Fuel cells are a pipe dream

June 19, 2008

in Economics, Geek stuff, Rants, The environment

Seven reasons why hydrogen fuel cell cars will never be a commonly deployed technology:

  1. You get hydrogen by cracking hydrocarbons or electrolyzing water. In either case, you are better off cutting out the hydrogen production step. You can burn the hydrocarbons directly (or make liquids from solid ones) and you can use the electricity to drive electric vehicles. Pretty much any time you make hydrogen, you are using up a better fuel.
  2. Cooling and compressing hydrogen for storage takes a lot of energy. Even liquid hydrogen has less energy per litre than gasoline.
  3. We would need to build an infrastructure of hydrogen liquification stations and pipelines.
  4. Storing enough hydrogen to travel a decent distance is difficult.
  5. Arguably, storing that quantity of hydrogen in a car is quite dangerous.
  6. Fuel cells are very expensive, partly because they require platinum catalysts. They are also relatively fragile.
  7. Fuel cells that produce water as a by-product might have trouble in freezing cold conditions.

Granted, a few of these factors might change. We might develop an ideal system for storing hydrogen or develop fuel cells with cheaper catalysts. Even so, the number of objections is large. Forced to bet, my guess for the ground transport of the future is electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids for urban areas and biofuel or coal-to-liquid powered vehicles for long-distance travel.

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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

. June 19, 2008 at 11:20 pm

As a source of power for cars, fuel cells have been a disappointment. For laptops and mobile phones, they are just about to take off.

. June 20, 2008 at 10:19 am

Some clarity on the Clarity
Honda fuel-cell vehicle: Not marketable, practical, or environmental

“After all, why should oil companies spend tens of billions of dollars building a hydrogen fueling infrastructure, which at best will take away business from their tremendously profitable gasoline sales, and at worst will be a complete business loss, assuming, as now seems likely, that hydrogen cars never catch on?

Where, exactly, does the Times think hydrogen comes from? Santa Claus? More than 95 percent of U.S. hydrogen is made from natural gas, so running a car on hydrogen doesn’t reduce net carbon dioxide emissions compared with a hybrid like the Prius running on gasoline. Okay, you say, can’t hydrogen be made from carbon-free sources of power, like wind energy or nuclear? Sure, but so can electricity for electric cars. And this gets to the heart of why hydrogen cars would be the last car you would ever want to buy: they are wildly inefficient compared with electric cars.

Electric cars — and plug-in hybrid cars — have an enormous advantage over hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles in utilizing low-carbon electricity. That is because of the inherent inefficiency of the entire hydrogen fueling process, from generating the hydrogen with that electricity to transporting this diffuse gas long distances, getting the hydrogen in the car, and then running it through a fuel cell — all for the purpose of converting the hydrogen back into electricity to drive the same exact electric motor you’ll find in an electric car.

The total power-plant-to-wheels efficiency with which a hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle is likely to utilize low-carbon electricity is 20 to 25 percent — and the process requires purchasing several expensive pieces of hardware, including the electrolyzer and delivery infrastructure. The total efficiency of simply charging an onboard battery with the original low-carbon electricity, and then discharging the battery to run the electric motor in an electric car or plug-in, however, is 75 to 80 percent. That is, an electric car will travel three to four times farther on a kilowatt-hour of renewable or nuclear power than a hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle will.

. June 21, 2008 at 2:17 pm

Conversation with GM’s fuel cell technology director, Chris Borroni-Bird

By Mark Frauenfelder on Video

Chris Borroni-Bird is the director of Advanced Technology Vehicle Concepts at GM. He’s leading the effort at GM to make fuel cell vehicles, based on a “skateboard” style chassis called AUTOnomy that incorporates the fuel cell, motors and electronics control.

GMnext kindly invited me to visit with Dr. Borroni-Bird and have a discussion with him about “innovation, technology, energy, the environment, and their impact on the future of the automobile.” He’s a fascinating innovator with ideas that could change transportation around the world. I hope he succeeds.

. July 2, 2008 at 12:46 pm

The concept of energy density underlies many of the challenges facing the large scale utilization of hydrogen as a fuel. Hydrogen has the highest energy to weight ratio of all fuels. One kg of hydrogen contains the same amount of energy as 2.1 kg of natural gas or 2.8 kg of gasoline. The high gravimetric density of hydrogen is one reason why it is used for a fuel in the space program to power the engines that lift objects against gravity. However, hydrogen has an extremely low amount of energy per unit volume (methane has nearly 4 times more energy per liter than hydrogen). Hydrogen’s low volumetric energy density poses significant technical and economic challenges to the large-scale production, transport and storage for commercial amounts of the fuel.

