hydrogen vehicle engine

A hydrogen vehicle uses hydrogen fuel for propulsion, rather than conventional fossil fuels. A global shift towards green energy and decarbonisation is lending to hydrogen vehicles becoming a commercial reality. In summary, the chemical energy is converted to mechanical energy by reacting hydrogen with oxygen in a fuel cell, powering the electric motor. 


What is a hydrogen vehicle?

The Toyota Mirai was the world’s first fuel cell car. Toyota are committed to mass production using Hydrogen fuel sources. The majority of global auto manufactures are converting to BEV (battery electric vehicles) in the short-term.

In 2019, more than 95% of hydrogen was produced by steam methane reforming. The disadvantages of hydrogen are high carbon emissions when produced from natural gas. Secondly, a relatively low energy yield occurs at ambient conditions. Other challenges include production, compression and storage of hydrogen.


Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles

A fuel cell vehicle is an electric vehicle with a fuel cell at its heart. Fuel cells generate electricity using oxygen and compressed hydrogen. A clear benefit is the output and emission of water and heat. The carbon stamp originates from the production (not end user), where hydrogen is produced from reformed natural gas.

The electrochemical fuel cell converts the chemical energy of the fuel, hydrogen and an oxidising agent, oxygen into electricity via two redox reactions. Fuel cells need a continuous source of fuel and oxygen to sustain the reaction.


Types of fuel cells design

Fuel cells are made up of three segments: the anode, the electrolyte, and the cathode. Two chemical reactions occur at the interfaces of the three different segments. Fuel is consumed, water or carbon dioxide is created, and an electric current is created, facilitating the propulsion.

At the anode a catalyst oxidises the fuel, turning the fuel into a positively charged ion and a negatively charged electron. The electrolyte allows ions to pass through it. The electrons travel through a wire creating the electric current. The ions travel through the electrolyte to the cathode and react with electrons (and oxygen), to produce water or carbon dioxide.

The electrolyte substance is typically potassium hydroxide, salt carbonates, and phosphoric acid. The fuel is hydrogen and the anode catalyst is platinum. The cathode catalyst, nickel, converts ions into water.


Hydrogen fuel production methods

Hydrogen can be produced from resources including fossil fuels, biomass, and water electrolysis. The environmental impact varies. In light of the requirement for mass hydrogen infrastructures, research is targeted at reducing linked to production.

There are several production methods:

Natural Gas Reforming: A mixture of hydrogen, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide, is produced from natural gas and steam. The carbon monoxide is reacted with water to produce additional hydrogen. A cheap method, which is the main source of hydrogen. A synthesis gas (gasification) can also be created by reacting coal or biomass with high-temperature steam and oxygen in a gasifier.

Electrolysis: An electric current splits water into hydrogen and oxygen. If the electricity is produced by renewable sources, such as solar or wind, the resulting hydrogen will be considered renewable as well, and has numerous emissions benefits. A very favourable method.

Renewable Liquid Reforming: Renewable liquid fuels, such as ethanol, are reacted with high-temperature steam to produce hydrogen.

Fermentation: Biomass is converted into sugar-rich feedstocks that can be fermented to produce hydrogen.

Research is continuing and progress is also being made in High-Temperature Water Splitting, Photobiological and Photoelectrochemical methods.


Hydrogen cars

In 2013 the Hyundai Tucson was launched as the first commercially mass produced vehicle of its type. Toyota also launched a mass produced fuel cell vehicle, the Mirai, in 2014. The car has a competitive range and takes approximately five minutes to refill – a huge benefit over BEV. Toyota had sold over 10,000 Mirais (by the end of 2019). Many automobile companies have introduced demonstration models in limited numbers – testing the viability and market reaction.

In 2013 BMW leased hydrogen technology from Toyota, and a group formed by Ford Motor Company, Daimler AG, and Nissan announced a collaboration on hydrogen technology development. 


Hydrogen planes, trains and automobiles

Fuel-cell buses are being trialed by several manufacturers in different locations, for example, Ursus Lublin. Solaris Bus & Coach introduced its Urbino 12 hydrogen electric buses in 2019. Teeside, UK, will be trialing a fleet in 2021 as part of its net zero drive and alignment to progress in decarbonisation.

In 2015, China South Rail Corporation demonstrated the world’s first hydrogen tram. In Germany in 2018, the first fuel-cell trains started operating. An experimental Hydroflex train, in the UK, is also undergoing testingThe efficiency for hydrogen from electrolysis still exceeds vehicles based on internal combustion engines.


Hydrogen storage

Compressed hydrogen at 350 and 700 bar is used for hydrogen tank systems in vehicles. Hydrogen has a very low volumetric energy density at ambient conditions and must be stored as a super-cooled liquid or as highly compressed gas. In 2018, researchers at CSIRO in Australia powered a Toyota Mirai and Hyundai Nexo with hydrogen separated from ammonia using a membrane technology. Ammonia is easier to transport safely in tankers than pure hydrogen.


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