Hydrogen, the highly explosive and unique gas, was first identified by British scientist Henry Cavendish in the late 18th century. He called it “inflammable air.” Around the same time, French chemist Antoine Lavoisier was also studying hydrogen and named it in 1783, deriving the name from the Greek words for water and forming, as hydrogen gas combines with oxygen to form water. These two scientists laid the foundation for future discoveries and uses of hydrogen.
In 1839, Welsh scientist Sir William Grove discovered the principles of fuel cells, which generate electricity by combining hydrogen and oxygen, with water being the only byproduct. Grove even developed the first working fuel cell, known as Grove’s “Gas” Battery, and used it to power a small carriage, creating the first fuel-cell powered vehicle. However, the rise of petroleum and gasoline during the second industrial revolution overshadowed hydrogen fuel cells due to lower costs, established infrastructure, and economies of scale.
Despite being left behind, hydrogen-powered vehicles were not forgotten. In the 1960s, NASA started using fuel cell technology to power spacecraft and space shuttles due to its high efficiency and zero emissions. Fuel cells played a major role in the Apollo Space Missions, including the historic Apollo 11 mission when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon. This sparked interest in the automobile industry, particularly in the 1970s when oil embargoes led to soaring gasoline prices and concerns about environmental damage caused by fossil fuels.
Governments and automobile companies began researching and exploring fuel cells as alternatives to gasoline, with significant development efforts in the 1980s and 1990s to improve fuel cells and hydrogen storage methods. Countries like Iceland announced plans to create a hydrogen economy, while Germany introduced the first commercial hydrogen refueling station. Even President George W. Bush pledged $1.2 billion for hydrogen research and investment, envisioning a future where hydrogen-powered cars would be pollution-free and widely available.
However, progress in hydrogen-powered vehicles was hindered in 2009 when the Obama administration slashed hydrogen research funding, focusing instead on electric vehicles and hybrids. This lack of investment in infrastructure, such as fueling stations and hydrogen transportation, limited the spread of hydrogen and fuel cell vehicles.
But since 2020, the situation has changed. There has been a renewed interest in hydrogen as a clean and sustainable energy source. Governments and companies are investing in hydrogen infrastructure and projects, aiming to decarbonize transportation and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are becoming more commercially efficient, and efforts are being made to expand the network of fueling stations.
While there are still challenges to overcome, such as the cost of production and the need for further infrastructure development, the future of hydrogen-powered vehicles looks promising. As the world focuses on transitioning to a greener and more sustainable future, hydrogen may play a significant role in achieving these goals.