Hydrogen fuel cells in city cars, trucks, ships, and other transportation and shipping modes would seem to be a blessing. After all, fuel cell cars have electric motors, so are as fun and exciting as we electric car drivers are used to enjoying; but with longer range and quick refills. Familiar driving routines and fill-up rituals! So, given the advantages, are there any problems with fuel cell cars?
(Yes, a few.)
But hydrogen fuel cell vehicles emit no CO2 or any other nasty stuff at the tailpipe, which makes them ideal for city driving!
So what could be wrong with that, you ask?
(Well...you know that old saying, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is?)
Here are the five main issues or problems I've found that will have to be solved before I can unreservedly endorse hydrogen fuel cells.
1. The Hindenburg factor. Hydrogen by itself burns impressively; but add a little oxygen from the air, and kablooey! Detonation.
I mean, if the thought of 15 gallons of
gasoline going up in flames is enough to make you want to put out
your cigarette and turn off your engine, just imagine what 5 liters
of compressed hydrogen could do! (The Challenger explosion, for
example, was caused by a hydrogen/oxygen fire. A much bigger one,
with a crap
ton of hydrogen and oxygen involved, but still.)
That said, scientists have been working
with hydrogen for a while now, it's in common usage in other
applications, and they have pretty much figured out how to keep the
kablooey to a strict minimum. To be fair to hydrogen, we take our
lives into our hands whenever we fill up a gas guzzler, too; but
we've figured out how to keep that danger to a minimum with protocols
and precautions, and I imagine hydrogen will be no different.
electric cars by comparison to either gasoline OR hydrogen fuel cell cars are very VERY much
2. There's not much infrastructure. If you look around and see ZERO hydrogen filling stations in your neighborhood, you're in good company. Here in the US, there are hardly any. 39 at last count, most of them in California. In Canada, there is just one. That 300 mile range won't do anyone much good if there's no place to refill the car!
And how much does it cost to install a
hydrogen fueling station? 6
million USD each (pdf).
For comparison, how much does it cost
to install an electric car charging station? From the Department
of Energy website (pdf):
“The cost of a single port EVSE unit ranges from $300-$1,500 for Level 1, $400-$6,500 for Level 2, and $10,000-$40,000 for DC fast charging. Installation costs vary greatly from site to site with a ballpark cost range of $0-$3,000 for Level 1, $600- $12,700 for Level 2, and $4,000-$51,000 for DC fast charging.”
BTW, both of these are expected to become cheaper as time goes on, because electric cars and fuel cell cars are new technology.
3. The hydrogen is derived from fossil fuels. From the Department of Energy website: “Today, 95% of the hydrogen produced in the United States is made by natural gas reforming in large central plants.”
As you probably know, natural gas is just methane (CH4), usually with some other nasty stuff contaminating it.
Near term, there is almost no (5%) non-fossil fuel source of hydrogen. It's almost all coming from natural gas, often extracted through fracking, which is a problem in itself; it is always transported through pipelines, which tend to leak and must cross indigenous land and water holdings...
...and when you remove the hydrogen from methane it creates quite a lot of CO2.
How much? Crack the hydrogen off the methane, and you get two molecules of hydrogen gas (H2) for every molecule of methane. The lonely carbon has to go somewhere – so it hooks up with the oxygen in the air and becomes carbon dioxide (and less often, carbon monoxide). So roughly: one molecule of methane makes one molecule of carbon dioxide for every two molecules of hydrogen.
That's by the steam methane reforming method. Other methods of extracting hydrogen are still either less efficient or more expensive, though very smart people are working on alternatives right now. SMR is today's cost winner.
4. Fuel cell technology is competing with battery technology for research, development and infrastructure dollars.
cars do a better job of reducing automobile carbon dioxide emissions,
by a wide margin. Anyone who CAN drive a battery electric car, and
for whom that will meet their driving needs, should be able to do so.
Trading a gas guzzler for a battery powered electric car immediately
eliminates a huge source of carbon emission.
What if we took
all the public money that might go into hydrogen research and
infrastructure and instead just poured that money into battery
research and charging infrastructure instead?
research and charging infrastructure might be a better use of public
5. Fuel cell cars feed our
dependence. Adoption of fuel
cell cars and their infrastructure actually works to continues our
dependency on fossil fuels, and our dependency on the government to
do the right thing for the environment we all share.
I swear, the gas
and oil conglomerates are like a drug cartel. They have a substance
they want everyone to be addicted to; petrol-e-crack. There's wads of
money in it. It's
been suggested that fuel cell cars are a scam, created as
another sneaky way for the oilies to crawl into your pocketbook.
for it all the time. They, just like the oil conglomerates, don't
want to leave wealth in the ground. I get it. I probably wouldn't
choose to leave my wealth undeveloped, either.
But here's the
thing: natural gas can be a lot more valuable when it's used to
create other things besides just being burned for electricity or
processed for hydrogen.
says: “Natural gas is an ingredient used to make fertilizer,
antifreeze, plastics, pharmaceuticals and fabrics. It is also used to
manufacture a wide range of chemicals such as ammonia, methanol,
butane, ethane, propane, and acetic acid.”
that precious natural resource is gone, it's gone – forever.
Do we really
want to sell
it cheap to burn for electricity production, when we could use
solar and wind (with battery storage) to produce abundant cheap
power, and instead sell our methane for a lot more money (30x the
price) to the manufacturing market?
it in the ground” really implies, in my view. Not “leave it
there forever”, but rather “be smarter with our limited