The Hydrogen Fuel Cell Giant You’ve Been Ignoring Is Waking Up

The key to your car is an app. The app scans your face, confirming that you are its owner before it unlocks and starts your car. When it starts, the car glides to where you stand and stops, the handleless driver’s side door opening automatically. This machine appears to be the car of the future, but it is not. This car is not the next big thing.

You know the scene in fantasy movies where the ground starts lurching unpredictably and it turns out our man is actually on top of some gigantic living thing, some creature too massive for him to take on even though he is literally standing on it? That’s always kinda weird, right? Like, “SMH. This dummy didn’t even realize that was a giant monster he was on, and not just a big-ass rock.” I hate to have to tell you this, but right now you’re that dummy standing on that giant.

It’s not your fault. The internet has made us all experts at focusing on the trees while missing the forest completely, and that’s what you’re doing right now. Important is one of those words like “indie” that’s lost all its snap. A lot of the times when we say “important,” what we really mean is “interesting,” but we also understand intuitively that there is a second kind of important out there, the kind of thing whose impact in the world doesn’t depend on whether you care about it right now or not. These are things like global warming research or sustainable farming that are not important because they’re interesting; they’re important just because, well, they are.

 

Then there are certain things that exist within both definitions of “important” at the same time. Take, for example, whatever device you’re reading this on, that magical object that’s both little-I important and capital-I Important — that’s the kind of important that hydrogen fuel cell technology is. Self-opening doors won’t make the car of the future — the technology that powers it will. That’s the next big thing. That’s the massive living thing you’re standing on right now, and you don’t even realize it yet. But soon you will, because it’s waking up.

Let’s get some terms and definitions out of the way up top. Industry professionals refer to these cars either as FCVs (Fuel Cell Vehicles) or FCEVs (Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles). Those terms are pretty much interchangeable, and they distinguish this type of car from BEVs or BPEVs (Battery Powered Electric Vehicles — more on the differences between these two types of cars later). As for how FCEVs work, brace yourself, because this part is so facepalmingly simple that when I asked experts Bill Elrick and Chris White of the California Fuel Cell Partnership about it, I felt a little dumb when I heard their answer. But here it is: You’re gonna fill the hydrogen tank in your car at a pump just like at a gas station. In fact, they’ll be at gas stations, right next to the gas pumps, until, y’know, those aren’t a thing anymore.

What happens next is the sciencey part, so I’ll let one of our experts, Chris White, explain it: “[The] hydrogen goes into one side of the fuel cell stack … [and] air goes into the other side, and hydrogen is naturally attracted to the oxygen in the air. To get to that oxygen it moves through a series of plates, and those plates force the hydrogen molecule to separate into electrons and protons. The protons just move right on through, but all electricity is is an excited electron … so we grab that excited electron and direct [some of] it … to the electric motor where it powers the car, but the rest of it goes inside the cabin where it runs the air conditioner, the sound system, the power windows — anything that takes electricity. When the electron has done its job, it comes back into the fuel cell stack, it meets up with a proton and the oxygen that’s been waiting for it. It makes a new molecule: water. And that’s what comes from the tailpipe of the car. It’s water so clean you can drink it.”

So, two things. First, there’s no more science. I promise. Second, how bonkers simple is that? You use oxygen to attract hydrogen, you split the hydrogen, you grab the energy that splitting hydrogen produces, then you use what’s left to make water. That’s it.

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