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May 21, 2014

Carmakers prepare to release hydrogen-powered vehicles


The next generation of zero-emission hydrogen-powered cars are hitting the road.

Instead of gasoline, hydrogen fuel cell cars use liquid hydrogen (the most abundant chemical element in the universe) to power the car’s electric motor. Oxygen from the air combines with the hydrogen, so the cars emit only water vapor instead of the harmful pollution produced by conventional vehicles.

Carmakers have spent more than a decade and invested billions of dollars to develop the technology, and are now hoping this investment pays off.

However, they must first overcome the obstacles preventing people from buying hydrogen vehicles, including the lack of hydrogen pumps needed to refuel the cars.

“I can’t go on a long trip,” said Bill Holloway, a resident of Alameda, California, who owns a hydrogen-powered car. “If they had more fueling stations, they would have more cars they could sell. If there were more cars, they would have more fueling stations. We have a chicken-and-egg problem.”

Despite this, carmakers still see fuel cell cars as the future, largely because they function similarly to current gasoline-powered cars. Filling up at a fuel station is the same process, costs are about the same and the cars don’t require drivers to change their current driving habits. This has been a complaint about electric battery-powered cars, which can only travel 80 miles or so before needing to be recharged for several hours.

“It really drives just like any other car, with a gas pedal and a brake,” said Tim Lipman of the University of California, Berkeley.

While driving these cars may be easy, both fuel cell advocates and automakers know that their success depends on building more refueling stations soon.

Warm up questions
  1. Name as many energy resources as you can. Which ones are used to power cars?
  2. How do gasoline-powered cars cause pollution?
Discussion questions
  1. What are some advantages and disadvantages to driving a hydrogen-powered car?
  2. What happens to hydrogen when you light it on fire? What happens to gasoline if you light it on fire?  Are cars powered by either of these energy sources safe to drive? Explain your answer.
Writing prompt

Imagine that you just got a new job and your boss is giving you the money to buy a new car to commute to work.  Briefly outline the pros and cons of gasoline and hydrogen-powered cars, choose which one you would purchase and explain your reasoning. Now imagine you own and run a gas station.  How would you make the decision whether or not to invest in a hydrogen refilling stations?

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