Electric vehicles are often used as the poster children for alternative energy-driven vehicles, but they are not the only means of differentiation from the traditional gasoline-powered contraptions that we all know and love. Several companies have been looking elsewhere for power, and major manufacturers such as Toyota (NYSE:TM) (among numerous others, industry-wide) have come up with hydrogen as a second-best option to plug in battery-powered vehicles.
Hydrogen-powered cars use special fuel cells which, through a chemical reaction, translate the hydrogen fuel into electricity. This, in turn, is used to power electric motors that drive the car. Stacks of these cells are installed in the vehicles since a single fuel cell does not produce enough power to move a car.
First, hydrogen is channeled through one side of the fuel cell to the anode, while oxygen is channeled through the other side to the cathode. Once the hydrogen reaches the anode, a platinum catalyst forces it to split into positive protons and negative electrons. A special screen called a Polymer Electrolyte Membrane then filters the protons, which move to the cathode but prevent the electrons from passing through.
Once the protons are separated, the electrons are forced to travel along an external circuit to the cathode. This, in turn, creates an electric current. Once the electrons reach the cathode, they meet up with the protons and join to form water — the only byproduct of hydrogen-powered vehicles.
Of course, there is one major drawback to hydrogen cars: the fuel cells are costly. Seriously costly. Toyota has just announced that its next generation of fuel cell vehicles will cost around $50,000 to produce, which would likely indicate that the retail price would be anywhere from there northward to the $100,000 range per vehicle.
Automatically, the sheer cost of producing a hydrogen car prices it well out of range for the average buyer, but there is some reassuring news. When the prototype of the fuel cell vehicle was debuted, the unit cost a staggering $1 million per pop. However, in only a few years, the cost of fuel cell technology has come down in price by a factor of 20.
Despite being outrageously expensive, hydrogen does have some redeeming qualities. Unlike electric cars on the market now, which take can take up to several hours to fully charge, a hydrogen vehicle fills much like a gas-powered vehicle, more or less eliminating the range anxiety associated with electric cars. That being said, hydrogen fill-ups are few and far between — at least for now. Additionally, at roughly a cost of $1.00 per 1.8 kilograms, it’s cheaper than gasoline, although the power yield per gallon of hydrogen is far less than a gallon of petroleum.
For Toyota, seeing hydrogen technology on the retail floor might be a long way off. But if prices continue to fall the way they have been, we might see a push for hydrogen adaptation sooner than one would think.