More Reasons Hydrogen Fuel Cell Cars Aren’t The Future

Originally published on CleanTechnica.
By Mike Barnard

main-qimg-b3af6064a066c63a2d50eac196a6d7cbCompared to gas, diesel, or electric options, hydrogen distribution and fueling will be more expensive, lose a lot of hydrogen, be harder to use, be dangerous in a way people aren’t familiar with, and won’t deliver any environmental benefits to speak of. Yet major automotive vendors and some politicians continue to speak in favour of it.

It’s worth reviewing the major challenges related to hydrogen distribution and refueling to get a sense of what hydrogen fuel cell car manufacturers are up against as they try to find anyone to build the refuelling infrastructure that they need.

Hydrogen Is The Slipperiest Molecule In The Universe

main-qimg-2a0b7214865b12ac4e0a10896a944fa9Hydrogen escapes, with distressing ease and speed, anything which isn’t built to extraordinary tolerances. Expanding a complete distribution network to tolerances a couple of orders of magnitude above those required for gasoline is expensive.

An existing industrial distribution network exists, but it doesn’t need to provide similar coverage to gas stations — and there are about 168,000 of those in the USA right now, about one for every 1,900 people. That’s at least one order of magnitude above current hydrogen outlets for industrial use at anywhere near the scale of gas stations, and likely more. Maintaining that network so that normal degradation of seals, hoses, couplings and tanks doesn’t result in unacceptable losses will be expensive.

By comparison, gasoline can be carried in a pail and poured through a cheap plastic funnel into a gas tank with a crappy twist lid. Electrical outlets exist everywhere and don’t spill electricity, and batteries lose charge very slowly.

Most hydrogen advocates don’t seem to understand the technical aspects of this at all, and few of the ones who do seem to understand the economic implications.

Untrained Humans Have To Use The Nozzles

As a corollary to the first point, the point of getting hydrogen from a storage tank into a car’s tank is still going to require a human being who expects that it’s going to be pretty much the same as putting gas into a car. But it won’t be. Effective hydrogen couplings are more complex and tight fitting, and require interlocks that gas pumps don’t have today.

At minimum, people will have to take a heavier and bulkier nozzle, insert it correctly into a more complex fitting, and twist something until the fittings lock precisely. The large mass of people in the world are going to be the weakest link in this process. It will get screwed up regularly with significant losses of hydrogen.


Nozzles Likely Won’t Be Standardized

Right now, the tolerances for pouring gasoline or diesel into vehicles are extremely loose. Gasoline is a liquid at pretty much any temperature humans are going to be pumping it and it doesn’t vaporize particularly quickly. Gas pump nozzles can be a bit bigger or smaller with no impacts. Gas can intakes can be a bit bigger or smaller with no impacts.

But hydrogen nozzles will be much more technically specific and many countries and manufacturers will have their own ideas about what the ‘best’ nozzle is. Standardization bodies exist just as they do for electric cars, but they will be just as routinely ignored. Countries will go their own ways. Manufacturers will go their own way.

There will be multiple coupling technologies, not one. And hydrogen refueling stations will have to choose which subset they support. And those pesky humans who are going to be doing the refueling are going to get confused and will be pissed off that their particular car won’t be able to be refueled at half of the hydrogen stations.

If you think this is overstated, look at electric car charging plugs. There are two competing international standards — CHADeMO and SAE — and at least three vendors are going their own way with completely different charging approaches, or appear to be, most notably Tesla (whose approach is superior and was necessary to achieve the necessary recharge times for its Supercharger network, but still…). Many electric car owners end up carrying around at least one and probably two adaptors so that they can plug into different networks. And adaptors for electricity are cheap and easy compared to adaptors for hydrogen.

You Can’t Underestimate Human Fear

If hydrogen vehicles actually took off, a variety of parties for their own reasons would start running clips of the Hindenburg 24/7. Various types of irrational instincts would kick in with a large subset of the populace who don’t and won’t understand that gasoline is more dangerous than hydrogen.

