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Hydrogen: your car's future fuel?

By Jodie Chay Oneill | May 9, 2024


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We already utilise hydrogen in space travel, showcasing its potential as a fuel source. So, why the emphasis on electric cars over hydrogen?

Hydrogen: your car's future fuel?

If you've been keeping up with the times over the past decade or two, you're likely aware of the global efforts to tackle rising temperatures and climate change, particularly with a focus on finding alternatives to traditional internal combustion engines (ICEs) in the automotive industry. The current frontrunner in this pursuit seems to be electric vehicles (EVs), which don't emit harmful gases during operation and leverage our familiarity with electricity. However, despite the promise of EVs, there are lingering issues to iron out. This has prompted some to wonder if there are viable alternatives, leading to discussions about hydrogen-fueled cars.

Hydrogen, at least theoretically, presents an appealing option. It's abundant, primarily found in water, and emits only water as a byproduct. We already utilise hydrogen in space travel, showcasing its potential as a fuel source. So, why the emphasis on electric cars over hydrogen?

The challenge lies in obtaining pure, usable hydrogen. Its highly reactive nature makes it difficult to find in its pure form in nature, and extracting it from other compounds, such as water, demands substantial energy and specialised equipment. Even if acquired, storing hydrogen safely poses further complications.

Despite these hurdles, innovative minds are striving to make hydrogen a viable energy option, potentially revolutionising the energy landscape.

Currently, two primary methods are explored for hydrogen production: electrolysis and steam reforming of natural gases like methane.

Steam-methane reforming, the dominant method, involves reacting methane with steam under high pressure and temperature to produce hydrogen and other byproducts. Although it yields a significant amount of hydrogen, the process also generates carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, along with requiring substantial energy inputs, often sourced from fossil fuels.

Electrolysis, a simpler concept, involves passing an electric current through water to split it into oxygen and hydrogen. While environmentally cleaner, electrolysis currently suffers from low hydrogen output compared to the energy required for the process.

Efforts are underway to improve electrolysis efficiency, such as exploring alternative electrolytes like ammonia water and utilising renewable energy sources like solar power. Additionally, unconventional methods like hydrogen-producing algae are being researched, although they face significant challenges, including low yields and sensitivity to oxygen.

Despite the obstacles, ongoing technological advancements offer hope that hydrogen could emerge as a viable solution to our energy needs in the future.

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