How does a hydrogen-powered vehicle work?

Published by on 10.22.2019 - 4 min

Tags : Markets Outlook

The secret of the hydrogen fuel cell-powered vehicle lies in its battery, which is able to generate electricity through a chemical reaction between oxygen and hydrogen. What are the issues around and prospects for this technology, which has for the first time been rolled out in mass production by Renault on two vehicles in its utility range?

Hydrogen cars are electric vehicles that are powered by a fuel cell supplied with dihydrogen (H2). The gas, stored under pressure in dedicated tanks, comes into contact with the dioxygen (O2) contained in the surrounding air inside the cell. This is where an oxidization reaction occurs, producing electricity and water vapor (H2O).

The issues around hydrogen-powered cars

This electricity fuels the electric motor of the car, which runs without engine noise or polluting emissions. When the car runs out of fuel reserves, it must be stocked up with hydrogen. This can be done at dedicated service stations through pumps that are able to get pressurized gas into the tanks very fast.

The hydrogen fuel cell car is a promising concept which makes it possible to aspire to sustainable mobility solutions — all the more so since the industry is developing environmentally friendly ways of producing dihydrogen. The rollout of this technology on a large scale, however, means investing heavily in infrastructure in terms of dedicated production and distribution facilities and charging stations.

What is an electric hydrogen fuel cell-powered car?

Renault has chosen to get behind the development of this technology by incorporating a hydrogen fuel cell into two of its electric utility vehicles, Kangoo Z.E. Hydrogen and Master Z.E. Hydrogen. The hydrogen fuel cell therefore becomes an additional benefit for the all-electric vehicle that runs on a lithium-ion battery.

In this setup, the engine of the electric car is still powered mainly by its lithium-ion battery. As for the fuel cell, it serves as an additional energy reserve for the vehicle, which can be called upon either to fuel the motor directly or to recharge the traction battery.

The advantages of the hydrogen-powered car

RENAULT KANGOO MAXI Z.E. (F61e L2)

First of all, the driver can enjoy a significantly improved range, since the electricity produced by the hydrogen fuel cell adds to the storage capacity of the main battery. And it has another advantage: the heat given off by the working fuel cell provides heating for the inside of the car in winter without using battery power.

The hydrogen-powered vehicle has two options for refilling its energy reserves: conventional charging, to recharging the lithium-ion battery as soon as the opportunity arises, and the hydrogen fuel station, for refilling its gas tanks in the space of a few minutes. It also still has all the benefits of the electric car, starting with the lack of engine noise, the pleasant driving experience and access to restricted traffic zones in some downtown areas.

This way, Renault hydrogen vehicles combine the best aspects of two technologies that complement one another. They allow the driver to fully enjoy the practical and financial advantages of an electric vehicle, and also benefit from the added qualities of hydrogen in terms of flexibility and range.

In 2019, more than 300 hydrogen-powered vehicles are already on French roads. They are for the most part Kangoo Z.E. cars, modified as part of a partnership between Renault and Symbio, a fuel cell specialist and subsidiary of the Michelin group. Hydrogen fuel stations are also gradually growing in number. There are for example around 30 in France and close to 70 in Germany, not to mention over 100 projects across Europe. The advent of the first mass-produced hydrogen-powered cars, including business vehicles which currently mostly tend to be charged on company premises, will help speed up the development of this infrastructure.

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