. July 3, 2008 at 5:14 pm

It was to be the precursor of what was known as the hydrogen economy, in which that gas would replace fossil fuels and power almost everything.

Leaving aside the problems of transporting and storing a light and leaky gas, what no one was very clear about was where the hydrogen itself would come from. You would have to make it from something else. That something would either be a mixture of fossil fuel and water (fuels can be reacted with steam to make hydrogen and carbon dioxide, but you still have to get rid of the carbon dioxide), or just water itself, via electrolysis.

. August 13, 2008 at 3:30 pm
. August 18, 2008 at 10:41 am

Department of Energy flushes $15 million down the hydrogen toilet
Posted by Joseph Romm (Guest Contributor) at 3:36 PM on 17 Aug 2008
Tools: print | email | + digg | + del.icio.us | + reddit | + stumbleupon

There are only three sure things in life — death, taxes, and you won’t be buying a hydrogen fuel cell car. Sadly, the US Department of Energy Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy has not gotten any of the memos (see “Some clarity on the Clarity” and “This just in: Hydrogen fuel cell cars are still dead”).

. September 15, 2008 at 1:20 pm

‘The car of the perpetual future’
The Economist agrees with me on hydrogen
Posted by Joseph Romm

When the world’s uber-centrist magazine of choice runs a headline almost identical to mine, you know it’s all over. Especially when one of that magazine’s leading energy columnists, Vijay Vaitheeswaran, used to sing that technology’s praises (here). Here’s the bottom line:

But the promise of hydrogen-powered personal transport seems as elusive as ever. The non-emergence of hydrogen cars over the past decade is particularly notable since hydrogen power has been a darling of governments worldwide, which have spent billions of dollars in subsidies and incentives to make hydrogen cars a reality …

Anonymous September 26, 2008 at 7:18 pm

Nanomaterials might help reduce the amount of catalyst required, or let you make it out of something cheaper than platinum.

Carbon nanotubes might also be used to store hydrogen.

Milan March 11, 2009 at 4:02 pm

Maybe so, but those technologies are probably decades away. By then, plug-in electric vehicles will have been greatly improved as well.

. May 8, 2009 at 10:33 pm

Hydrogen car R.I.P. Secretary Chu agrees with Climate Progress and slashes hydrogen budget

“We asked ourselves, ‘Is it likely in the next 10 or 15, 20 years that we will covert to a hydrogen car economy?’ The answer, we felt, was ‘no,’” Chu said in a briefing today. He cited several barriers, including infrastructure, development of long-lasting portable fuel cells and other problems.

For years now, I have been urging the Department of Energy to slash the bloated hydrogen budget and redirect the funds toward clean energy technology development and deployment programs that could actually achieve significant benefits for the American public in the foreseeable future (see “California Hydrogen Highway R.I.P.” and “DOE flushes $15 million down the hydrogen toilet“).

Well, finally, we have somebody running the Department of Energy who gets how unproductive this whole effort has proven to be. Nobelist Steven Chu has rolled out a FY2010 budget that cuts $100 million from the program. Indeed, the budget (see page 4 here) zeroes out the “hydrogen” program and shifts all the money to “fuel cell technologies.”

. July 23, 2009 at 11:31 am

Stop the madness: Congress reverses Chu’s decision, flushes $100 million down the toilet pursuing hydrogen cars — which will not be practical or a cost-effective climate strategy in your lifetime
July 22, 2009

There are only three sure things in life — death, taxes, and you’re never going to buy a hydrogen fuel cell car. Congress should stop wasting your money pursuing Bush’s phony dream.

The fundamental problem with hydrogen as a transport fuel is one that no amount of federal R&D can solve: The absurdly expensive infrastructure will never be built.

Why would the oil companies build an infrastructure which would, at best, compete with their existing product, or, more likely, cause them to lose their entire investment. That leaves governments. But who has the kind of money needed for an infrastructure that — if built around natural gas, which currently produces 95% of hydrogen in this country — won’t even save significant greenhouse gases compared to the best hybrids today running on gasoline?

But a renewable-energy-based hydrogen fueling system capable of handling even half the cars and light trucks on the road would cost hundreds of billions of dollars. And it would have a cost of avoided carbon dioxide of more than $600 a metric ton, which is more than a factor of ten higher than most other strategies being considered today.

