Road trips are a summer staple, but rising fuel costs make it more expensive to pack up the family car and head across the country. Electric vehicles and those powered by hydrogen fuel cells are advertised as alternatives to traditional internal combustion engines. Still, they may not offer the range necessary to explore the highways and byways of the world.
Is road tripping possible with hydrogen fuel cell vehicles? Here’s what drivers need to know before planning a family vacation.
How Do Hydrogen Fuel Cells Work?
We’re no stranger to using hydrogen for fuel. The Hindenburg used hydrogen’s lighter-than-air characteristic to stay aloft. NASA has used hydrogen as fuel for decades, powering everything from Centaur rockets to the crewed Apollo and space shuttle missions. Fuel cell technology is finally appearing in passenger vehicles, but how does it work? Thankfully, we’re not filling up tanks with liquid or gaseous hydrogen.
Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are similar to EVs because they use electric motors. The difference lies in the method of power generation. EVs use lithium batteries charged by plugging them in, while hydrogen fuel cells produce electricity by combining hydrogen and oxygen atoms. Instead of plugging into the wall or a charging station, drivers can recharge their fuel cells in 30 minutes or less.
A Growing Network of Fill-up Stations
The need for hydrogen refueling stations is the biggest challenge that could prevent a road trip in a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. On the contrary, gas stations, stocked with gasoline, diesel and often ethanol-free gasoline for boat engines, are available along every highway in the country. There’s a lot more planning involved with driving hydrogen-fueled cars than just checking the tire pressure and topping off the fluids before your road trip.
Hydrogen fueling stations aren’t nearly as common as gas stations in the United States. As of July 2022, there are 53 hydrogen fueling stations in the United States and Canada, with the majority concentrated in California. Europe is better off, with 228 stations available across 33 countries, though most of them are concentrated in Germany with 101 stations. Japan and South Korea have the highest concentration of hydrogen fueling stations in Asia, with 154 and 112, respectively.
The Downsides of Hydrogen
Hydrogen fuel cells might be a great alternative to fossil fuels, but they aren’t the perfect solution. What are some of the downsides of hydrogen fuel cells besides a lack of fueling stations?
The cost of hydrogen can be four to five times more than gasoline or diesel. Gas may have been almost $5 a gallon, but hydrogen can cost upwards of $16.50 per kilogram. The fueling nozzle can even freeze to the car in cold temperatures, leaving you struggling to pull it free without damaging the nozzle or your vehicle.
Is Road Tripping Possible?
Is road tripping in a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle possible? Not in the United States, at least as of 2022. There aren’t enough fueling stations to travel far out of California with a hydrogen fuel cell. This fact will change in the future as hydrogen-powered vehicles become more common and popular in the coming years. For now, it’s best to keep these cars close to home.
Jane Marsh, Contributor
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