The perfect zero-emissions car?

Hybrid and all-electric cars are slowly integrating among conventional production vehicles, but automakers still have some challenges to overcome. While hybrids are still relying on gasoline to work, electric cars still need better range and larger refill networks. Sure, we have quite a few capable EVs, like everything Tesla makes, the Chevy Bolt, and the new Nissan Leaf, but range can still be an issue in large countries and most continents outside the United States. But this is where Mercedes’ new solution, the hydrogen hybrid, comes in.

Unveiled at the 2017 Frankfurt Motor Show, the company’s latest F-Cell model is built around the GLC crossover, and it’s slated to go into production. And unlike other green attempts, this vehicle pairs plug-in battery power with hydrogen fuel cells for what could become the most sustainable zero-emissions solution. It’s not yet ready to hit dealerships, mostly because there’s no hydrogen infrastructure, but the Germans have a plan, and this project could become feasible in five to six years. So why do I think that hydrogen power is a better solution that electricity?

Continue reading for the full story.

How Does it Work?

Here's Why Mercedes Is Doing the Right Thing with the Hydrogen GLC F-Cell High Resolution
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A hydrogen hybrid car may sound complicated at first glance, but pairing the two technologies isn't rocket science

A hydrogen hybrid car may sound complicated at first glance, but pairing the two technologies isn’t rocket science. The principle is actually very simple and basically identical to that of a conventional plug-in hybrid. The main difference here is that the gasoline engine is replaced by the hydrogen-powered fuel cell system. So instead of fuel tank we have a hydrogen. And the range isn’t shabby either, being rated at a 437 km. This converts to 272 miles and it’s on par with what a car like the Tesla Model S can deliver.

Moving over to the electric system, it complements hydrogen power much like it enhances the gasoline (or sometimes diesel) engine of a regular hybrid. In this case, it adds 49 km of all-electric range, or around 30 miles. Put those figures together and you get a range of 486 km, or 302 miles. Not bad!

Here's Why Mercedes Is Doing the Right Thing with the Hydrogen GLC F-Cell Exterior High Resolution
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Here's Why Mercedes Is Doing the Right Thing with the Hydrogen GLC F-Cell Exterior High Resolution
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Much like a standard hybrid or EV, it features a braking energy reclamation system and three main driving modes

But is a hydrogen hybrid competitive as far as performance goes? Mercedes says that the crossover comes with 147 kW and 350 Nm of torque on tap. This converts to around 200 horsepower and 258 pound-feet. Granted, it’s not the kind of output you can use to set a new record on the Nurburgring, but that’s not the point here, right? Compared to other Evs on the market, the GLC F-Cell is actually quite potent. It’s on par with the Chevrolet Bolt and actually delivers more oomph than the Nissan Leaf and BMW i3.

Much like a standard hybrid or EV, it features a braking energy reclamation system, three main driving modes, including a sporty one, and four additional operating modes that use one or both power sources. The latter also has a "Charge" function for extended battery range and a boost for uphill or spirited driving.

So in essence it works very much like a conventional car. Besides the fact that you need a hydrogen station to refill, there are no drawbacks when it comes to output, performance, and range.

Why Is Hydrogen Better?

Here's Why Mercedes Is Doing the Right Thing with the Hydrogen GLC F-Cell Drivetrain High Resolution
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Arguably the biggest advantage of using hydrogen as a fuel is that there are no harmful gases to worry about

Arguably the biggest advantage of using hydrogen as a fuel is that there are no harmful gases to worry about. Hydrogen used in fuel cells also has the potential to be more than two times more efficient than traditional combustion technologies. Due to their construction, fuel cells also have fewer moving parts than a combustion engine, meaning there’s lower chance of malfunction.

Although not widely available as of 2017, hydrogen can be domestically produced from various sources. Hydrolysis, a process in which water is separated into oxygen and hydrogen, could be used to produce the gas at recharging stations. This has already been implemented in Iceland, which used prototype hydrogen buses to demonstrate the technology.

