Although the variety of alternative fuels, hybrids and electric vehicles being pursued may project a serious commitment by the automakers to explore a new path, the long term viability of all of these different solutions and approaches is probably not sustainable indefinitely. Just as the internal combustion gasoline engine emerged out of a number of early contenders to dominate the automobiles life up to this point, one or two of these technologies will most likely be successful enough that ultimately it is adopted more than any of the others.
This, in part, explains why Mazda has remained on the periphery of the hybrid/electric discussion. Mazda’s approach has instead turned towards replacing gasoline with hydrogen.
They are not alone. Several automakers have invested in hydrogen research, including GM and Toyota. But unlike these manufacturers, Mazda is not interested in using hydrogen primarily in fuel cells as generators of electricity, but as the direct fuel for the internal combustion engine itself. The benefit in burning hydrogen is that, unlike a fuel cell, it does not require the owner to accommodate lengthy charge-up periods, or strict limits to driving range. Also, because Mazda is burning hydrogen in its existing rotary engines, the Mazda hybrids can switch from hydrogen to gasoline operation at any time, increasing the car’s range and the ability to use whatever fuel is available.
One hydrogen prototype is a modified version of Mazda’s RX-8, modified to run on both hydrogen and gasoline. The car simply burns hydrogen in its engine to provide power, and allows the driver to switch between the hydrogen and gasoline fuel tanks. The car has about a 60 mile range on a tank of pure H2, at which point the car will switch to gasoline. Apart from a slight drop in horsepower when running on hydrogen, there’s not a significant difference between driving on hydrogen and gasoline.
The second vehicle is a modified version of the Mazda5 minivan-like passenger car. This vehicle uses a series hybrid drive-train; the internal combustion engine is used only to recharge the batteries or directly generate electricity to run the electric drive motor. Like the RX-8, this vehicle can travel up to 60 miles using its on board hydrogen supply before switching to gasoline.
There are other drawbacks than just the relatively modest driving range on hydrogen. Since hydrogen is not an energy source, but rather the means of storing energy, it currently takes more energy to create a tank of hydrogen than can currently be retrieved back out of the gas. But perhaps the biggest hurdle to fueling a hydrogen car is the lack of infrastructure currently available, ie: gas stations. But, of course, the same could be said of any of the gas alternative plans. And just like them, Mazda’s hydrogen plan is at least a decent place to start.