Some have pointed at fuel cell vehicles as yet another in a slew of “greenwashed” vehicles, but a careful consideration of the facts should help to dispel some of the myths surrounding this new technology.
Part of the problem is that, in spite of the fact that hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, much like battery electric vehicles, do not generate any emissions in themselves, there are upstream emissions to consider. This makes sense, as the energy to power a vehicle has to come from somewhere. Conventional and hybrid electric vehicles get their energy from fossil fuels, which generate greenhouse gas emissions on a grand scale. Switching over to battery electric vehicles and fuel cell vehicles could have essentially the same effect on atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration if the power plants themselves are powered by fossil fuels.
It’s true, the most common method to generate hydrogen is SMR (steam methane reformation), because it is the most efficient and cheapest method. Methane, of course, otherwise known as natural gas, is a fossil fuel. Taking it one step further, natural gas is most commonly extracted via hydraulic fracturing. It doesn’t take much of a leap of the imagination to suddenly link fuel cell vehicles to fracking, then, does it? If that were the only way to generate hydrogen fuel, I would immediately join the “Hydrogen is BS” camp, but to say that SMR is the only method is grossly misleading.
In fact, there are at least a few other ways to generate hydrogen fuel for a future hydrogen fuel cell vehicle fleet, most of which aren’t particularly efficient, but entirely renewable, which is the key to making fuel cell vehicles an environmental success. The artificial leaf, for example, generates gaseous hydrogen and oxygen from abundant sunlight and water. Practically any form of renewable energy, including hydro-, wind-, and solar-power, can be connected to electrolysis machines, which has been used to separate hydrogen and oxygen in water for at least two hundred years. A recent NREL (National Renewable Energy Laboratory) study on renewable hydrogen fuel generation suggests that it is a perfectly viable method using current technology.
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