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The Hydrogen Combustion Engine Could One Day Compete With EVs

But Not Quite Yet

Leo Shvedsky
August 19 2021
A hydrogen powered car races in the Fuji SUPER TEC 24 Hours Race Toyota

Toyota’s entry in the Super Taikyu Race, a five-hour endurance race in Japan, recently placed 43rd out of 44 entries. Now, the only reason anyone cares about a car that almost came in dead last in a provincial race is that it’s not just any car - this is a hydrogen powered car. And the reason its seemingly sub-par performance is big deal is because it didn’t break down, or more precisely, it’s that much closer to being practical. Translation: it’s that much closer to being a competitor to the electric vehicle for “the future of cars.” 

The hydrogen combustion engine on the surface is a fairly simple concept. Take a regular internal combustion engine that uses gasoline to produce power and drive, and replace the gasoline with hydrogen. The result is near zero emissions, and an abundant fuel supply. After all, there’s pretty much no element in the entire Universe more abundant than the hydrogen atom. So, can it compete and win against the battery-powered electric engine for the future hear and soul of cars?  

Well, probably not and here’s why:  

The very first hydrogen powered engine design was recorded in 1806 France, and since then various engineers have been trying to crack a practical design since then. But it wasn’t until material science caught up with engineers’ imaginations in the 1970s that a gasoline combustion engine was redesigned to run on hydrogen combustion. The promise of the engine since then has been the idea of significantly lowered emissions.   

But, that’s also the promise of the electric engine (and it’s been around just as long). What’s the difference? It all comes down to practicality. Fully electric vehicles already exist in the world. People own them and drive them. Nowadays some Teslas boast a 402-mile range and, although it’s more like 250 realistically speaking, it remains highly impressive. That is still twice above the range that 17 pounds of hydrogen fuel will get you  - about 125 miles. In addition, hydrogen fuel is more expensive and more difficult to obtain.  

This impracticality is mostly due to the science of how hydrogen combustion works. You need so much more hydrogen than gasoline or electricity to produce the same amount of power, which has some sad ramifications for all the speed freaks out there. BMW did manage to produce The Hydrogen 7, which went really fast (the car accelerates from stopped to a respectable 100 km/h in 9.5 seconds). But it also required a gasoline infusion. 

It will all likely come down to infrastructure in the end, which is fast becoming the bottom line in determining the future of what will power most cars by the middle of this century. The recent infrastructure bill passed by the US is leaning far more toward electric than experimenting with anything you’d see on the periodic table. 

So, what will happen to Toyota’s hydrogen powered little Corolla that could? We’ll have to wait and see, but our money is on ‘not much.’



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