Hydrogen fuel cell vehicle technology is on a road that doesn't go to market.
Tuesday, November 20, 2007 at 05:35PM
Skeptic in Energy, Hydrogen

Those who envision a world full of automobiles powered by fuel cells running on hydrogen seem not to have noticed that this can't happen unless the hoped-for technology can out-perform competing technologies, especially battery-powered cars.  Both systems start with electricity and both end with electricity driving on-board electric motors.  But the fuel cell vehicle--left column in the following comparison--is inherently less efficient and, for that reason alone, likely to be more costly:

The first three steps in the hydrogen route embody well-established technology, but the last step, fuel cell technology to convert hydrogen to electricity aboard a vehicle, needs much refinement. In comparison, battery technology also needs refinement, but no preliminary conversion or handling steps increase the cost or reduce the energy efficiency of this route.

In order to make the two routes as comparable as possible, one could postulate that hydrolysis, compression, and hydrogen storage are done in small scale units at each local vehicle filling station, which would eliminate the need for a new, separate hydrogen distribution system. Centralized facilities would make sense to the extent that increased efficiencies would support the costs of a hydrogen distribution system.

In order to believe fuel cell vehicles will win the competition with battery vehicles one needs to believe either that fuel cell technology (now at an infant stage) will catch up to and pass battery technology (now at a juvenile stage) and be enough more efficient that it can bear the costs and inefficiencies of the up-stream facilities and still be cost competitive, or that fuel cells will be given legal advantages to overcome their economic disadvantages.

The observation that the first entrant can sometimes dominate a market even with inferior technology and higher costs could work to favor battery vehicles but is not likely to work in favor of fuel cell vehicles if they should be first. The electricity distribution system for battery vehicles already exists and could be exploited by later entrants with battery-powered vehicles even if a parallel hydrogen generation/distribution were already in place. In contrast, it is hard to see who would invest in a separate hydrogen distribution system when there is no assurance that fuel cells will be competitive with batteries.

Another reason to expect that batteries will win the race is that there are many, many uses for batteries and many industries and companies are working on making batteries smaller, lighter, longer-lived, more efficient, safer, and faster to charge. (See, e.g., a report of ExxonMobile work on litium ion batteries and other postings on the blog linked here.)  In contrast, solving the comparable problems of fuel cells is not of much interest to companies that are not vehicle manufacturers.

Hydrogen can also be produced by "reforming" light hydrocarbons (routinely done in petroleum refineries) or by reacting powdered coal with steam (used to make "town gas" in the 19th Century). If we have light hydrocarbons, why would we not just run them in a standard internal combustion engine in a hybrid auto, instead of reforming to hydrogen to feed a fuel cell? Either way, we have CO2 to dispose of and, I strongly suspect, more wasted energy. The town gas reaction is throw-back technology with the biggest possible CO2 burden. So, assuming a generic source of electricity instead of one of these sources of hydrogen seems like the best case scenario for the fuel cell vehicle.

I say hydrogen fuel cell vehicle development is a dead end.  What do you think?  Did I get my facts or analysis wrong?  Are there technological reasons to believe the hydrogen route can displace the battery route?  Are auto companies doing research on hydrogen vehicles only to reduce the political pressure to commercialize hybrids and plug-in cars sooner?  Why are environmental groups like NRDC promoting hydrogen vehicles?

Update on Saturday, December 8, 2007 at 08:02AM by Registered CommenterSkeptic

For a good article focusing on the politics of this issue, and the first discussion of the competitive difficulties faced by the hydrogen car I have seen in any news journal see "2 'green' technologies race for driver's seat" in today's Los Angeles Times.  The Bush Administration is backing fuel cell development with $1.2 billion of our dollars.  Do we need any more evidence that the fuel cell auto is doomed? 

For a really good survey of the technological issues surrounding the hydrogen powered car, there is an excellent little book by a PhD who oversaw Department of Energy research spending in this area in the 1990s.  Joseph J. Romm, The Hype About Hydrogen (2004, Island Press).  This book has been taken seriously by some serious people, including John Doehr, who wrote a blurb for the book jacket. 

Update on Saturday, May 24, 2008 at 11:50AM by Registered CommenterSkeptic

Recent developments are reported here in Joe Romm's blog, with links to his earlier posts and current press. 

Update on Wednesday, June 18, 2008 at 03:27PM by Registered CommenterSkeptic

Joe Romm lays out here in detail the reasons why hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are a dumb idea and won't happen.  The arguments are the same as in my post but made at greater length, and he quantifies the relative efficiency with which the hydrogen car and the battery car get power from the grid to the wheels:  The battery car is 3 to 4 times as efficient. 

Update on Friday, September 12, 2008 at 07:39AM by Registered CommenterSkeptic
Joe Romm notes here that The Economist has recently pronounced that hydrogen cars are the cars of the future and always will be, and reprises and updates the arguments why hydrogen cars are very unlikely to be commercialized. 
Update on Tuesday, January 13, 2009 at 08:15AM by Registered CommenterSkeptic

Cheap and efficient batteries are so important to hybrid cars, and especially plug-in vehicles, that battery manufacturers could push traditional auto makers out of the driver's seat.  Chinese cell phone battery maker BYD has announced it will start selling an all-electric car later this year.  GM says dominating battery technology is critical, but Ford is relying on a vendor.  Ken Bensinger has the story here.

Update on Friday, May 8, 2009 at 09:43AM by Registered CommenterSkeptic

The Department of Energy has announced it will cut off its funding for further development of hydrogen powered vehicles because such vehicles will not be practical within the next 10 to 20 years.

Update on Wednesday, July 22, 2009 at 12:58PM by Registered CommenterSkeptic

Joe Romm tees off on the hydrogen fuel cell vehicle again here as Congress tries to restore funding that Secretary Chu tried to eliminate 2 months ago.

Update on Wednesday, February 29, 2012 at 05:49PM by Registered CommenterSkeptic

Joe Romm hammered in some more coffin nails here

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