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Another Look At Hydrogen

September 23, 2014

A book published in 2002 predicted that a hydrogen economy would redistribute power around the earth.

Its title included the headline: “When there is no more oil.”

The book, The Hydrogen Economy, was much ado about nothing.

Aside from the diatribes against big oil, etc., the book was a fantasy.

It also blundered by omitting a very important issue: How do we economically produce and distribute hydrogen?

This, together with cost, will continue to plague the introduction of fuel cell vehicles (FCVs), as the automobile industry revs up its PR machine to tout their introduction.

Toyota Demonstration FCV

Toyota Demonstration FCV

The book wasn’t alone in making dire predictions, as U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said in 2003, “Looming energy and environmental challenges demand results in the development of hydrogen-powered automotive systems in the next two decades.”

There are four problems with FCVs that use hydrogen for fuel:

  • Producing hydrogen, and then transporting it to fueling stations if produced centrally
  • The cost of building hydrogen fueling stations
  • Storing hydrogen on the vehicle
  • The cost of fuel cells

While hydrogen is abundant in the universe, it is nearly always combined with some other element, such as in the case of water (H2O) and Methane (CH4).
In the case of water, it can be separated using electricity. In the case of methane it can be produced by steam reforming.

Most hydrogen today is produced at refineries using steam reforming.

It’s technically possible to produce hydrogen with either of these process locally, but at an increased cost.

Since hydrogen can’t be transported in natural gas pipelines, as it corrodes the pipe, it must be transported by truck to the fueling station, usually a cryogenic truck, if it’s produced at a central location.

When hydrogen is produced centrally for use in an FCV refueling station, it must be cooled to form a liquid. Refrigerating hydrogen uses approximately 25% of hydrogen’s energy content, which is one of the energy losses incurred with this scenario.

Steam reforming at refineries also results in CO2 emissions.

Using electricity to split water into oxygen and hydrogen requires large amounts of electricity, which would require building new power generation plants if large amounts of hydrogen were to be produced using electrolysis. Power plants also emit CO2.

There are approximately 160,000 gasoline stations in the united States.

Assuming that only one-third as many hydrogen fueling stations would be required to cover the country so that FCVs weren’t range restricted, approximately 50,000 hydrogen fueling stations would need to be built across the United States.

At $500,000 per fueling station, it would cost approximately $27 billion.

According to the Department of Energy, there are currently only 12 hydrogen fueling stations in the United States, and 10 of these are in California, and probably convenient for movie stars.

Obviously, any FCVs sold or leased in the near future would be in California, and be very range constrained.

Storing hydrogen on FCVs is usually accomplished under pressure to minimize volume, using special 10,000 or 5,000 psi containers. Some prototypes have used cryogenic vessels, similar to thermos bottles, to store the hydrogen.

In either case, storage consumes considerable space and raises safety concerns in people’s minds. Thus far, there have been no safety problems, as hydrogen evaporates into the air very quickly.

Metal hydrides can also absorb hydrogen and be used for storage. The Toyota FCV uses what it terms a hydrogen absorbing alloy tank, that has the characteristics of metal hydrides. Tank size is still a problem, but weight is apparently reduced, and shape is far more flexible.

Fueling is safe and simple. I saw it operate at the hydrogen fueling station near Washington, DC.

Finally, the cost of fuel cells is still several times the cost of an internal combustion engine, and five times the cost of Lithium-ion batteries, as used in EVs. The exact cost of fuel cells remains hard to determine, but even with major progress in reducing costs, they remain very expensive.

One must wonder why there is so much emphasis being placed on FCVs.

They are being touted as zero emission vehicles, but producing the hydrogen to power them emits CO2.

Why go to the expense and trouble of reforming natural gas when it could be used directly in internal combustion engines? Reforming natural gas to produce hydrogen is very inefficient and wastes energy.

If the country is going to go to the expense of creating new fueling stations, why not build natural gas fueling stations, which would allow the use of natural gas directly?

And why the rush to replace internal combustion engines that are more efficient and less costly?

The gasoline-powered vehicle is still the most cost-effective form of transportation, with the possible exception of CNG and LNG vehicles.

It would appear that FCVs are toys for the rich, and for those who want to demonstrate their environmental credentials, even though they are misguided in that regard.

We have an abundant supply of oil and natural gas, so there is no need to stop using them for powering our vehicles.

FCVs are cool and sexy, but not very useful.

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. September 23, 2014 12:31 pm

    The FCV is the way for the oil companies to remain in control of vehicle fuel and its revenue stream.  They own much of the natural gas industry now.  Requiring people to come to a station to put fuel in a tank leaves their business model almost unchanged.  With annual profits more than the net value of the entire domestic auto industry, they have the political power to have their preferred option pushed forward.  That doesn’t mean it’ll succeed.