There would be backlash. Social license battles would be constantly fought over siting of hydrogen refueling stations. People who think nothing of living next to a gas station would be terrified about living next to a hydrogen station. A bunch of people would refuse. There would be protests. From The New York Times:

WHEN Rebecca Markillie of ITM Power in Sheffield, England, attends trade shows to promote her company’s ambitious plan to build hydrogen fueling stations for cars in Britain, she sometimes must calm skittish consumers. “You get people saying, ‘Oh, no: hydrogen. That is dangerous,’ ” she said. “And you go, ‘Well, why do you say that?’ And straightaway, the only knowledge of hydrogen would be the Hindenburg.”

And because of the second point above, there would be accidents. Someone would have a crappy, sparking electronic device and misuse the complex coupling and a bunch of hydrogen would escape into the air unnoticed — and poof, you’d get a little hydrogen air-fuel bomb going off and everyone would freak out, ignoring all of the gas station fires over the years.

And that doesn’t even begin to deal with intentional misuse. To paraphrase the immortal words of Derek Zoolander, “it doesn’t mean that we too can’t not die in a freak [hydrogen] fight accident.”

It Won’t Reduce Climate Change Emissions

main-qimg-0f2befc714da734c48455681f9fb093f-2All of the arm waving in the world doesn’t get around the reality that the only industrial source of hydrogen is steam reformation of natural gas, and that hydrogen vehicles will have about 15% higher CO2 emissions than diesel engines per 100 km.

“According to a 2001 NREL full lifecycle assessment, the total CO2 emissions for a kilogram of hydrogen produced from natural gas is 11.9 kg, with 25% of total emissions coming from process, storage and transport.”

And that’s if the natural gas is actually carefully pumped and stored so that there are no methane emissions, which are much worse in the short term for climate change than the CO2.

Diesel cars get better mileage than gas cars, but diesel emits more CO2 for the same energy, with the result being that diesel cars are a bit better for CO2 emissions than gas cars. Hydrogen cars are going to be in the same range or worse than gas cars well-to-wheel. They will have no tailpipe emissions, but they will depend on fossil fuel extraction and processing with high resulting CO2 emissions nonetheless.

This is why the US looked at the entire thing and intelligently shifted to supporting electrification of transportation. And why intelligent consumers looking for a non-polluting alternative to cars are scratching their heads over why anyone is still promoting hydrogen-fueled transportation instead of electric vehicles.

And before electrolyzation of water using renewable energy is trotted out, electricity still costs money, hydrogen cracking from water requires a lot of electricity and “well”-to-wheel comparisons of hydrogen electrolysis to fuel cell vs battery electric vehicles clearly show 3-4 times greater efficiency for battery electric vehicles. Why would a consumer pay 3-4 times as much for the same service, especially when it’s less convenient?

Expensive And Ineffective

The first four points lead to one inescapable conclusion: hydrogen distribution networks will be very expensive compared to gasoline, diesel, or electrical distribution networks. They just won’t make economic sense. And the last point makes it clear that there is no good reason to spend the money.

12 thoughts on “More Reasons Hydrogen Fuel Cell Cars Aren’t The Future

  1. While I agree H and FCEV are not the answer, a lot of the argument made here is like the early days of BEV. With economy of scale and familiarity, much of these problems can be solved. Even the cost can be solved with enough supply/demand.

    This is chicken and egg problem. With BEV, it’s being solved thanks to Tesla and Nissan. But with H, there is not even a glimmer of hope to address the issue. Given that nat gas costs $2/MMBtu (293 kWh, or $0.0068/kWh) while H costs $13/kg (33 kWh, or $0.40/kWh), there’s lots of room to improve. It just needs some miracle breakthrough to bring the cost down.

    1. I think it would require 3 miracles. 1 A miracle cheap way to produce it that’s cheaper per kwh equivalent than electricity. 2. A Miracle cheap way to store it safely without leaks and extremely high pressurization. 3. A miracle way to tranfer it safely with a inexpensive standardized coupling that’s idiot proof and will do tens of thousands of refillings without expensive maintenance. Unfortunately for hydrogen, we already have all of the above with BEV’s – no miracles required.

