How some automakers are still pushing ahead for a hydrogen-powered future

Last week at the massive Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, some companies presented hydrogen as an alternative fuel star of the future. That may be a bit surprising, considering some headlines proclaimed that hydrogen is dead as late as last fall. Right now, the industry seems to be focusing its time and money on battery-electric power; hydrogen feels, at best, light years away from mainstream.

Several automakers have dabbled in hydrogen already, including Toyota with its smooth-riding Mirai and Hyundai’s Nexo. Audi, Honda, BMW, and others have explored it as well. Despite its challenges, several companies have dropped hints or outright pledged commitment to the development of this fuel option. 

The current administration’s commitment to clean energy has accelerated the process; in October, the U.S. Department of Energy announced a $7 billion investment to launch seven regional clean hydrogen hubs focused on producing low-cost, clean hydrogen. These hubs are strategically centered around the country, touching high priority areas in the Pacific Northwest central US, Midwest, East Coast, Appalachia, southern California, and the Gulf Coast of Texas. 

[ Related: A beginner’s guide to the ‘hydrogen rainbow’ ]

Honda is all in

Last fall, executive vice president of Honda Motor Company Shinji Aoyama told PopSci that a delicate balance exists between hydrogen supply and demand, and right now affordability presents a challenge for consumers. On average, hydrogen costs $13 to $16 per kilogram, which is roughly equivalent to two gallons of fuel. Currently, the national average for 87 octane gas (according to AAA) is about $3 per gallon, which means that hydrogen still costs more than double at the pump. 

That isn’t deterring the Japanese automaker, which says that solar and wind power are unstable on their own, as they are more susceptible to seasonality and weather conditions. By using renewable energy to generate hydrogen, it becomes a greener cycle.

“To ensure stable use of renewable energy, we need a means to store electricity that absorbs the impact of fluctuations in power generation,” said Honda executive (and 30-year Honda veteran) Arata Ichinose. “This is where hydrogen shows high potential as an energy carrier.”

Honda vouched for hydrogen energy back in the mid-90s, pledging time and money to research the possibilities. The company launched the world’s first fuel cell EV (FCEV) in 2002, refining it through subsequent iterations like the five-seat Clarity sedan. Even after the Clarity was discontinued, Honda built a fuel cell power station from fuel cells used in previously leased Clarity sedans, providing emergency backup power to the company’s data center in California. And they’re not finished yet: in 2024, the brand will launch an all-new FCEV based on the CR-V crossover.

[ Related: US will build seven regional ‘hydrogen hubs’ to spark clean energy transition ]

Ramping up hydrogen infrastructure

While EVs continue to be the primary focus of the future for the automotive industry, American drivers continue to be concerned about the public charging infrastructure. That goes double (or tenfold, or even a hundredfold) for hydrogen vehicles, as hydrogen charging stations don’t exist outside of California. (Aside from one lonely station in Hawaii, that is.)

The federal government made some headway toward mitigating that issue last week, announcing $623 million in funding earmarked for battery-electric and hydrogen fuel-cell charging stations. About 11 percent, or $70 million, was set aside for the North Central Texas Council of Governments to build five hydrogen fueling stations. These facilities are intended to shore up the heavy trucking corridor between Texas and southern California and promote the exchange of business.

Truck and energy company Nikola showed off one of its first hydrogen cell electric trucks at CES last week as well. (The company’s previous all-electric efforts landed in hot water after a since-resigned CEO’s exaggerated claims.) Now, the company says its truck can achieve a range of up to 500 miles and fuel up in 20 minutes. Last year, Nikola moved its manufacturing headquarters 350 miles away from Cypress, California to a town south of Phoenix, Arizona. The mileage doesn’t add up, in either case, begging the question: How does a truck get from here to there without charging infrastructure?

In Nikola’s case, the trucks are packing their fuel to go. Portable fueling units have been mobilized to carry the energy needed with the plan to support up to 30 trucks per day. In the meantime, Nikola is partnering with Voltera (a company that builds EV infrastructure) to open six heavy-duty hydrogen stations in California thanks to a $42 million award from the California Transportation Commission.

German company Bosch believes that hydrogen power is necessary for a climate-neutral future, and it’s putting up $2.6 billion to develop and manufacture hydrogen. And it’s putting down big stakes, as Bosch’s stated plan is to generate sales of roughly $5.3 billion with hydrogen technology by 2030.

Hydrogen fuel cell challenges

The U.S. Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy describes hydrogen as a zero-emission clean fuel producing only water as a byproduct. Although that sounds ideal on the surface, hydrogen presents its own set of challenges especially as it relates to production and storage.

Hydrogen fuel can be produced through a handful of processes, including thermal, electrolytic, solar-driven, wind-powered, and biological reaction. Most hydrogen fuel cell centers are historically powered by natural gas, which doesn’t equate to green energy. Using methane to separate the molecules is widely used, but it poses a serious leak risk that can cause more harm than good. Renewables (wind- and solar-powered) methods are the greenest but one of the costliest options. 

Emre Gençer is a principal research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Energy Initiative, and he says of those four, only two can be used widely at a reasonable cost. One of those is using water electrolysis powered by electricity from renewable energy or nuclear power, and Bosch has a plan to advance that avenue.

Today, Bosch is feverishly developing components for electrolyzers, which use electrolysis (using direct electric current to drive a chemical reaction) to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. When used in combination with wind or solar power, the cycle creates a greener-yet cycle overall. The company says it “firmly believes in hydrogen as a future fuel” and it’s working on developing both stationary and mobile fuel cells.

Next, science will have to tackle the hydrogen storage conundrum. Hydrogen is low density and must be stored at high pressures to compress it to a usable volume, and it also requires super-low temperatures. While this aspect is still very much in development, automakers aren’t waiting idly by–especially with government funding backing the infrastructure. Solid state batteries are still on the table, and Toyota confirmed recently that it’s moving ahead with its plans to launch vehicles with this type of energy source soon. By this time next year, these technologies could be significantly more advanced.