    Look at the previous (true) alternatives to the HFCV.  The PNGV cars are eerily similar to today’s hybrids, and the PHEVs already in showrooms easily beat PNGV fuel economy figures.  The i-MiEV and Tesla and Leaf are all very practical vehicles in their market segments.  The energy for all of them is readily available today, and in the case of the EVs and PHEVs it is even delivered directly to your home.

    Hype-drogen (as I like to call it) has been the fuel of the future for 50 years… and it looks like it always will be.

    • September 23, 2014 1:57 pm

      I assume PNGV means Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles.
      Thanks for your comment.
      Not sure TESLA etc. make economic sense, but we will see how they do over the next few years, even with large subsidies.
      Hype-drogen is an apt name for the Hydrogen Economy.

  2. Catcracking permalink
    September 23, 2014 10:00 pm

    Excellent article which exposes the folly of Hydrogen powered transportation fuel.
    It never ceases to amaze me that H2 advocates somehow ignore all the facts of thermodynamics and energy. The only explanation that I understand is that the government are desperate and throw money at anything regardless of how unlikely it will succeed.

    Similarly a commercial all electric car is decades off, there is currently no viable battery and it is foolish to subsidize the commercialization until a viable battery is available, which may take decades or longer. Besides the electricity grid is not robust enough to support widespread demand of electric powered cars. As I understand, Tesla financial success is actually based on subsidies for manufacturing mandated batteries. Possibly someone can clarify this..

    • September 23, 2014 11:44 pm

      Speaking as someone who drives a Fusion Energi, I can attest that one doesn’t have to have an all-electric car to achieve practical levels of fuel savings.  I’ve driven some 3400 miles since my last fill-up and I haven’t yet burned 2 gallons out of this tank-full.  Is that practical?  I’d laugh at you if you told me it wasn’t.

      FWIW, I expect to average over 300 MPG on this tank of fuel, and not much less on the next.  Lifetime average for the car is now in excess of 126 MPG.

      • September 24, 2014 3:45 pm

        Very interesting. I looked up the Ford info page on the car, which I hadn’t done until now. Not clear is how far it can go as an EV, battery only.
        It looks as though you are very careful how you switch between EV and the alternative modes.
        Thanks for you comment.

      • September 25, 2014 1:10 am

        Not clear is how far it can go as an EV, battery only.

        It varies substantially with speed, other traffic conditions and temperature.  Use of A/C, defrost or heat has major impacts.

        It looks as though you are very careful how you switch between EV and the alternative modes.

        As with diesel cars and the Prius, the best figures are only achieved with optimal driving practices.  Taking advantage of charging opportunities is also important.

        If those opportunities were available everywhere, that would stop being very important.  In a possible future where almost every parking space allows charging, choice of routes and destinations would not be very important.  As battery pack sizes and EV-only ranges increase, those considerations also become less important.  Ultimately, liquid fuels become irrelevant.

  3. September 25, 2014 9:04 am

    We’ll see whether EVs or PHEVs will be a factor several years from now. Their prices will have to come down substantially or the government will have to continue to subsidize these cars, plus the government will also have to subsidize the building of charging stations if these vehicles are to replace Gasoline, natural gas or LNG vehicles. When I say subsidize, I’m referring to the government using tax payer money.

    • September 27, 2014 1:05 am

      I don’t think charging stations will need much subsidy.  My trained eye sees lots of places that chargers could be placed at minimal cost, if the right supports (esp. billing) were in place.  Electricity as such is amazingly cheap; at the residential rates I’m paying, a full charge of my car costs about a dollar.  The problem is getting workplaces, businesses and other sites to provide charging where people park away from home.  The physical layer of this isn’t an issue (quite a few vehicles can be served using infrastructure already in place, just re-purposed or used more efficiently), it’s the higher-level stuff holding things up.

  4. September 27, 2014 8:59 am

    EVs and PHEVs can be charged at home with a small investment, perhaps $1,000. The problem is, they take several hours to complete a charge.
    There is a similar problem with slow speed public charges. To get a quick charge requires a charging station that costs as much $20,000. It’s the quick charging stations that are being proposed for public charging. Of course, a garage where cars are parked all day could have the slow charging stations. My point is, it will cost a lot of money to install charging stations to serve a very small number of cars. If the number of EVs and PHEVs ever became large, say 40% of all cars on the road, it would probably be necessary to build new power plants.
    I’m curious when you say the infrastructure already exists, and that it merely needs to be repurposed. Please provide an example.
    Billing is a problem. It’s a broad subject that requires a lot of space to cover, so I’m skipping it for now.
    And why are we driving the country, sorry for the pun, to use EVs and PHEVs? It’s to cut CO2 emissions. We’re wasting a lot of money and effort to cut CO2 emissions, which is probably a non-problem.
    We’ll see whether the public, not the rich and famous, will spend $10,000 extra to have an EV, or somewhat less to have a PHEV.
    Gasoline powered vehicles, and probably natural gas powered vehicles, are the least costly to buy and drive. Liquid fuels will be around for a long time, unless the government mandates otherwise.
    I see where your Ford Energi gets 20 miles in pure battery mode, so it’s comparable to other PHEVs. It has an MRSP of around $35,000 so it’s more expensive than a Hybrid, such as the Prius. You are getting great mileage in mpg by carefully monitoring and utilizing battery mode.

