Fuel Cell Cars Aren't Ready

Fuel cell vehicles are not ready for prime time, and this isn’t because of a conspiracy on the part of the auto-makers. If any car threatens the status-quo, it’s a battery powered commuter vehicle, or a serial-hybrid using an onboard high-efficiency constant RPM clean diesel to power a generator to charge a battery that powers an electric motor. That sort of car is cheap to build and extremely fuel efficient; far more fuel efficient than hybrid cars, for example. Read “The 100% Electric Car”

Fuel cell cars require fuel cells, which still cost $4,000 per kilowatt output. Given a kilowatt is only 1.3 horsepower, a fuel cell powered engine costs a bit. And fuel cells use very expensive materials, such as platinum catalysts, which mean their cost can never drop as low as it needs to get. An electric motor costs maybe $100 per kilowatt! Good nickel metal hydride battery packs packing 200 watt-hours per kilogram can outfit a car to go 200 miles without recharging for under $10,000. And what about durability and longevity? Fuel cells, especially the proton exchange membrane fuel cells viable for automobiles, are finicky fillies. The plates crack, the membranes rupture, the catalyst degrades. The reason fuel cell cars aren’t on the road is because fuel cells are still problematic prototypes and overcoming the technical challenges to build cheap reliable fuel cells is a long way off. Making auto manufacturers divert R&D expenses to fuel cells makes the cynics gloat – it’s exactly the recipe for us to be driving gas guzzlers for another generation.

Don’t forget hydrogen isn’t a fuel per se. It requires electricity, or fossil fuel, or biomass, for its production. Hydrogen won’t solve our energy shortages one bit, it will only, depending on how it is made, possibly result in cleaner energy usage. And storing hydrogen is very, very difficult. It’s the lightest element known, existing as a gas when in its natural state. A kilogram of hydrogen in gaseous form takes up several cubic meters of area. For example, in order to compress four kilograms of hydrogen into a practical volume, containing as much energy as about four gallons of gasoline, you would need an 800 pound tank, 24″ in diameter and 28″ long, storing the hydrogen at a pressure of 5,000 pounds per square inch (PSI). This is compared to 300 PSI to store natural gas. The energy required to compress hydrogen, and the precision fittings and expensive containment tanks, make hydrogen storage a challenge as daunting as achieving cheap, durable fuel cells.

So don’t hold your breath for hydrogen fuel cell powered cars. Instead demand clean burning ultra fuel efficient diesel cars, and battery powered cars, and serial-hybrid cars, and “strong” hybrids, and plug-in hybrids, and strong/plug-in hybrids. and flex-fuel vehicles. Where are the American automakers?

One Response to “Fuel Cell Cars Aren't Ready”
  1. Michael S. says:

    Hi Ed,

    Thanks for your post. What about natural gas vehicles. you haven’t mentioned them in your article. Could that be a short term solution for big vehicles like campervans?

    I am a bit confused about that. Wikipedia states that: “Natural gas is often described as the cleanest fossil fuel, producing less carbon dioxide per joule delivered than either.”

    BUT: “…in absolute terms it does contribute substantially to global emissions, and this contribution is projected to grow.”

    Scary: ” In addition, natural gas itself is a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide when released into the atmosphere but is not of large concern due to the small amounts in which this occurs”

    Now what does this say? Changing to natural gas produces less carbon dioxide, but is more poisonous and still the cleanest fossil??

    Help, can you clarify this for me?




Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.