Here's Why Mercedes Is Doing the Right Thing with the Hydrogen GLC F-Cell Drivetrain High Resolution
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Hydrogen can be produced from various sources and it's essentially a limitless supply

But hydrogen can be produced from various sources and it’s essentially a limitless supply when both water and natural gas are taken into account. It can also be used in conjuction with solar and wind energy, again a technology that’s been tested successully in some European countries. However, while wind energy isn’t exactly feasible for automobile, solar energy could become a reliable source in the future.

What’s more, while producing electric power is still harmful for the environment, hydrogen could be produced from renewable energy in sufficient amounts in the future. The issue is pretty much the same as with the refill stations: the infrastructure isn’t large enough to sustain the current transportation needs. On the other hand, Iceland and Denmark have been producing hydrogen from geothermal and wind power for quite a few years now so there is proof that H2 can be obtained without sending greenhouse gasses into the ozone.

Issues to Overcome

Here's Why Mercedes Is Doing the Right Thing with the Hydrogen GLC F-Cell Exterior High Resolution
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Fuel cells are relatively expensive to produce

Fuel cell cars are nothing more than a niche product at this point, with only a handful of vehicles available to customers. And there are many reasons for that. For starters, fuel cells are relatively expensive to produce. As discusses above, producing hydrogen on a large scale raises many issues as the most common processes use fossil energy resources and thus emit greenhouse gasses. Hydrogen production using renewable energy resources would not create such emissions, but the scale of renewable energy production would need to be expanded in order to cover a significant part of transportation needs. This isn’t possible right now, but if the pace of current technology development is any indication, hydrogen production with zero emissions could become the norm in a decade or so.

Here's Why Mercedes Is Doing the Right Thing with the Hydrogen GLC F-Cell Exterior High Resolution
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Storage is yet another issue with hydrogen

Storage is yet another issue with hydrogen, as this gas has a very low volumetric energy density at ambient conditions. This means that cars need to carry tanks with compressed hydrogen at up to 700 bar (10,000 psi) in order to achieve competitive ranges, meaning that these storage devices need to handle a lot of pressure. Experiments revealed that carbon-composite and carbon-fiber tanks would be able to hold hydrogen in safe conditions, but this technology is too expensive for mass production at this point.

Here's Why Mercedes Is Doing the Right Thing with the Hydrogen GLC F-Cell Exterior High Resolution
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Infrastructure is yet another issue that prevents hydrogen from becoming a more popular energy source

The infrastructure is yet another issue that prevents hydrogen from becoming a more popular energy source. The current infrastructure includes many industrial pipelines, but filling stations are rare and cannot provide enough hydrogen for production cars. In the U.S., for instance, there were 23 publicly accessible hydrogen stations as of 2016, but only three of them were located outside California. On the other hand, almost three quarters of the U.S. population lives near a hydrogen-generating facility, which means that a network is more than doable at this point. Unfortunately, just like Tesla had to build its own network, automakers that are looking to sell hydrogen cars will have to create the said infrastructure. Of course, it could also be a joint-venture between carmakers like Mercedes-Benz, Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai.

Conclusion

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Hydrogen cars might not seem like feasible solutions for the future, mainly due to the absent infrastructure and the pollutant hydrogen production techniques, but this is likely to change in the near future. Just look at electric cars, which were viewed with severe skepticism only a couple of decades ago. But thanks to a handful of automakers, we now have access to affordable EVs and we will soon be able to drive them on all continents thanks to the ever expanding recharging stations. Despite all criticism and claims that hydrogen cars may not be viable, the rapidly developing technology and the available resources could turn this small niche into a large segment of the emission-free automotive market. It will take a while, but with carmakers like Mercedes-Benz investing large sums in hydrogen power, fuel cell cars will be more widely available in maybe less than a decade.

References

2016 Mercedes GLC-Class

2016 Mercedes-Benz GLC-Class High Resolution Exterior
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Read our full review of the 2016 Mercedes GLC-Class

2010 Mercedes-Benz B-Class F-Cell

2010 Mercedes B-Class F-Cell
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Read our full review of the 2010 Mercedes-Benz B-Class F-Cell

2017 Mercedes-Benz Concept EQA
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Read the latest news from Mercedes

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