Another Look At Hydrogen

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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