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Electric Cars or Hydrogen Cars? The Race to Topple Petroleum?

Technology continues to advance year after year and is only getting better. Soon enough, we will exceed the need for petroleum-based fuels. But what technology will take over? Electric vehicles (EVs) are making huge strides in battery technology. Hydrogen fuel cells are slowly becoming more efficient. But in 2050, which will be the top technology? While I have my bias, let's consider the history of electric and hydrogen vehicles and see if we can figure it out.

The History of The Electric Car

The 1800s

The development of electric cars started around 1828. During this time, horses and buggies were the primary mode of long-distance travel. However, innovators in the Netherlands, Hungary, and the United States were working on creating a vehicle that could operate on the emerging technology of domestic electricity.

Early model of electric car

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Robert Anderson developed the first crude electric car around 1832. It wasn't until 1889 that a chemist, William Morrison, from Iowa, created the first successful electric vehicle in the United States. His car could seat six passengers with a top speed of 14 miles per hour (mph). While it resembled more of an electric wagon than a car, it was the catalyst for interest in electric vehicles.

By 1898, electric cars were gaining popularity among female drivers and riders. The emerging gasoline vehicles were notably louder and customers had a disliking for their exhaust. By 1900, New York City employed a fleet of more than 60 electric taxis. The main form of transportation was still horses, yet at this time, electric cars were competing with steam and gasoline-powered vehicles.

The 1900s

A woman stands inside a early 1900's electric car automobile which is being charged by a mercury arc rectifier electric car charging station.Photo Courtesy of Museum of Innovation & Science

As electricity spread to more and more areas in urban environments, it became even more accessible to charge an electric car. By 1911, electric cars were in high demand, but the costs were too high. Thomas Edison preferred electric cars as he thought them superior to gasoline vehicles; even Henry Ford joined forces with Edison to figure out a way to reduce the cost of electric vehicles.

Despite Henry Ford's partnership, the Mass production of the Model T crushed the electric car. By 1912, the gasoline car cost more than half the price of an electric vehicle, with gasoline vehicles costing $650 compared to the $1,750 price tag of electric. Then Charles Kettering introduced the electric starter, making the gasoline vehicle easier to use.

For about 30 years, electric cars made very few strides in technological advancement until the mid-1960s to the early 1970s. Oil prices began to rise due to fuel shortages, which peaked in 1973 with the Arab Oil Embargo, and once again sparked interest in EVs and HVs.

The EVs at that time had technological limitations. They could only reach speeds of 45mph and were limited to a range of 40 miles before being recharged.

Finally, in the 1990s, interest in EVs peaked with the passing of the Clean Air Act amendment and the 1992 Energy Policy Act. GM took a crack at an electric car with a new EV design called the EV1. It could accelerate from 0 to 50 mph in just seven seconds and had a range of 80 miles. The EV1 was able to rouse a following, but low fuel costs and the high price of the EV1 just didn't catch on. GM discontinued production in 2001.

However, the public didn't need EVs during the 1990s economic boom. Scientists and engineers stayed in pursuit of a solution to a growing ecological concern. Though gas prices were low, they worked to improve EV technology, which included battery technology.

The Hybrid Age

Honda Insights LXPhoto Courtesy of IFCAR

The first Hybrid vehicle to be sold in the United States was the Honda Insight in 1999. But in 2000, the Toyota Prius was received with prominent success. Droves of celebrities went for the Prius to rouse popularity. The Prius used a Nickel-metal hydride battery supported by the Energy Department research. The EV and HV had finally broken through.

Battery technology advanced to a lithium-ion battery, which outperformed the Nickel-metal Battery. The lithium-ion battery uses rare materials such as lithium and cobalt but is a superior rechargeable battery.

EVs were further propelled by Elon Musk's Tesla, producing luxury electric sports cars that could go 200 miles on a single charge. The success of Tesla rallied the major car manufacturers to develop their electric vehicles. The energy department supported an infrastructure of charging stations nationwide through the Recovery Act, which invested 115 million dollars.

EV technology continues to develop along with battery advancements. But are electric vehicles the future of transportation? On the grand scale, EVs charge from the energy produced by the powerplant the area is supplied by. That could be any number of different carbon-emitting power generation types. An Issue with EVs is that the power infrastructure is lacking, even though nearly every home has access to electricity. The Grid isn’t ready for the demand, and by 2030, our grid will not be able to handle the power demand it would take to charge 26 million electric vehicles.

With a public aversion to nuclear energy, which is technically the cleanest form of power generation known, another fuel is still in development and just about to reach an epoch.

The History of Hydrogen

Hydrogen is composed of a single proton and electron, the simplest and most abundant element in the universe. Hydrogen is the fuel that most stars, including our sun, use in their fusion reactions to produce the energy output that gives life to our planet.

You might be surprised that hydrogen generation technology has existed since the 1700s. Robert Boyle in 1671 produced hydrogen by experimenting with iron and acids. It was first identified as a distinct element in 1766 by Henry Cavendish.

In 1842, Welsh physicist William Grove invented the first hydrogen fuel cell. A hydrogen cell uses electrolysis to separate hydrogen and oxygen from water. Electrolysis uses electricity to break the water (H²O) element into separate gasses. Hydrogen (H²) Is drawn to the negatively charged cathode, while oxygen (O) is drawn to the positively charged anode. The hydrogen is then captured and stored.

Hydrogen Fuel Now

Hydrogen fuel production is not yet perfect. Hydrogen is difficult to transport and store. Hydrogen is also highly flammable. The Lakehurst, New Jersey event in 1937 involving the Hindenburg airship is a testament to the potential danger of hydrogen. Storing hydrogen as a liquid takes a lot of energy to maintain cryogenic temperatures due to its very low boiling point (-252.8°C). Storing it as a gas means pressurizing the tanks to 5000-10,000 psi due to its low volumetric energy density. Containing hydrogen also has issues as hydrogen, the smallest substance molecule, can pass through the materials trying to contain it.

Highly conductive metals like gold and platinum are expensive, but experimentation with alloys and graphene as catalysts looks promising. Increasing contact with catalysts while getting the gasses produced out of the way is also being experimented with to increase efficiency. Companies, scientists, and engineers are working on hydrogen production problems.

Hydrogen, in time, could surpass fossil fuels once and for all, launching our civilization into a whole new age. Hydrogen burns clean, its exhaust is water, and it has nearly three times the energy content of gasoline. Hydrogen might take over.

My opinion would be the combination of the two technologies. Hydrogen fuel and high-capacity batteries could aid the processing and regulation of voltage to produce hydrogen onboard the vehicle. We have plenty of water on our planet. If we can efficiently separate the elements that make water, we can direct our attention from fuel to other technological ventures.

As we stand now, the electric vehicle could win the race. Fusion energy is beginning to show promise in activation and sustainable reaction for extended periods. It must be harnessed into a usable heat source to move turbines. Perhaps hydrogen fuel will be skipped over entirely. I hope hydrogen research will continue if this is the case.

No matter what the future holds, BenchForce will look for ways to enhance your vehicle modification and bench-programming needs. No matter the fuel, BenchForce PowerBlock™ will be ready for you to make your module programming modifications.