Hydrogen Cars

The content below is from Episode 79 of the Who’d a Thunk It? Podcast.


  • I’d like to recommend the band ABBA.
    • Yeah that ABBA, the one that plays Dancing Queen!
    • But I’ll tell ya, they have a lot of other bangers like Fernando and Chiquitita!
    • ABBA knows how to hit a good rhythm that always seems to get my butt moving! I’ve recently been listening to Chiquitita at the gym and every time that beat drops I’m pushing the treadmill up to 7+ MPH for a good jolt of powerful positive energy. I highly recommend.


  • DISCLAIMER: I used a bunch of sources for this episode and you can find those at the bottom of the blog post, but I used one source HEAVILY and that is a YouTube video titled “Why Hydrogen Cars Flopped” by Donut Media. There video is also on the blog post. Just wanted to give credit where credit is due.
  • I don’t remember where I was when this happened, but I know I was with my mom.
    • It was in the past year or so that we pulled in to a gas station and I saw a pump that had a blue handle and simply said “Hydrogen” above it.
    • Now I’ve heard of electric cars, and your typical gasoline fueled cars, but I had never heard of “Hydrogen” fueled cars.
    • After digging in to the topic for this week’s episode I felt a bit embarrassed by that fact, because this technology has been around since the 1800’s and has been getting billion dollar funding grants from the US government as recent as the Bush administration… the Little Bush that is.
  • So what is the tech behind hydrogen cars?
    • I found out that hydrogen cars are powered by what’s called Fuel Cell technology.
      • And a fuel cell is a device that generates electricity by a chemical reaction. … One great appeal of fuel cells is that they generate electricity with very little pollution–much of the hydrogen and oxygen used in generating electricity ultimately combine to form a harmless byproduct, namely water.
      • Similar to a battery, a fuel cell is a device that produces electricity through an electrochemical reaction — a chemical reaction that generates electricity without any combustion. Unlike batteries, fuel cells don’t run down or need recharging. As long as there is a constant source of fuel and oxygen, fuel cells will continue to generate power.
      • While hydrogen is a common fuel source for fuel cells, it isn’t the only one. Fuel cells can produce electricity using hydrogen-rich fuels, such as biogas, natural gas, propane, methanol and diesel.
  • As I mentioned, fuel cell technology goes all the way back to the 1800’s
    • It was first invented in 1839 by Welsh scientist William Robert Grove.
      • He was a Welsh judge, inventor, and physicist (back when there were renaissance guys who held all kinds of titles like this). He mixed hydrogen and oxygen in the presence of an electrolyte and produced electricity and water. However, the invention didn’t produce enough electricity to be useful at the time.
    • Since Grove, NASA has used fuel cells to power onboard systems in their Gemini spacecraft. Those hydrogen fuel cells produced water as a byproduct, which the astronauts were then able to drink.
  • Now let’s talk about the automotive industry.
    • The very first Hydrogen car was made in 1966 by GM.
    • It was the 1966 GM Electrovan.
      • The vehicle was a 1966 GMC Handivan on the outside. Its insides were converted into a science lab of new technology that appeared more like a whisky still of old.
      • The Union Carbide 5 kw fuel cell (rated at 1,000 hours of use) was able to propel the GM Electrovan for top speeds between 63 – 70 mph.
        • Those aren’t killer top speeds, but the fastest highway in my home state of PA only goes to 70mph so thats about all you would need.
      • The Electrovan also had a range of 120 miles, which was not too shabby for 1966. Because of safety concerns, the Electrovan was only used on company property, where it had several mishaps along the way.
        • That is why when you google search what the “First Hydrogen Car” is you get:
          • The first commercially produced hydrogen fuel cell automobile, the Hyundai ix35 FCEV, was introduced in 2013… because that was the first to be commercially available.
  • This is how the hydrogen fuel cell works:
    • Compressed hydrogen enters a pipe to a positive terminal in the fuel cell. Then oxygen from the atmosphere enters from a 2nd pipe to the negative terminal.
