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Hydrogen Still the Car of the Future

October 18, 2013

The recent article in Fortune magazine opined that the hydrogen-powered car may actually happen.

I’m not betting on it, except that California’s zero emission standards may force car makers to sell hydrogen cars since EVs aren’t doing very well.

ix35 Fuel Cell, SUV. Picture from Huyndai.

ix35 Fuel Cell, SUV. Picture from Hyundai.

As in the past, there are five reasons why hydrogen cars have been the car of the future.

  • Producing hydrogen
  • Transporting hydrogen to where it can be used
  • Storing hydrogen on vehicles
  • Lack of fueling stations
  • High cost of fuel-cells

The first hurdle is to produce hydrogen, with two simple ways available:

  • Electrolysis, separating hydrogen from water
  • Reforming natural gas, to separate hydrogen from methane

Electrolysis is expensive, and could require building new power plants. The advantage of electrolysis is that it can produce hydrogen where it’s used, thus avoiding transportation issues.

Reforming natural gas can be done centrally or at the fueling station. Hydrogen, for example, is being produced at refineries, which is currently the largest source of hydrogen.

Transporting hydrogen from a central production location to where it’s used must be done using cryogenic trucks. The heat loss to convert the gas to a liquid consumes a considerable amount of energy. Hydrogen can’t be transported in existing natural gas pipelines.

Storage of hydrogen on a vehicle currently requires large and unwieldy high-pressure containers rated 5,000 or 10,000 psi for storing compressed hydrogen; or bulky “thermos bottle” containers for storing liquid hydrogen. These methods consume considerable space on a car. Metal hydrides have been proposed for storing hydrogen but they, as yet, do not have the ability to rapidly absorb and then release hydrogen on demand, as needed.

There is one more possibility, though the cost of the vehicle would certainly be even more prohibitive. It might be possible to produce hydrogen-powered vehicles with fuel cells using gasoline as the source of hydrogen, by reforming gasoline on the vehicle. This would eliminate the need to produce hydrogen or to build hydrogen fueling stations. To my knowledge, this alternative isn’t being pursued by vehicle manufacturers.

Fuel-cells have been, and probably will remain, the greatest hurdle to producing affordable hydrogen powered vehicles.

The Fortune article inferred that a hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle could sell for as little as $70,000.

Hyundai, for example, has been leasing fuel-cell vehicles in California. Hyundai indicated the fuel-cell pack used in the ix35 fuel-cell SUV, costs $100,000, although many believe it cost more. Hyundai claimed it will bring the cost of the fuel-cell pack down to $50,000 by 2015. Even at $50,000 the manufacturer would probably lose money when selling a fuel-cell vehicle for $70,000.

The lack of fueling stations is a huge impediment to the use of fuel-cell vehicles. A few demonstration fueling stations have been built. The one in Washington DC, that I visited, worked very well, with the liquid hydrogen being trucked to the station. A dozen have been built in California. Each fueling station, for fueling more than one vehicle at a time, costs around $3 million.

There are around 116,000 gasoline stations in the United States, so any serious attempt at producing fuel-cell vehicles will require a huge investment in fueling stations.

This is where reality has to enter the picture.

We now have, assuming fuel-cell vehicles can be sold in competition with Tesla’s EV, three alternatives besides gasoline or diesel fuel.

  • Hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles
  • EVs
  • Natural Gas vehicles

Each of these requires huge investments in fueling or recharging stations. In all probability these stations will have to be built using tax payer dollars, except for the natural gas stations where LNG and CNG are being used by trucks.

In a new twist, GM has announced it will produce a “bifueled” vehicle, a version of the Chevrolet Impala, next year that will use CNG for 150 miles, and gasoline for 350 miles. This eliminates the range issue, and allows the car owner to use low-cost CNG as much as possible.

California seems to be the only state willing to spend huge amounts of tax payer money to build fueling stations, and may build them for both fuel-cell vehicles and EVs. Their objective is to have zero emission vehicles to fight global warming. CNG vehicles don’t fit the zero emissions, California model.

But is the California model an efficient way to use tax payer money?

There is also the question of whether fuel-cell vehicles, priced at $70,000, would compete with Tesla, and take sales away from that company. Fuel-cell vehicles could be the straw that broke Tesla’s back and cause its demise.

Hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles are a technological toy for wealthy people.

The real revolution is likely to be the use of natural gas for powering vehicles.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Craig Mott permalink
    October 19, 2013 7:01 pm

    Donn,   Boone Pickins will be happy to read your last sentence!   Craig   PS, I sold all of my Tesla stock, as I was continually worried about a disaster after the infamous Tesla fire after an accident in Seattle.


    • October 20, 2013 9:57 am

      GM made the announcement about the Bifuleled car last week, and it hasn’t been widely reported in the media. It still has problems, but it could be a bridge to when CNG fueling stations are widely available.
      As a side note, my articles frequently cover a subject before the media does.


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