Milan December 19, 2009 at 6:19 am
Tristan December 19, 2009 at 5:11 pm

1. “…you can use the electricity to drive electric vehicles. Pretty much any time you make hydrogen, you are using up a better fuel.”

This ignores the cost of building canaries for electric vehicles, which for trans continental routes is prohibitively expensive. It might even be the case that the 80% return on energy you get with fuel cells is better than the losses associated with all the long distance lines required for canaries, and the energy required to build them.

2. “Cooling and compressing hydrogen for storage takes a lot of energy. Even liquid hydrogen has less energy per litre than gasoline.”

Trains can carry enough gasoline to travel till the end of time. Carrying enough fuel is not a limitation when the energy required per ton/mile is very low.

3.”We would need to build an infrastructure of hydrogen liquification stations and pipelines.”

To run trains on hydrogen we’d have to build zero pipelines, since the hydrogen could all be moved around on trains. We would have to build storage depots, but not more than a dozen or two in Canada.

4. “Storing enough hydrogen to travel a decent distance is difficult.”

See response to 2.

5. “Arguably, storing that quantity of hydrogen in a car is quite dangerous.”

It’s not just arguably dangerous, it is dangerous. But we move nuclear waste by rail. And, we can. See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lHtRZ_k0s7M

6. “Fuel cells are very expensive, partly because they require platinum catalysts. They are also relatively fragile.”

Sure, and to convert all Canadian rail to it, we only need to make a few thousand fuel cells. If it turns out there is a better way to store huge amounts of electricity in something that can be moved around, then sure, let’s do that. It is not sufficient to say “fuel cells are hard” – we need zero carbon transportation, so an argument against them should have the form “this other option is better”.

7. “Fuel cells that produce water as a by-product might have trouble in freezing cold conditions.”


Milan January 22, 2010 at 4:56 pm

Once again, Robert Rapier’s point is valid here: “Imagine for instance that the following – cost of production, cost effective storage, and cost effective transport – each have a 25% chance of achieving commercial viability in the next 20 years. The total chance for success of all three in that case falls to 1.5% – so this is overall probability of success.”

The more barriers you take into consideration, the more unlikely hydrogen becomes as a viable energy system.

I am not saying you could not build a hydrogen-based transportation infrastructure given unlimited time and money; rather, I am saying that it looks less competitive overall than electric vehicles for urban environments and biofuels for air travel and remote areas.

Tristan January 22, 2010 at 6:48 pm

Turns out I was wrong about the cost of electrifying mainline rail. It’s actually only 7.5 billion for Canada (probably another 75 billion for the US).

The paradoxical thing about electrifying rail is it’s not always more efficient to do it in high-use urban centres. Case and point – in Toronto the estimates for electrifying the GO train lines are 2 million per kilometer. But, in the middle of nowhere, those costs go down to 200-300 thousand per kilometer – because in cities there are plenty of things in the way which need to be moved.

The other reason electrification is the best choice is it’s already been done – BC rail operated the Tumbler Ridge heavy haul electric branchline, 132km, in the 90s. In the mountains, in the freezing cold. It wasn’t completely devoid of problems of course, but nothing insurmountable.




. April 23, 2010 at 4:32 pm

“HAVING soared on the promise of carbon-free motoring, the idea of the “hydrogen economy” crashed and burned when it collided with reality. Hundreds of experimental hydrogen-powered cars—once hailed as the best solution for reducing America’s dependence on foreign oil for over half its consumption—are now gathering dust in manufacturers’ parking lots.

Hydrogen’s main attraction is that when it is “burned” in a fuel-cell or an internal-combustion engine, the only emissions are heat and a wisp of water vapour. Using hydrogen as a fuel—actually, it is more accurate to refer to it as an energy carrier, since producing hydrogen requires energy from another source—therefore has the potential to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants. As America has abundant supplies of coal and natural gas from which hydrogen can be made, what’s not to like about it?

Several things. First, making fuel-cells compact and cheap enough to drive an electric vehicle is far from easy. Over the past 20 years, Honda—arguably the furthest down the road—has been through at least three iterations of its fuel-cell design, and is still one or possibly two generations away from having something practical to offer the motoring public. By comparison, getting a conventional internal-combustion engine to burn hydrogen instead of petrol is relatively easy. Even so, such efforts have also come to naught.”

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