    • The positive terminal is made of Platinum that acts as a catalyst accelerating the chemical reaction. When the Hydrogen atoms hit the Platinum catalyst they split up into Hydrogen Ions (that is protons and electrons). Hydrogen Ions are just hydrogen atoms that have lost their electrons. Hydrogen just has 1 proton and 1 electron (that’s why it is #1 on the periodic table). So a Hydrogen ion is just a proton.
    • The positive charged protons are attracted to the negative charged terminal and go through the electrolyte. Because the electrolyte is made of a special polymer, only the protons can pass through it. Now that the electrons are free of their protons they flow through the open circuit and head towards the motor. These electrons power the motor and makes the wheels spin.
    • Then the electrons travel back out of the motor and towards the negative terminal where they link back up with the Hydrogen protons and the oxygen from the atmosphere. This makes H2O… water. This high quality H2O comes out of the exhaust pipe and you can actually drink it…
      • Although I’d have a hard time trusting it and you would probably look like an insane person if you laid on your back underneath a car with your mouth open and tongue out hoping to catch a small stream of water out of a car’s exhaust pipe…. If I saw my neighbor doing that I’d immediately get my phone out and put that all over Instagram and reddit.
  • What killed the Hydrogen Car?
    • I told a few of my friends about this week’s topic and their response:
      • “Society banned those cars so they can get rich selling petroleum” – that was my buddy Cory.
      • and I found that is the general consensus of the conspiracy theory community. While I do think industries do sometimes kill superior technologies so they can keep making bank off their inferior product, I’m not so sure that is the case with Hydrogen cars.
      • I did some research and there is A LOT going against these cars. IF some industry or “Society” as a whole as Cory claims is actively trying to kill the Hydrogen car, they didn’t have to try very hard.
      • Here are factors that attributed to hydrogen car’s downfall::
    • Environmental Factors
      • Hydrogen Fuel Cell tech does run on hydrogen and gives off only heat and water as a byproduct. There is even a “air cleaning” feature on these cars that claims to leave the atmosphere less polluted when it is running.
      • Just looking at how these engines work: Hydrogen goes in and Water comes out… you’d think they are great for the environment… but like all things in life, It’s Complicated.
        • Hydrogen doesn’t doesn’t exist on it’s own in nature. We have to make H2 through a process called Electrolysis and that takes A LOT of power.
        • Water is taken to a special plant and separated to make H2. This is 75% energy efficient.
        • Then the H2 is compressed, chilled, and transported to the fueling station. There the H2 is put in to a car which turns the H2 BACK in to electricity to power the motor.
        • In the end, if you started with 100 watts of power at the plant, only 38 watts of that electric power is used to move your car. The Hydrogen Engine is only 38% efficient.
        • and where did that electricity come from??? natural gas, coal, and nuclear energy so the source of the power isn’t coming out of thin air.
        • So if we could find a more efficient way to produce the H2 and get it in to the Hydrogen car then we’d have the greatest environmental friendly mode of transportation possible other than walking, but as things are now it is not that great.
  • For comparison…
    • The traditional combustion engine is only 25 to 35% efficient so hydrogen has them beat by a small margin
    • But the electric cars like Tesla use the electricity directly… they don’t have to transform the electric power into anything so they are a staggering 80% efficient.
    • The hydrogen car CAN be the environmental car of the future, but it needs A LOT more research, resources and time before it gets there. Right now it only marginally beats out the gas car and is left in the dust by the electric car.
  • Convenience – or lack there of
    • According to Wikipedia: “As of 2021, there are two hydrogen cars publicly available in select markets: the Toyota Mirai and the Hyundai Nexo…” but what Wikipedia didn’t say that there is also a car called the Honda Clarity available lol. so you know… Wikipedia…. There are 3 Hydrogen cars right now… only 3 cars to choose from. not a convenient selection.
      • In mid-2021, there were 48 open retail hydrogen stations in the United States. Additionally, there were at least 60 stations in various stages of planning or construction. Most of the existing and planned stations were in California, with one in Hawaii and 14 planned for the Northeastern states.
        • So lets give it the benefit of the doubt here and say all 60 of those stations are finished constructions… that is only 108 places to fuel up your car across one of the geographically largest countries on the planet. …
        • that is compared to over 150,000 petroleum gas stations available.
