The highways of the future will feature both hydrogen and electric cars: expert

The long-range trucking industry is currently being tested as the future of hydrogen, while electric vehicles are being hooked up for personal use.

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Today you’d be lucky to see a single hydrogen car on Alberta’s roads, with a few exceptions for pilot projects, but experts say tomorrow’s drivers will use a mix of electric and hydrogen vehicles to get around the province.

While hydrogen vehicles don’t currently move, technology has been developed to make these vehicles on the road, said Mark Sekanel Gallart, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Alberta who has been working on hydrogen fuel cells for decades.

Looking years into the future, Sekanel Gallart said that large fleets of vehicles on the road all hours of the day, such as taxis, buses and long-distance trucks, are likely to be fueled by hydrogen.

“If you just want to use your car to go grocery shopping on the weekend and maybe go to work and back, there’s [will] be electric cars. So, electric cars are for everyday commuting [and] “You will have hydrogen fleets operating 24/7,” Sekanel Gallart said.

Electric cars are currently enjoying significant advances in hydrogen, but the federal government hopes to see more than five million fuel cell vehicles on the road by 2050, according to the Hydrogen Strategy, which Ottawa released in late 2020.

The report said hydrogen vehicles have been hailed as one of the solutions to climate change, as they have twice the efficiency of combustion engines and do not emit exhaust pipe emissions.

Electric vehicles are expected to capture a significant portion of the market share for light vehicles in Canada, the report said, but fuel cell vehicles will be better suited for long-range driving and will have faster fuel times than electric vehicles.

How do hydrogen cars work?

Most vehicles on the road today are powered by an internal combustion engine, in which gasoline from the tank and air combine to create an explosion that powers the vehicle, Sekanel Gallart said.

But in hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, hydrogen is separated from the tank and the air from outside the vehicle through a membrane, then the reaction produces protons and electrons. The electrons go to an electric motor, which powers the car, like a battery, the protons react with oxygen to form water, and the water comes out of the exhaust pipe.

“It’s kind of a hybrid between, I say, an internal combustion engine, in that you have the advantage of storing energy in a tank, and an electric car, in the sense that what you do is power [it with] Sekanel Gallart said.

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are praised for their potential for long-distance trucking and continuous driving, due to their quick refueling. Fuel cells can be refilled in five minutes, while electric cars can take half an hour or hours to recharge the battery.

Electric vehicle batteries are also heavy, Sekanel Gallart said, and when they are scaled up to power a large long-range truck, they start adding to the weight of the vehicle. The hydrogen fuel cell is light and doesn’t get much heavier to power large vehicles, Sekanel Gallart said, so it’s a good choice for powering large, long-haul trucks.

Although both electric vehicles and hydrogen vehicles are hailed as being better for the environment, none of the car models produce zero-emissions fuel.

“It all depends on where the hydrogen and electricity come from. In our day and age, 80 percent of our energy comes from fossil fuels, so you almost can’t escape from them,” Sekanel Gallart said.

The vehicles themselves would have lower emissions, but if the hydrogen and electricity used to power the vehicles were from fossil fuels, there would still be emissions associated with driving.

Sekanel Gallart said the reason highways aren’t currently filled with hydrogen cars is because of a lack of refueling infrastructure. If an Alberta driver has a hydrogen car, there are no hydrogen refueling stations in the province, which means the car won’t run yet.

“We know in the beginning, that it is very difficult to build these pipelines for hydrogen. … It is better to start in trucks and buses that have terminals, so very few terminals are enough to meet the needs of the truck drivers,” Gallart said.

Even if there are few gas stations in the county, hydrogen cars are expensive, and very few people can afford them, Sekanel Gallart said.

Toyota Maria XLE starts at $54,990. Secanell Gallart said the cost of these vehicles will need to be halved so consumers can afford to drive them, and governments need to support researchers doing the work to make hydrogen technology more cost-competitive.

The expert said the same fuel is currently available and can be driven between Calgary and Edmonton at the price of coffee, although the cost of hydrogen will likely increase as market demand increases.

Other jurisdictions, such as British Columbia and California, have more hydrogen vehicles on the road mainly because of government incentives for cars and gas stations. Electric cars currently have an advantage because they outperform them, and they are much easier to refuel at the moment.

In the future, Sekanel Gallart said he hopes the hydrogen vehicle market in Alberta will change. He wants to see a mix of electric cars and hydrogen vehicles on the roads.

Electric cars would be better for short trips, as they take a long time to recharge and drivers can take a short trip across town and drop off when they get home. But Sekanel Gallart said hydrogen vehicles are expected to be used for longer trips, either for trucks or for a long weekend trip into the mountains, because refueling the vehicles is much faster.

The long-range trucking industry is currently being tested as the future of hydrogen, while electric vehicles are being hooked up for personal use. Sekanel Gallart said there is currently no competition between the two types of vehicles, but as technology improves, they may start to compete.

“You can make a small hydrogen truck and it starts to become more like a car so they will eventually compete, but at the moment there is no competition,” Sekanel Gallart said.

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