Hydrogen Cars: a Fad or the Future?

By: Karolina Zubel, Energy Economist

Tesla’s Elon Musk oftentimes convinces us that battery electric vehicles (BEVs) are the future, adding that “hydrogen fuel cell cars are extremely silly, as it is very difficult to make hydrogen, store it, and use it in a car.” In fact, ever since first engineers proved that electricity can be generated through the reaction of oxygen and hydrogen, using platinum as a catalyst in 1839, the practical application of storing hydrogen evolved substantially. In the last year or so, almost all carmakers decided to join Toyota and Honda, the current frontrunners, in their hydrogen race.

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Photo: Mercedes-Benz F-Cell Class B, mariordo59, (CC BY-SA 2.0), Flickr

Supportive of Musk’s reluctance, Daniel Cooper from Engadget claims that “BEVs are significantly cleaner than fuel cell vehicles (FCVs).” Indeed, a common method of hydrogen production involves separating it from natural gas (in the so-called “steam methane reformation” process), but work is well underway to obtain hydrogen from biomass, a process that would significantly cut the life-cycle emissions from hydrogen to around 60g/km CO2. In a similar vein, the Australian Government is starting to use brown coal to produce hydrogen under similar emissions. These levels are below those that BEVs will achieve, even when electricity is sourced from renewable sources, because of the environmental costs of battery production.

Other opponents focus on the FCVs’ alleged danger. In reality, FEVs are much safer than conventional combustion cars. Over the last decade, hundreds of Toyota Mirai test cars have been thoroughly crash and safety tested. They have racked up millions of kilometers over all sorts of demanding terrains. Their hydrogen fuel tanks have even been shot at by high-velocity weapons. The tests proved that the burning hydrogen does not endanger the passengers of the car and does not damage the vehicle. Hydrogen, the lightest element in the universe, floats in the form of a narrow column, which is why the flame does not engulf the passenger compartment as in the case of gasoline ignition.

Surely, while electric chargers pop up ever more frequently in the world’s urban areas, the same cannot be said of hydrogen stations. While it is possible for manufacturers to copy Tesla and build their own refueling stations, the costs involved are higher. There is a general consensus among the experts that expansion of the hydrogen infrastructure must precede the mass introduction of FCVs in order for the consumer confidence in the availability of hydrogen fuel to rise. In this regard, the program of building a “Hydrogen Society” has already started in Japan, which aims for 40 thousand FEVs and at least 160 hydrogen stations by 2020.

The Japanese society is also educated that, in contrast to classic electric cars, filling the tank with hydrogen takes only 3–4 minutes. The car also has a much larger range. While Nissan Leaf can drive 220–240 kilometers in real conditions and Hyundai Ionic less than 200 kilometers, a typical FEV can cover up to 700 kilometers, which, with the right infrastructure and the price of individual models, can indeed quickly contribute
to a large popularity of the technology.

Speaking of popularity, less than two years ago, Jeremy Clarkson, a former BBC Top Gear presenter, asked in his column in The Sunday Times “why more carmakers are not embracing hydrogen as a sustainable fuel”. Clarkson’s plea was one of numerous incentives to form the Hydrogen Council — a global initiative of leading energy, transport and industry companies with a united vision and long-term ambition for hydrogen. Launched at the World Economic Forum 2017 in Davos, the growing coalition of CEOs skillfully promotes hydrogen, and FEVs in particular.

There are still a lot of “ifs” regarding hydrogen, but there are far fewer of them today than there were a decade ago. One should also remember that the use of fuel cells does not end with cars — for example, hydrogen powered forklifts are becoming a reality, just like some of the latest submarines, such as the German Type 212. Work is also underway on the supply of household appliances with hydrogen. In 2015, an experimental iPhone 6 hydrogen battery, which worked without charging for a week, was created, and the technology is currently being refined. Japan intends to use large-scale fuel cells to supply offices and flats in a firm belief that the key to encouraging FEVs is making them part of a wider “hydrogen economy”. Building refueling stations for hydrogen cars alone would be inefficient; instead, the whole energy sector should incorporate hydrogen into the mix, from refueling cars to storing energy for homes. If it is a future, it is really just around the corner.

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