      1. 1. H from nat gas via reformation is about 80% efficient. Given that it’s now 2 orders of magnitude more expensive, I think production cost could come down significantly with scale. For all its complexity, gasoline is only 5 times oil cost.

        2. If H is delivered in liquid form, and filling stations are constantly busy so that refrigeration is not needed (or minimal), that’s also not much an issue. Once it’s a gas at 10KPSI (700 bar), peak leakage is a problem, but that’s not as big an issue for daily or weekly fill ups.

        3. Transport is solved with liquid form (aka, economy of scale). End user filling seem to be happening ok already.

        But how do you convince people to drive FCEV with $13/gal equivalent fuel to achieve mass scale, especially with BEV around? I just don’t see it. I suppose if they have 0-60 in 3 seconds (like Tesla) for $16K (like SparkEV) with FCEV, but that isn’t likely any time soon, if ever. Hence, my argument of chicken and egg problem.

        1. 1.Reformulating natural gas into hydrogen only adds to our co2 emission problem. Producing hydrogen vehicles that contribute more co2 per vehicle than diesel cars is not going to be very helpful to climate change.

          2.Liquefying hydrogen is an energy intensive process (as is compressing it) which only adds to the cost. There’s no zero energy method to reduce the temperature to −423 °F and then keep it there.

          3. The first time there’s an accident with all these liquified hydrogen tankers delivering fuel everywhere it will be a media circus with a huge outcry over the dangers of hydrogen (never mind the dangers of gasoline- that’s not news). This will only generate more ‘not in my backyard’ opposition to fueling stations. Not everyone is going to be ecstatic over having to drive to their dealership every 4 days to fill up, even if the fuel was free. Finding an electrical outlet is a lot easier (and cheaper) than finding a Hydrogen fueling station- and I doubt that is ever going to change.

          1. 1. We’re talking about cost, not CO2. I don’t much care about CO2 and climate change, only money out of my pocket. In that regard, H could be competitive with economy of scale.

            2. Energy to liquify is about 20%. It’s a lot, but it’s not impossible. Out of 2 orders of magnitude that’s wasted now, it should be manageable loss. There is no need to compress it since “boiling” H would be natural way to pump it to high pressure. Once it’s liquified, insulated container would keep it that way for a day or so without (much) refrigeration if it’s sold out in same day. Again, economy of scale.

            3. You’re going all over the place here. Simple fact is, things will be lot safer for distribution with economy of scale. But I’ll address your concerns.

            Blowing up H is overblown hype. Gasoline is far more volatile; it pools where as H goes up and dissipates quickly. Fact is, well designed H container will prevent blow ups. Btw, some people still believe batteries in BEV blow up in accidents, just like hype for H.

            Drive to dealership to fill is only when there aren’t mass scale. Imagine H stations as common as gas stations. Most people fill up their gas cars once a week, so H would be similar.

            Electrical outlet is common, but charging BEV with them is not practical; it takes 25 hours to charge SparkEV, almost a week to charge Tesla. For public charging, only DCFC is practical. Cost for electricity is variable, and some public charging costs far more than gasoline (eg. Blink). But home charging is cheaper for now, though I don’t know if it’ll remain that way if politicians have their way; even now, SoCal rate for super off peak lowest price is $0.19/kWh, making it cost more than Prius to drive.

            There is no question that BEV is better as of now, though H could be competitive to gasoline cars with scale (COULD, not WILL). But there is no way for H to attain the scale needed unless they force you to use H at the point of a gun.

          2. There is a major cost issue for that scale up in that filling stations for hydrogen are an order of magnitude more expensive than a BEV charging station- not to mention that far fewer filling stations will be required for BEV’s since the majority of commuter charging will be done at home- no such option exists for H cars so far more stations will be required.

