructure for the refueling of hydrogen cell cars (a 2018 survey counted 39 in the whole of the USA, most of which are in California). Although many more fueling stations are planned worldwide, the lack of infrastructure is a major stumbling block for hydrogen fuel cell cars becoming more widespread.
However, if you do live near a hydrogen refueling station you will find that in less than five minutes you can pump enough hydrogen into the high-pressure tank to take you 300-500 miles. The cost of refueling can vary greatly from place to place, but on average you’ll be running at about $0.33 per mile (based on $16.63 per kg of fuel and average consumption pattern).
When choosing a car, safety is something buyers want to take for granted, and hydrogen cell cars and hybrid cars must all adhere to the rigorous safety standards of today’s automobile industry. Anti-lock brakes, emerging technologies such as autonomously capable vehicles and of course, airbags and seat belts all aim to make road cars the safest they’ve ever been.
Hydrogen cell cars sometimes arouse suspicion (given hydrogens combustibility) but research shows that this suspicion is ill-founded. Whilst there are dangers with any combustible fuel, hydrogen has proven to be safer than gasoline – as hydrogen is a gas and not a liquid, even if a fuel tank was compromised it would escape into the atmosphere.
Whilst we are still a few years away from a safety-tested self-driving car, many semi-autonomous features are becoming commonplace on new cars. Of course, hybrid and hydrogen cell cars are no different, with adaptive cruise control, automatic parking and in some cases automatic braking and steering becoming more prevalent.
Also on the horizon is the return of aluminum as a lightweight construction option. The added efficiency it gives is a major bonus for hybrid and battery cars, as it increases their range substantially.
Modern hybrids also use regenerative brake technology to convert kinetic energy into electricity, and motor generators which enable the combustion engine to charge and power the drive train. All in all, hybrids create much lower emissions than petrol cars and offer much-improved fuel economy. If the hybrid doesn’t charge itself then it is necessary to plug it in, either at home or at a charging point (another survey from 2018 put the number of charging stations in the USA at 18,000, servicing approximately 800,000 electric vehicles). Charging the battery may not cost much, but can take up to three hours from flat to full.
Hydrogen, the most abundant substance in the universe, can be produced cleanly and sustainably. There are a few ways to obtain it, most of which are either totally emission-free or very close to it. In fact, the only emission hydrogen cell cars produce is water! Proponents of hydrogen technology also note that it is better suited than hybrid or battery power for heavier industrial vehicles such as trucks or ships, and potentially even planes.
Both hybrid and hydrogen fuel cell cars have their advantages, disadvantages, and differences. However, one thing is clear, and that is renewable, green, alternatively fuelled vehicles are the future of motoring, and the technology is developing at a gallop. Eventually, vehicle and operational costs will come down and become more efficient and convenient for consumers. It’s time to bid adieu to gasoline – a new dawn of car technology is here.
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Source: Startus Magazine
Author: Robert Lewis