There is a new technology that is starting to pick up some momentum in the car world. While electric cars are taking center stage, the need for a fossil-free future has allowed hydrogen-powered cars to get more attention. As of 2018, there were only three hydrogen cars commercially available (the Toyota Mirai, the Hyundai Nexo, and the Honda Clarity), but more companies have announced hydrogen cars since then (BMW will be the next company to release a hydrogen-powered car). But how does this technology even work?
Like all-electric vehicles, fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) use electricity to power an electric motor. The difference is that FCEVs produce electricity using a hydrogen-powered fuel cell, instead of using a battery. Fuel cells work like batteries, but they do not run down or need recharging. They produce electricity and heat as long as fuel is supplied (hydrogen is the fuel). If you really want to understand how this works, do some research on your own, but for the sake of simplification, the fuel cell with has high pressured hydrogen gas which mixes with oxygen, starting a chemical reaction that causes electrons to go through an external circuit, creating electricity. The amount of energy stored in the car is determined by the size of the hydrogen fuel tank, as it allows for more reactions.
So, are FCEVs better than electric cars? While they currently have a longer range than electric cars (most fully electric vehicles can travel between 100-200 miles on a single charge, while hydrogen ones can get to 300 miles), the ranges of electric cars are continuously increasing. Refueling stations are another story. There are around 41,400 electric charging stations in the United States, and this number is drastically increasing, there are only around 45 hydrogen refilling stations in the US, most of them in California. While there are fewer hydrogen refueling stations, it only takes five to ten minutes to refuel with hydrogen.
The real problem with FCEVs is that hydrogen does not exist in its pure form on Earth, so must be made out of out of other compounds like water, natural gas or other fossil fuels, or biomass. One way to get hydrogen in a clean way by separating water molecules, but this uses a lot of energy, making it a very expensive process. Also, it is only 75% energy efficient, which again, is very expensive. However, if this energy is able to come from renewable energy sources, it can be a very environmentally-friendly process. These downfalls are why most hydrogen fuel is obtained using natural gas, which releases a lot of greenhouse gasses and is very harmful for the environment. Basically, if made with clean processes, FCEVs can be a greener alternative to lithium ion batteries and the mining processes that come with them, but if hydrogen is made with natural gas, the switch from gas to hydrogen cars is just a switch from one fossil fuel to another.
In summary, while FCEVs have potential, EVs are more environmentally friendly and there is more infrastructure set up for them. While FCEVs could still grow in the future, electric vehicles will be the cars of the future.