Last Spring, shares of Tesla, the pioneering electric car manufacturer owned and developed by brilliant entrepreneur and engineer Elon Musk, blew up. Surprising news came in early May that, about a year after most pundits wrote the company off, shares of Tesla experienced a 150 percent spike in value.
The news buoyed hope in Tesla and in electric cars in general, generating a renewed interest in this “green” form of transportation.
This is completely misguided.
In the past, electric cars were the preserve of an extreme minority that baked cannabis into the majority of their meals and listened to far too much of the Grateful Dead. These days though, electric cars are being looked at as a serious solution to the issue posed by the planet’s dwindling petroleum reserves.
The problem with this line of thinking is that electric cars aren’t really a long-term solution. While the effects of these vehicles on the environment have been vigorously disputed, with some scientists and pundits asserting that they’re actually worse for the overall environment than traditional internal combustion cars, there is an undeniable reality that the resources that power electric cars are just as finite as those that power our current internal combustion vehicles.
I’m specifically referring to coal. Coal generates 44 percent of all power in the USA, with all fossil fuels in total claiming 68 percent. This is due to the prevalence of fossil fuels, the ease of generating power with them, the American public’s intense distrust of nuclear power and the overall reliability of this medium when compared to alternative sources like wind and solar power. While odds are good that the oil will run out long before the fossil fuels, the reality is that the success of the electric car model is predicated on the same model that is currently collapsing.
This leads us rather nicely to the obvious solution. What’s one thing that we have plenty of and will never go away? What’s one thing that produces no harmful emissions?
Hydrogen fuel cells are the clear way forward for the automotive sphere. Fuel cells, particularly polymer exchange membrane cells, present a remarkably efficient and powerful alternative to traditional internal combustion.
These cells work through a process that is essentially a chain reaction. Multiple cells are often combined to generate the requisite amounts of power and these cells then work as a unit to power the vehicle.
A single cell has two sides that correspond to polarized points called cathodes and anodes. Pressurized hydrogen gas is forced through the cell on the anode side and is blasted through a platinum catalyst, which serves to split each hydrogen molecule into two hydrogen ions and two electrons. These electrons end up doing most of the heavy lifting and are employed to perform the required tasks, in this case powering a motor.
On the other size of the fuel cell, oxygen gas is forced through the catalyst on the cathode side, which splits the O2 molecules into separate oxygen atoms, each of which is powerfully negatively charged. These negatively charged atoms combine with the positively charged hydrogen ions to create water, which falls out of the tailpipe and thus eliminates all waste.
Not only is this as about as green as possible, but it also makes use of the most abundant element in the known universe, rather than oil, which is essentially liquefied velociraptors, and only exists in limited quantities on Earth. It really is the perfect transport solution for the future.
And I’m not the only one that thinks so.
In 2008, Honda rolled out the FCX Clarity, which is essentially an Accord, but not boring. It runs on hydrogen fuel cells and is available, right now, in the state of California. The technology exists today.
The only real issue with it is that you can only get one in the state of California. This is because California was the only state brave enough, or perhaps stupid enough, to blow the required cash to revamp the state’s infrastructure to support hydrogen cars right at the start of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
The unfortunate reality here is that the level of work necessary to revamp the nation’s infrastructure to be hydrogen-compatible is perhaps the largest impediment to the rapid implementation of hydrogen transport. Take a moment to visualize every gas station in your neighborhood. Then your city. Then your state. Then begin to think about the sheer quantity of gas stations in the USA, a nation of 320 million people and know that every single one has to be ripped apart and totally rebuilt with new, very expensive technology. Now you understand the issue.
As fascinating as electric cars are, they’re only a stopgap measure until our society can find a way to implement widespread hydrogen power. Unfortunately, that day may not come for some time. Given the constantly shrinking resource pools that power these vehicles, we can only hope this day comes sooner rather than later.