Will the car of the future be electric? Biodiesel? Or perhaps a range-extended hybrid working in concert with an internal combustion powerplant? That’s the billion dollar question du jour, and no amount of automotive know-how can predict which way the technology pendulum will swing.
At the top of the alternative fuel food chain are hydrogen fuel cells, powerplants that promise the ultimate in zero-impact motoring: emissions consisting of nothing more than water vapor. “I have drunk the [exhaust] water,” proclaims John Tillman, Volkswagen’s head of Fuel Cell Research stationed at the epicenter of the alt fuels vanguard in Sacramento, California. “It tastes a little sour,” he says, “but it’s drinkable.”
We sampled the Volkswagen Passat Lingyu, a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle developed in conjunction with scientists from Tongji University in China. Tillman says the Lingyu is a generation behind the current fuel cell technology, and probably two generations behind what we’ll eventually see in production.
Hydrogen fuel cells extract energy from H2 fuel by passing it through a proton exchange membrane that introduces oxygen (O2). The oxygen combines with hydrogen to yield water (H2O), and the process creates an electrical current, which powers an electric motor. Less refined than Honda’s FCX Clarity, the Passat Lingyu exhibits nearly as much noise, vibration, and harshness as a 1966 Beetle. However, regardless of its rough edges, the Lingyu’s underpinnings might eventually become refined enough to make it to U.S. highways.
There is a Pandora’s box of looming questions surrounding the real world implementation of hydrogen fuel cells, the least of which is the issue of distribution infrastructure. But if Volkswagen’s research and development has proven anything, it’s that our future mobility won’t come without a thorough exploration of every option, just one of which happens to be hydrogen-based.
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