Future highways will feature both hydrogen and electric vehicles

The long-haul trucking industry is currently being examined as the future of hydrogen, while electric vehicles are being pegged for personal use.

Great West Media has received federal government funding through the Local Journalism Initiative to support a reporter to cover climate in Alberta.

Jen Henderson will feature in-depth reporting on where Alberta is at with actions to reduce carbon emissions and generation of less carbon-intensive energy, along with climate issues across the province as they intersect with industry, business, the environment, the economy, communities, and lifestyles.

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

Marc Secanell Gallart, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Alberta who has been working on hydrogen fuel cells for decades, said while hydrogen vehicles aren't currently driving around, the technology is developed to have these vehicles on the roads.

Looking years into the future, Secanell Gallart said large fleets of vehicles on the road all hours of the day, such as taxis, buses, and long-haul trucks, will likely be fuelled by hydrogen.

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

Electric vehicles currently have a huge head start on 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, released by Ottawa in late 2020.

Hydrogen vehicles have been hailed as one of the solutions to climate change, as they have twice the efficiency of combustion engines and no emissions emitted from the tailpipe, the report said.

Electric vehicles are expected to take up a large portion of the market share for light-duty vehicles in Canada, the report said, but fuel-cell vehicles will be better suited for longer-range drives and will have faster fuelling times than electric vehicles.

How do hydrogen cars work?

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

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

“It's sort of a hybrid between, I would say, an internal combustion engine, in that you have the advantage of storing the energy in a tank, and an electric vehicle, in the sense that what you do is you power [it with] an electric motor,” Secanell Gallart said.

Hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles are lauded for their potential in long-haul trucking and constant driving, because of the speed of refuelling. The fuel cells can be refilled in five minutes, while electric vehicles can take half an hour, or hours, to recharge the battery.

Electric vehicle batteries are also heavy and when scaled up to power a large, long-haul truck, they begin to weigh down the vehicle, Secanell Gallart said. A hydrogen fuel cell is light and doesn’t get much heavier to power up bigger vehicles, so they are a good option for powering large, long-haul trucks, Secanell Gallart said.

Even though both electric vehicles and hydrogen vehicles are hailed as better for the environment, neither style of car is producing zero emissions to fuel.

“It all depends on where your hydrogen and electricity come from. In today's day and age, 80 per cent of our energy comes from fossil fuels, so you almost cannot escape it,” Secanell Gallart said.

The vehicles themselves will be low emission, but if the hydrogen and electricity used to power the vehicles is from fossil fuels, there will still be emissions associated with driving.

The reason highways aren’t currently full of hydrogen cars, Secanell Gallart said, is because there is a lack of refuelling infrastructure in place. If an Alberta driver were to own a hydrogen car, there are no hydrogen refuelling stations in the province, which means the vehicle wouldn't be functional yet.

"We know at the beginning, it's very hard to build these pipelines for hydrogen. ... It's better to start in trucks and buses where you have terminals, so very few stations are enough to fill the needs of the truck drivers," Secanell Gallart said.

Even if there were a few fuelling stations in the province, hydrogen cars are expensive, Secanell Gallart said, and very few people could afford them.

The Toyota Maria XLE starts at $54,990. Secanell Gallart said the cost of these vehicles would need to be cut in half for consumers to afford to drive them, and governments need to support the researchers who are doing the work to make hydrogen technology more cost competitive.

The fuel itself is currently affordable and it's possible to drive between Calgary and Edmonton for the price of a coffee, the expert said, 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 refuelling stations. Electric vehicles currently have an edge because they got a head start and it is much easier to refuel them right now.

In the future, Secanell Gallart said he hopes the market for hydrogen vehicles changes in Alberta. He wants to see a mix of electric cars and hydrogen vehicles on the roads.

Electric cars will be better for short trips, as they take a long time to recharge and drivers can take a short trip through the city and plug in when they get home. But hydrogen vehicles are expected to be used for longer trips, for either for trucking or for a long weekend trip to the mountains, Secanell Gallart said, because it is much faster to refuel the vehicles.

The long-haul trucking industry is currently being examined as the future of hydrogen, while electric vehicles are being pegged for personal use. There is currently no competition between the two types of vehicles, Secanell Gallart said, but as the technology improves, they may start to compete.

"You can make a small hydrogen truck and it starts to become more like a car and so they will eventually compete, but for now there is no competition," Secanell Gallart said.

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