Why hydrogen fuel cell cars are not competitive — from a hydrogen fuel cell expert

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testing a hydrogen car (photo NREL March 2016)

testing a hydrogen car (photo NREL March 2016)

The widespread introduction of hydrogen fuel cell cars is a bad idea, writes Zachary Shahan, editor of Cleantechnica.com. According to Shahan, hydrogen fuel cell cars will never be able to compete with battery-electric cars. Policymakers should focus on stimulating electric transportation. Courtesy Cleantechnica.com.

One of Cleantechnica’s regular commenters recently dropped a very interesting link into the comments of an article about Hyundai’s apparent shift in focus to battery-electric cars. As he prefaced it: There’s actually a long list of problems with fuel cell cars. From someone who actually built fuel cell cars: http://ssj3gohan.tweakblogs.net/blog/11470/why-fuel-cell-cars-dont-work-part-1.

It is a long piece, and it’s in three parts. Admittedly, it would be nice if the author updated it to match the current market — it was published in February 2015 and is dated in a couple of parts.

But the key points are the same nonetheless, and they aren’t changing. These key points are laid out in bullet points at the beginning of Part 1Part 2, and Part 3:

First of all, HFC cars are perceived to be a good bridge between fossil fuels and full electric because:

  • You can still fill up like you do with a gasoline or diesel powered car
  • The mileage you can get out of hydrogen is perceived to be more adequate than what you get from batteries
  • Hydrogen fuel cells are thought not to wear out as quickly as batteries (or conversely, batteries are thought to wear out very quickly)
  • Hydrogen as a fuel is perceived to be a relatively small infrastructural change from gasoline and diesel
  • Hydrogen is perceived as a cleaner solution than gasoline, diesel or natural gas

In reality,

  • You cannot fill up like you do with gasoline or diesel. It is actually pretty ridiculous how hard it is to fill up a HFC powered car
  • You won’t even go 100 miles on current tech hydrogen tanks that are still safe to carry around in a car
  • Fuel cells wear out crazy fast and are hard to regenerate
  • Hydrogen as a fuel is incredibly hard to make and distribute with acceptably low losses

Additionally,

  • Hydrogen fuel cells have bad theoretical and practical efficiency
  • Hydrogen storage is inefficient, energetically, volumetrically and with respect to weight
  • HFCs require a shit ton of supporting systems, making them much more complicated and prone to failure than combustion or electric engines
  • There is no infrastructure for distributing or even making hydrogen in large quantities. There won’t be for at least 20 or 30 years, even if we start building it like crazy today.
  • Hydrogen is actually pretty hard to make. It has a horrible well-to-wheel efficiency as a result.
  • Easy ways to get large quantities of hydrogen are not ‘cleaner’ than gasoline.
  • Efficient HFCs have very slow response times, meaning you again need additional systems to store energy for accelerating
  • Even though a HFC-powered car is essentially an electric car, you get none of the benefits like filling it up with your own power source, using it as a smart grid buffer, regenerating energy during braking, etc.
  • Battery electric cars will always be better in every way given the speed of technological developments past, present and future

I’ve written my own debunking of the legitimacy of hydrogen fuel cell cars. Physicist Joe Romm, PhD, who oversaw $1 billion in R&D, demonstration, and deployment of low-carbon technology in 1997 as acting assistant secretary of energy for energy efficiency and renewable energy under President Bill Clinton, has written several articles and an entire book on why hydrogen cars are overly hyped, not competitive with battery-electric carsincredibly dumb, and (obviously) not a winning strategy.

The author of the piece above was involved in the first international hydrogen racing championship, and as you can see if you read his articles, knows a lot about the technology.

Elon Musk, another vocal HFCV critic, is a physicist by training and was interested since college, at least, in advancing sustainable transport. He specifically went the route of battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) rather than HFCVs because of inherent, huge advantages for BEVs.

As he has noted, the theoretical limit for HFCVs isn’t even as good as current-tech BEVs….

As he stated last year:

  • Hydrogen fuel cell cars “are extremely silly.”
  • “Hydrogen is an incredibly dumb” fuel.
  • “Fuel cell is so bullshit, it’s a load of rubbish. The only reason they do fuel cell is because… they don’t really believe it, it’s something that they can… it is like a marketing thing.”
  • “There’s no need for us to have this debate. I’ve said my piece on this, it will be super obvious as time goes by.”

EV expert Julian Cox wrote an article for us a couple years ago on why hydrogen cars are simply not green. The article got a lot of attention and was referenced widely (including by Joe Romm and some mainstream media outlets), but the message doesn’t seem to have broken through to many people in the “green” and “cleantech” community. Furthermore, hydrogen fuel cell cars continue to get subsidies from governments … which is both a waste of money and counterproductive.

Sure, keep investing a little bit in R&D, but don’t take away from the cash that should go toward battery-electric vehicles in order to quickly decarbonise transportation and help stop global warming.

Editor’s Note

This article was first published on Cleantechnica.com and is republished here with permission.

Comments

  1. Gary Vermaak says

    Seems that Zachary has not had a look at ethanol and diesel powered solid oxide fuel cell vehicles yet?

  2. Matt Karber says

    Fuel cells are NOT that hard to re-fuel. Aside from California consumers who are driving fuel cell cars, UPS and Walmart both have warehouses that use fuel cell forklifts, which re-fuel much more quickly than battery-powered versions. This boosts productivity by keeping equipment available for employee use.

    HFC cars are on the road today that have a minimum range of 200 miles. Road and Track magazine test drove a Toyota Highlander fuel cell SUV across Alaska, and it had a 400 mile range with the same interior space as the gasoline model.

