Fuel Cell Fantasies

Today’s San Francisco Chronicle ran an article that fairly screams for commentary. In the story entitled “Honda Rolls Out the Future – A Car Powered by Hydrogen,” the reporter informs us of the following “But by one particular yardstick, the car is special — it doesn’t run on fossil fuel. Instead, a fuel cell car uses hydrogen.” That’s in paragraph two. A little further down, in paragraph nine, the truth comes out “The hydrogen can be refined from a number of sources, including coal, natural gas and methane.” Oops.

Further still in this report, reality comes out in a quote from David Friedman of the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington D.C., who says “We have to get a fuel cell vehicle that is durable and cheap enough,” Friedman said, “and make sure the hydrogen is clean enough. No one will cheer if, at the end of the day, we make all our hydrogen from coal and melt the planet.” Amen, Mr. Friedman.

At the end of the story comes a final quote, one that bears challenging “As for the economics, Honda Vice President Ben Knight said a fuel cell car can get the equivalent of a gasoline-powered car’s 65 miles per gallon. An FCX filled with 8.8 pounds of hydrogen can go about 270 miles, he said.”

This is only true if the car is fueled with hydrogen derived from fossil fuel. If instead the car uses “green” hydrogen, which requires green electricity to electrolyse the hydrogen by separating the hydrogen atom from H2O, then 40% of the energy in the electricity is lost. Therefore, such a car would get the equivalent of 39 MPG, which is what cars get already.

The problems with hydrogen are huge – it is very difficult to store, it is very difficult to distribute, it has to be made using fossil fuel (or made inefficiently using electricity), and the fuel cells use costly raw materials, they break easily and they degrade quickly. It is extremely unlikely we will ever have hydrogen fuel cell cars on the road in meaningful quantities.

The bottom line is this – as green energy, hydrogen is an electricity carrier. Hydrogen is only green if it is made from electricity (green electricity) using electrolysis, then converted back into electricity using a fuel cell. A better way to do this is via batteries. Even ultra-capacitors have a better chance of winning the electricity storage sweepstakes than hydrogen fuel cells. Read The Hydrogen Hoax for more information.

5 Responses to “Fuel Cell Fantasies”
  1. Kevin says:

    You list all of the problems with hydrogen cars and technology as it exists as this point in time. The problem is that this point in time never lasts very long especially in terms of technology. Hydrogen car prototypes 2 years ago cost 4 times what they do today.

    Also, 2 years ago there were no known hydrogen cars on the production line, no breakthrough technology in electrolysis to produce hydrogen and creating hydrogen-on-demand in an automobile didn’t have a prototype. Naysayers 2 years ago said this technology would not happen within the next 50 years. Well, it’s only taken 2 years for the items I’ve listed to have taken place.

    All the problems you’ve listed are being worked on and they won’t take 50 year, 20 years over even 10 years to overcome. The “Hype about Hydrogen” has been an unfortunate event in our drive-through window culture, but hydrogen cars will happen slower than many people want but faster than many people think.

  2. Darrin says:

    This article is excellent in pointing out the often overlooked stage trap-door for fuel cells. Fuel cells are extremely expensive, 10-100 times more expensive, to build than modern li-on batteries are. Their shelf life is limited and they are very fragile. It requires enormous amounts of electricity to electrolize water for hydrogen and a bunch of energy to pump the H2 into a fuel tank. I completey agree with the idea that we need to put our brains and resources into making and distributing lithiom nano-batteries and modern ultra-capacitors with back-up biofuel generators that are coupled with great catalytic converter/filters. The electric grid is already everywhere and biofuel is relatively easy to make–domestically. Let’s put our attention to plug-in hybrids and all electric vehicles.

  3. Jagadees says:

    You are correct. There are other disadvantages for hydrogen. It is a greenhouse gas. It is also rare in earth atmosphere. The massive use of hydrogen causes leakage in large amount. We don’t know its impact on earth.
    Why people are wasting resources on these fancy things and not putting full effort on what practical today.
    I think the whole fuel cell hype is to divert people’s attention from electric vehicles. So these companies can make petrol sucking monsters till the end of petroleum reserves.

  4. Ray Villanueva says:

    I’ve listened to some Hydrogen experts talk about generating the hydrogen from wind farms in the Mid-West of the U.S.

    I like the idea of using the fuel cell for home power and scavaging the waste heat to drive an ammonia refrigerator and water heater. Any leftover? Heat the house, radiant heat.

  5. Ed Ring says:

    Fuel cell systems are definitely enhanced if their thermal energy is also harvested. As for mid-western wind farms exporting hydrogen, it is an interesting notion. One problem is that oil and gas pipelines transport fuel with a very high energy density relative to hydrogen. It isn’t clear that normal pipes could transport significant amounts of hydrogen from the windy heartland to the great cities of America. Piping hydrogen may be as difficult as storing it.


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