Transportation needs to clean up its act. As we edge closer and closer to a greenhouse gas emissions tipping point toward catastrophic climate change, it becomes harder to deny that the carbon-spewing internal combustion engine’s days are numbered. Back in 2017, the Economist announced the “death of the internal combustion engine,” saying that “The shift from fuel and pistons to batteries and electric motors is unlikely to take that long. The first death rattles of the internal combustion engine are already reverberating around the world—and many of the consequences will be welcome.”
The reasons for moving away from gasoline are myriad–looking beyond the issue of carbon emissions there are still plenty of other reasons that internal combustion engines will become a thing of the past in the near future. As ABC Australia reports, “the need to reduce emissions isn’t the only driver for a transition to cleaner transport. Concerns over the security of our petrol and diesel supply, shifts in international car manufacturing trends and the health impacts of exhaust fumes are piquing interest in greener options.”
But what exactly will the engines of the future look like? While there are already plenty of models on the road, from Tesla to the Nissan Leaf, it’s still hard to say exactly what the next few decades have in store for the transportation industry. In fact, one large question still remains: electric or hydrogen?
So far, the electric car has clearly dominated the hydrogen-based model. One look at what’s available on the market makes this clear. In fact, electric vehicles are ahead by such a wide margin that many consumers haven’t even heard of hydrogen fuel cells or don’t understand the difference between hydrogen cars and battery-powered electric vehicles. A How Stuff Works article on the subject begins “Most people know by now what an electric car is […] But what in the world is a hydrogen fuel cell car?”
Well, according to How Stuff Works, it’s another type of electric car that “runs on a motor powered by electricity. What makes it different from a battery-electric vehicle (or BEV) is where the electricity comes from. Instead of a battery, a hydrogen fuel cell car has, well, a hydrogen fuel cell. This is a device that takes hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe, and generates electricity from it while the car is running. In effect, a hydrogen fuel cell is a kind of battery that makes electricity on the fly.” sounds pretty good, no? So why isn’t it in wider use? And will it ever be?
Currently the biggest challenge for hydrogen-powered cars is a lack of infrastructure. Much like our trusty old internal combustion engines, hydrogen cars need to be refueled periodically, and currently there are next to no refueling stations in existence and producing them on a commercial level will require lots of investment, time, and resources.
Electric vehicles also have their fair share of downsides, however. For one, the most common forms of EV batteries are dependent on lithium, a non-renewable element. Adding another wrinkle, the lithium market is almost entirely controlled by China, making the energy security of electric cars a major source of uncertainty going forward, especially in light of the ongoing trade war between the U.S. and China.
Hydrogen fuel cells, while they have not yet been produced on any major commercial scale, are finally beginning to be adopted by the shipping industry–one of the heaviest polluting sectors. If this move proves to be an economically successful one for the shipping industry, perhaps this could be the beginning of a sea change (so to speak) for the transportation sector.