            BTW it only takes about 3-4 hours for me to fill up at home on my 240v dryer outlet in my garage. Many homes already have these outlets in their garage, but in my case I had to pay 200.00 for an electrician to wire one in. plus 589.00 for the Level 2 charger. I wonder how much a Hydrogen filling station would cost to put in my garage? Also SCE’s TOU rate is 0.11/kwh between 10p-8a making my cost aprox 1.00 per gal- Current efficiency over 1962 miles is 3.7 mi/kwh . At 0.11/kwh = $1.10 to drive 37 miles

            My work has traded in most of our trucks for new natural gas powered vehicles. A number of them have leaked noxious smelling natural gas into the cabin, and I know of one that had to be sent to the dealership 3 times to fix the same leak- they could’t find it. This is natural gas- which is easier to contain- and does have a smell- and it leaks. Hydrogen is harder to contain- and has no smell to alert you that it’s leaking. Are you saying that if undetectable Hydrogen gas leaked into a closed cabin where someone was smoking, there’s no potential for fire? This is good to know. I’m not sure my co-workers would believe it though.

          3. Again, my argument is that ASSUMING H became popular how viable it would be, and the answer is that it could (COULD!) be. Cost is only due to limited scale that it is now (ie, 2 orders of magnitude more expensive than nat gas). But as we both agree, how to get there doesn’t seem possible when BEV is already here.

            You were talking about outlet charging as ubiquitous, not dryer outlet. Then 120V should be used, which is not 3-4 hours. I use the 240V “welder’s outlet” that was already in my barn, but when I go places (friends and family), there is no 240V or without having 200ft of extension cord. Then it’s 120V.

            Besides, I don’t want to freeload electricity from them $0.33/kWh for 15kWh = $5; they’re not on base rate. That’s more than 2 gallons of gas. I saw gas at $2.30 today! I don’t expect them to pay me for 2 gallons of gas nor electricity. I skip 120V and use DCFC instead.

            TOU is fine if you happen to have no one at home during the day. Many (most?) people have kids, stay at home moms, elderly, pets at home so using TOU becomes more expensive. Even for sometimes work from home people (like me) would be worse with TOU.

            In San Diego, lowest price TOU rate is $0.18/kWh in winter, $0.19/kWh in summer, the same as base rate, so it’s not all the same even in CA. And they’re propsing to raise the rate even further after having gone up ~25% in last 2 years in the name of clean energy. Pretty soon, running my own gas engine generator at home might be cheaper.

          4. I agree that prices for electricity is all over the map- Literally! And what’s being charged at most of the commercial EV charging stations here in SoCal is outrageous- easily more than current gasoline prices. However electric utilities newfound love for EV’s makes me hopeful that utility incentives and special rates for BEV’s will become more widespread. Plus if they stepped in and built thousands of their own stations (as is already being proposed up north) I think that would bring prices lower. I too have a child and elderly grandparent at home all day, however our solar panels more than cover our peak rate times, so higher peak rates are not an issue for us. That could be an issue for families that don’t have solar and who have a lot of usage during the day. I think the TOU plans need lower peak rates that are more in line with regular tiered rates.

          5. Solar isn’t for everyone, but if you have it, TOU works great. For me, TOU would cost more. Solar is also a pain since it stays with the house instead of going with you. Hopefully with well planned “community solar”, it could be more viable for wider audience.

            As for commercial charging, if you have Leaf or other slow charging car, they can get expensive. But with SparkEV being the quickest charging EV in the world, cost is roughly similar to home charging using eVgo OTG plan. Of course, you know about the convenience of DCFC and being able to drive thousand miles a day with SparkEV, which eliminates range anxiety and even less need for H and fuel cell cars.


  2. Is CHADeMO different in different nations like Tesla unfortunately decided to have a different plug for EU and a different one for USA.

    It is like Apple having a Lightning cable for USA and USB type-C for Europe.

    1. Tesla designed its US plug thinking only about one-phase electricity; then had to design a three-phase plug for Europe. An adapter can be built to plug a European car into the US outlets, but not vice versa. There’s unlikely to be a lot of need for home three-phase charging in the US, so that’s OK.

      I don’t mind having a bag of plugs.

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