    In part 1 of his article (see link above), Mr. Shahan states that “electric cars have taken off like nobody’s business”. This may be true in other countries, but in the US, electric cars are only 3% of total new car sales.

    Hydrogen is actually a HUGE infrastructure change from gasoline or diesel, because it requires so MUCH LESS infrastructure than either one. Hydrogen can be made as needed, where needed by over half a dozen different methods, based on the means which best suits the location. Thus, NO pipelines or tanker trucks are needed. This actually improves the total system efficiency (“well-to-wheels”) for HFC cars.

    There are several substantial differences between mass-produced fuel cell cars and the small racing cars which seem to be the bulk of Mr. Shahan’s experience. Amory Lovins, a renowned physicist with the Rocky Mountain Institute, wrote an excellent paper called “Twenty Hydrogen Myths” which explains more of this in great detail, including the true “well-to-wheels” efficiency of HFC cars.

    HFC cars are as green as the hydrogen used to fuel them. Many hydrogen experts have stated for decades that renewable energy must be the source of hydrogen for it to be green.

    Lithium, the key component in current EV batteries, can be hazardous and must be recycled. We don’t know yet how well this will work on a large scale, since there are not that many battery cars on the road.

  3. Michael says

    “◾You cannot fill up like you do with gasoline or diesel. It is actually pretty ridiculous how hard it is to fill up a HFC powered car
    ◾You won’t even go 100 miles on current tech hydrogen tanks that are still safe to carry around in a car
    ◾Fuel cells wear out crazy fast and are hard to regenerate”

    What century was this written in.

    I just saw a guy fill up his Fuel Cell car with H2, and it didn’t look any more difficult than filling it with gasoline, plus there were no fumes. It only took a few minutes.

    Can’t go 100 miles? The new Honda Clarity has an EPA range of 366 miles, further than any battery electric car including a Tesla P100D..

    Fuel cells wear out crazy fast? The average is a 10% voltage loss in 60,000 miles. That’s crazy fast? Batteries degrade the day they are manufactured, whether used or not. Take a look at this. It doesn’t look like batteries hold up all that well.

    http://www.electricvehiclewiki.com/Battery_Capacity_Loss

  4. says

    Zachary Shahan a fuel cell expert? Not correct and his poor choice of language is of no absolutely of no value to anyone whatsoever. The negative comments are as far for the truth as any one of us could imagine. I will not go through all the negative incorrect comments. Do some reading! I have personally filled and driven numerous FCEVs over the last 17 years.

  5. Mike Parr says

    “Hydrogen as a fuel is incredibly hard to make and distribute with acceptably low losses”.
    This is somewhat off-the-mark. Hard to make? electroysers in various forms have been around since the late 19th century. Acceptably low losses? Current electrolysers have efficiencies of circa 80% (based on discussions with a couple of suppliers). In the case of distribution – ITM seem to have cracked that with a combined electrolyser and filling station – thus obviating the need for pipelines. That said, a gas company this week told me they were looking at an H2 network.

    • says

      Overall effeciency of the hydrogen use for transport: indeed 80% for electrolysis, but fuel cells get only ~50%, thus the overall efficiency is ~40%, compared to an overall efficiency of ~85% for Li-ion batteries. More important, H2 production from intermittent sources like wind and solar needs an enormous amount of very high pressure tanks (~700 bar), as hydrogen is very light, to give enough capacity to match supply with demand. For batteries that is currently even impossible. Only pumped water dams may provide the huge capacity needed, but even that is quite limited in Europe…
      Hydrogen is a creeping gas, it creeps through the smallest pores, through plastics and even through steel at high temperature. That makes that it is very difficult to maintain leak-free storage and use in moving vehicles. Anyway forbidden in closed parkings.
      Las but not least: currently hydrogen is for over 99% made from natural gas. Better use CNG directly for transport than via hydrogen…
      In my opinion, hydrogen is one of the worst forms of transport energy…

  6. Fredrik Lundberg says

    In a systems perspective hydrogen is not so silly. Hydrogen is needed to replace fossils for e.g. steel production and (bio)refineries.
    Assuming a lot of hydrogen will be produced from cheap and variable power for such purposes, the extra cost of supplying hydrogen for transport may be reasonable.
    Power-to-gas is a fairly good way to provide peak and reserve power in countries like Germany and the UK. Batteries can not do that.
    The jury is still out. Battery cars are technically feasible, but very expensive and heavy. They are still not an alternative to gas and diesel car for the mass market. There are also infrastructure issues.
    Infrastructure for hydrogen is somewhat simpler. As a Toyota Mirai has a very long range for a tank, a small number of service stations can serve a large area for the first cars. With more hydrogen cars, you build more service stations. There is less of a hen-egg problem than for battery cars.
    Talking of eggs, one should not put all of them into one basket. We will probably need biofuels AND hydrogen AND battery cars.
    Conversion efficiency is important, but it is not everything.
    Elon Musk is no impartial physicist. In fact, he is both partisan and too charismatic.

  7. Michael E says

    Laypeople sometimes speak of electric vehicles like they think electricity is totally green, a power source that flows magically from outlets. Most electricity in the U.S. is still produced by coal burning power plants, so our electric cars are powered primarily by burning coal. Green? I don’t think so. EVs also require a large volume of batteries containing highly toxic materials that become hazardous waste each time a battery must be replaced. Another advantage of fuel cell vehicles over battery vehicles is charging time – you can fill a tank with hydrogen in just a few minutes, whereas charging batteries is a lengthy process. Also, assuming your system doesn’t leak, you can park a FC vehicle indefinitely without losing any potential power from fuel. Batteries, on the other hand, only hold a charge for a limited time. It’s like having a fuel leak in a gasoline vehicle (without the danger of fire).

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