While I’m no engineer: hydrogen fuel cells

While I’m no engineer, it isn’t exactly an elongated task to work out where our energy supplies – particularly those powering our cars – will come from in future: just about anything besides fossil fuels.

Around a year ago I penned my thoughts on the idea of replacing crude oil-based fuels with bio-ethanol, but naturally it isn’t the silver bullet to the problems surrounding the world’s energy demands. Having already cited the environmental effects of the production process of an electric vehicle (EV), that leaves hydrogen fuel cells – or Fuel Cell Vehicles (FCVs) – as the next viable, mainstream solution.

Straight off the bat, it’s worth mentioning the potential dangers associated with storing sources of hydrogen; the Hindenburg and Challenger air disasters being two prominent examples.

However, if derived from renewable energy sources, hydrogen is a clean way of powering an electric vehicle; more ergonomic – albeit, a point reliant on the availability of hydrogen filling stations – and more user-friendly with a typically longer range compared to an EV.

So while the use of hydrogen fuel cells ought to be of major interest to car manufacturers, the cost and lack of longevity that accompanies battery-powered cars is likely what is conjoined to the difficulty of using hydrogen as a fuel source, which thus renders it an unfavourable option in the current automotive landscape. But, seeing as there are down sides to each alternative to fossil fuels, plurality should be available so that certain solutions are tailored to certain scenarios – EVs and FCVs for densely-populated inner cities for public health reasons, whereas ethanol-powered vehicles should be on hand to reduce strain on the production of fuel for hydrogen cars, while still maintaining an atmospheric carbon-neutral output, with the negative point of the resultant emission of some potentially harmful elements.

Which is all well-and-good from a somewhat political standpoint, but how does this tie into motor racing?

Well, potentially, hydrogen fuel cells could be introduced in Formula E, for hearsay, backed up by a Balance of Performance akin to that used in Super GT or the WEC, to initially offset any performance advantage held by one powertrain over the other before letting development influence the running order ‘naturally’, seeing as Formula E is traditionally a powertrain formula, insofar as aerodynamic development is prohibited and the onus placed on improving power produced by the electric motor. Such an eventuality would surely pique the interest of the odd wealthy manufacturer, at least, and perhaps it could be permissible for said manufacturers to run both systems in tandem, on different cars.

On the flip side, capping spending in a way that ensures it doesn’t spiral out of control, in a similar fashion to LMP1’s hybrids, whilst also keeping a close balance between the two powertrains amounts to both a crucial balancing act and an unenviable task, on the face of it.

But the rise of FCVs and EVs need not negate the use of the Internal Combustion Engine, leaving Formula One and the WEC to offer a more accelerated development path to the use of ethanol fuelled ICEs, relative to what could be managed as part of a road car division.

In that scenario there exists a diversity amongst the civil automotive industry, whose technology is partly derivative of that used in the corresponding racing series, meaning that companies can become more familiar with the methods and equipment required to produce a fuel cell or an ethanol-optimised ICE, lowering production costs in the long run and consequently lowering the cost for the consumer.

This would then mean that the modern polemic of road relevance, particularly in F1, is solved and most car makers have a vested interest in competing in motor racing to improve the product they put out en masse, rather than chancing at victory for the theoretical marketing benefits. Thus, it safeguards – theoretically speaking – the long-term wellbeing of each of the major racing series.

Although that depends on there being genuine diversity in the solutions to phasing out fossil fuels, so given the way that trends dictate said solutions, that’s perhaps idealistic, to say the least.


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