I was driving westbound through fog and heavy mist traversing the Florida panhandle when it clicked. The same stuff that was reducing visibility – a moisture saturated blanket of hydrogen and oxygen molecules – was also powering the car I was driving, but in a different form.
The car was one of a fleet of three Mercedes-Benz F-Cell cars being driven around the world to raise awareness of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. Along with two other automotive journalists, I was participating in the first North American leg of the Mercedes-Benz F-Cell World Drive. Over 125 days, the program will have logged more than 20,000 miles, crossed 14 countries, and traversed four continents.
How did my car work? Its fuel cell ‘stack’ was taking in hydrogen on one side of a membrane and outside air containing oxygen on the other. As the two elements interacted, a chemical reaction created electricity with sufficient energy to power the car’s electric drivetrain. Very cool.
A primary advantage of fuel cell power is that no combustion takes place and the process is virtually emissions-free. While fuel cell cars do have a tailpipe, it’s for evacuating water from the fuel cell since the only emissions are water vapor and a little bit of heat. This clean energy means fuel cells can be operated in congested areas without environmental worries. Fuel cell technology is versatile and fully scalable, too, with many applications outside transportation such as providing back-up or primary power for households or industrial electrical needs.
Number-one on the periodic table of elements, H2 (hydrogen) has the atomic number of 1 with one proton and one electron. It’s both the simplest element in our world and by far the most abundant in the universe. The name hydrogen comes from the Greek words ‘hydro’ and ‘genes,’ which translates into ‘water-forming.’ It is also the stuff that fuels stars, and not just the ones in Hollywood that drive fuel cell cars. Our sun is powered by hydrogen in a process called fusion.
Closer to home, the idea of powering our personal transportation with hydrogen is very appealing. Hydrogen can be either burned in an internal combustion engine or used to produce electricity in a fuel cell stack without combustion, the latter producing no C02 greenhouse gases. Most of the hydrogen we use today is produced from steam reformation of natural gas. But it can also be made by other means including electrolysis, a process that uses electrical current to split water (H20) into hydrogen and oxygen.
Hydrogen is sometimes disparaged as a fuel source because it can take nearly as much energy to produce as is contained in the hydrogen fuel created. This becomes less of an argument as more efficient means of hydrogen production are developed and when the electrical power used to create H2 comes from renewable sources like wind, solar, hydro, and off-peak power from nuclear and other powerplants that often goes to waste.
Things have been relatively quiet on the hydrogen front over the past few years with so much attention being devoted to electric vehicles. Still, most major automakers continue to develop hydrogen fuel cell technology as a longer-term solution to our transportation needs. Our experience on the F-Cell World Drive illustrates that these cars are ready for prime time. All we need now is a hydrogen infrastructure, which of course is no small thing.