October 11, 2017 by Denis Pombriant
There’s a lively discussion building on the benefits of hydrogen fuel cell technology vs. lithium batteries to fuel electric vehicles in the near future. Each approach has its proponents but it appears that the electrics are winning and will likely be the champs for several reasons. Energy.gov has a list of the top 5 reasons that hydrogen is superior but they don’t really stack up.
- Hydrogen is the most abundant element on earth. True enough, it is also the most abundant element in the universe because it’s also the smallest, just one proton and one electron. Anything smaller isn’t an element, it’s a subatomic particle or wave. Hydrogen likes to combine with things and forms strong stable bonds as it gives off energy so if you want to get pure hydrogen, you need to be willing to strip it from other atoms. So making hydrogen available for a car means using a reverse process that splits hydrogen off some other entity. Unfortunately, it always takes more energy to liberate hydrogen from something else than you’d get using it in a fuel cell and we haven’t even discussed where we’d get that energy to begin with.
- Hydrogen can be used in several applications such as in buildings to produce electricity as well as in cars. But the question of where we get they hydrogen from and the energy cost of producing it, goes unanswered.
- Fuel cells are a clean way to produce power. Yup. Clean. Except for getting the dirty electricity to make the stuff in the first place. You might think of using wind or solar power to make the electricity to generate the hydrogen but you can also use solar to directly charge a battery-powered car. Know what? Eliminating the step that generates the hydrogen saves a lot of energy and helps make the case for battery charging.
- Fuel cells are very similar to traditional powered cars. This assumes a lot. In fact hydrogen doesn’t compress so it never gets to a liquid form. Fueling a car with a highly volatile gas is dangerous and not easy to do. Also, a car with a hydrogen tank can go about 100 miles, going further means a bigger tank which turns the car into a bomb with wheels. Electric cars can charge at home, overnight, and can use power from any generating source including the sun. Many also have regenerating features so that when you slow or brake the electric motor turns into a generator and puts some charge into the battery. Fuel cell powered cars are nothing like gasoline powered cars except in their looks.
- There are more than 30 commercial hydrogen stations in California today. Yes, and there are about 40 nation wide. Just sayin’.
Electric cars running on batteries have their own issues including slow charging time and range. But there are numerous R&D projects ongoing to build better batteries that can charge fast and go long. There is also a growing number of charging stations where people can top off their batteries while shopping or at work, for instance in addition to charging at home.
So for a lot of reasons the hydrogen fuel cell is not likely to take over transportation. It’s a great idea but as soon as you start asking where the hydrogen comes from you get into trouble. In the future we’ll probably think of fuel cells as another example of a good idea that, on closer inspection, didn’t measure up.