      • It is disgustingly inconvenient to fuel up your hydrogen car. As things are now it is literally impossible to travel across the US with one of these cars. You can start in NY and make it all the way to about Ohio/Michigan until you would start running out of fueling spots. If you only drove on the highway you MIGHT be able to make it to Missouri.
        • Traveling the other way from California… you wouldn’t even make it past Arizona before you’d find yourself stranded in the desert with no Hydrogen fueling station in sight.
        • So that inconvenient fact alone kills the thought of wanting to buy one of these
This map was published on September 2020
  • Price
    • After looking in to hydrogen fuel cell technology there are lots of benefits to this form of transportation, but the initial cost to switch over to this form of fuel kind of explains why they aren’t all over the place already…
    • First there is the cost of the cars themselves:
      • Honda Clarity Fuel Cell: $58,490
      • Honda Nexo: $60,120
      • Toyota Mirai: $49,500
    • Hydrogen fuel is much more efficient than gasoline, but it’s also four times more expensive, roughly equivalent to about $16 a gallon… however most Hydrogen pumps don’t measure by volume like gallons because what you are putting in to your Fuel Cell car is pressurized Hydrogen.
      • So the price is more accurately listed as $16.50 per kg.
      • The Toyota Mirai has a 5kg tank so that is $82.50 to fill up your car… and that will last about 400 miles.
        • For comparison my granny car: 2014 Hyundai Elantra has a 13.2 gallon tank. So with gas costing about $3.19 it would cost me $42.19 to fill up. With an average 32 MPG rate that is about 422 miles out of 1 tank.
        • So half the price and roughly the same result.
    • The price to install a Hydrogen fuel station is also pricey.
      • Electric charging stations cost about $50K to install at a Gas Station
      • Traditional Gasoline/Petroleum costs about $300K to install.
      • and Hydrogen fueling stations cost a Whopping $2Million to install.
    • There is some financial help from the government (via us taxpayers) that incentivized companies to create more hydrogen cars and hydrogen fueling stations.
      • But for the most part people are just not interested.
From left to right: Electric, Hydrogen, and Gasoline/Petroleum station installation costs.
  • Performance
    • More reasonably priced hydrogen cars like the 2021 Toyota Mirai’s performance is sad.
      • 0-60 in 9.1 seconds
      • top speed of 106 mph
      • and has a maximum range of about 623 miles on 1 hydrogen fill up
      • For a comparison, That granny car of mine the 2014 Hyundai Elantra goes 0-60 in 9.6 seconds and has a top speed of 121 mph
    • Now there is a hydrogen sports car that is set to release in 2022: the Hyperion XP-1
      • 0-60 in 2.2 seconds
      • top speed of 220 mph
      • 1,000 mile range
      • 1,000 horse power
      • and I personally love how futuristic it looks
        • But that is not a car that I can afford… and statistically speaking it probably isn’t something you can afford either… no price listed yet, but you can bet the cost will be atrocious.
  • The Competition
    • Hydrogen fuel cell technology in a car was an exciting futuristic concept when it came out as a commercial possibility in 2013. It looked like Hydrogen was the future for a hot second … then Elon Musk with his giant South African brain and Tony Stark-like reputation came along and left Hydrogen in the dust.
    • Electric cars like the Tesla got all the funding and research while Hydrogen car tech was left in the closet like toys from toy story.
  • Hydrogen Cars are soon to be a thing of the past… not that they were ever really popular to begin with… But there is hope for this water producing power source!
    • City transit systems like buses are starting to use Hydrogen and there are plans in the works to make hydrogen powered Semi trucks
    • Amazon and other factories are starting to use Hydrogen to fuel their forklifts and other equipment
    • Entire cities are looking to switch to Hydrogen Fuel Cell tech
    • I mentioned earlier that NASA uses Hydrogen fuel cells to make power and water for the astronauts to drink.
    • And Tech companies are looking in to manufacturing heaters and generators for rural communities.
  • What do I think about Hydrogen cars?
    • I would LOVE to drive one of these puppies. Can you imagine driving a car that gives off drinkable water? that would cool as hell.
    • However, I would hate driving a car that I could only fuel up at a spot that is probably an hour away or farther.



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