    • September 27, 2014 1:03 pm

      EVs and PHEVs can be charged at home with a small investment, perhaps $1,000.

      Consumer-grade 240 volt EVSE has broken the $400 barrier.  Selling stuff in volume will drive the price down further; if you’ve read the hardware spec, it’s obvious that there isn’t that much to it.  Sooner or later the circuitry that does the vehicle-charger handshaking will be reduced to a single IC, and it’ll all fit inside the connector housing and cost a buck apiece in quantity 1000.

      The problem is, they take several hours to complete a charge.

      Anything is better than nothing, and every bit makes a difference.  Every PHEV save the Volt can get a full charge during your average work day even at 110 volts 12 amps.

      Slow isn’t always a handicap.  What downtown doesn’t want people to hang around… enjoy the ambiance… spend money….

      I’m curious when you say the infrastructure already exists, and that it merely needs to be repurposed. Please provide an example.

      Street and parking-lot lighting.  You already have underground wiring, often running to pylons directly next to parking spaces; this is typically unused during daylight.  A lot of this stuff was wired for incandescent lights, but the current trend is to re-lamp with LEDs which draw a fraction of the power.  Existing circuits can be re-wired for higher voltage to move more power.

      Some city lamp posts have 3-prong NEMA outlets on them already.  I’ve charged from them a few times.  Half an hour made the difference between burning gas to get home and burning none.

      And why are we driving the country, sorry for the pun, to use EVs and PHEVs? It’s to cut CO2 emissions.

      Partly.  There’s also the lack of air and noise emissions, and the switch from petroleum (substantially imported) to energy that’s almost always NOT from petroleum.  The electric car can run on anything from coal and natural gas to nuclear to the solar panel on your roof.  The EV is a big contributor to both energy security and national security, which is seldom given the appreciation it deserves.

  5. September 27, 2014 2:33 pm

    Thanks. Good points, except I don’t see a very big contribution to energy security since we will be producing all the oil we need in North America, and there is virtually no contribution to national security, since that’s typically equated to energy security.
    I still say, wait ten years and see how many people are buying EVs and PHEVs, especially if tax payer funded subsidies are eliminated. That will be interesting.
    Noise pollution, not a big problem, though annoying to some people. (85db considered the threshold for hearing loss.) Can’t speak to air emissions from gasoline of genuine pollutants, since somewhat different in composition and location from power plants.
    Again, except for cutting CO2 emissions there aren’t many benefits, if that can be considered a benefit.

    • September 28, 2014 2:17 am

      I don’t see a very big contribution to energy security since we will be producing all the oil we need in North America

      Well, if you ignore the fact that shale wells like the Bakken deplete very rapidly, and a substantial amount of the production in the Athabasca tar sands seems to be falling under Chinese ownership.  The USA as a whole is just now getting imports down to less than half of consumption; the USA has been a net oil importer since 1949, and production doesn’t look to equal the 1970’s peak any time soon (meaning, ever).  Mexico barely maintains its status as an oil exporter now that Cantarell is depleted.

      Noise pollution, not a big problem, though annoying to some people. (85db considered the threshold for hearing loss.)

      There’s a lot of health damage that occurs long before hearing loss.  Simply disturbing people’s rest is sufficient to increase blood pressure and cause fatigue.  That much has been known since the mid-1970’s (I wrote a paper on it, using sources that were published in hardback at the time).

      Can’t speak to air emissions from gasoline of genuine pollutants

      As a once-and-possibly-future car guy (don’t know where work will take me), I can say with assurance that combustion engines still emit substantial pulses of pollutants on each cold start.  That includes various toxics from carbon monoxide to much heavier molecules and even unburned fuel.  The fewer cold starts you have, the less pollution you get.  The smaller the engine and the faster it warms up (higher load), the less it will emit.  If you can pre-heat the engine and the catalytic converter, you can minimize that… but that pretty much requires electric power to the vehicle.

      The other virtue is that emissions are moved from cities and roads (where people are) to the plant sites (where people generally aren’t).  The reduced exposure is a health benefit.

  6. September 28, 2014 9:13 am

    Thanks. Initial production decreases rapidly, but continues at a lower rate for a long period of time. Bakken crude production is increasing year over year, and the estimated ultimate recovery EUR is also increasing.


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