Are Hydrogen Cars the Future – Again?

The hydrogen car may be on the road to another comeback – again.  At the annual auto show in Los Angeles last week, both Honda and Hyundai unveiled “concept cars” of hydrogen models they expect to be available by 2015.  As a result, the automobile press has been filled with stories its revived prospects.

“For a long time, hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles were seen as a tantalizing technology to help reduce society’s reliance on oil,” Brad Plumer wrote in the Washington Post. “But the vehicles themselves were seen as forbiddingly expensive. Not the pendulum may be swinging back.”

“Toyota made a decagon – the fuel-cell car is going to be a big part of our future,” wrote Bradley Berman in The New York Times, quoting Toyota spokesman John Hanson.  “Today Toyota is not alone,” he continued. “Four other carmakers – General Motors, Hyundai, Honda and Mercedes-Benz – are also promising fuel-cell cars in the next few years.”

The prospect of an automobile running on hydrogen is indeed perpetually attractive.  Hydrogen is the most common element in the universe.  When combined with free oxygen in the atmosphere it “combusts” to produce H2O – water.  There are no other “exhausts”. Thus hydrogen promises transportation absolutely clean of any air pollution.  No global warming, either.

But it isn’t quite that simple.  The question that always presents itself is, “Where do you get the hydrogen?” Although hydrogen may be the most common element on earth, all of it is tied up in chemical compounds, mostly methane and water.  Accessing this hydrogen means freeing it up, which requires energy.

Most of our commercial hydrogen is made by “reforming” natural gas, which splits the carbon and hydrogen in methane to produce carbon dioxide and free hydrogen. That doesn’t help much with global warming.  Another method is to split water through electrolysis. That is a much cleaner process but requires a considerable amount of electricity. Depending on what power source is used, this can produce zero or ample emissions. If it’s coal, the problem is made much worse. If it’s clean sources such as solar or nuclear, then there can be a strong advantage. In the 1930s, John Haldane proposed giant wind and solar farms that would generate hydrogen that could fuel all of society. Such facilities generating hydrogen for transportation would be a step toward such a utopia.

Even then, however, there are problems.  Hydrogen is the smallest molecule and leaks out of everything.  It is very difficult to transport.  Joseph Romm, a disciple of alternative energy guru Amory Lovins, was appointed head of hydrogen car development program under President Bill Clinton and worked for two years on its development.  In the end, he became very disillusioned and wrote a book entitled The Hype About Hydrogen, in which he argued that the idea really wasn’t practical. Romm is now one of the country’s premier global warming alarmists on ClimateProgress.org.

What has apparently brought hyfrohgen cars back to the forefront has been the substitution for platinum as the principal catalyst in the fuel cell process.

A fuel cell produces an electric current by stripping the electron off a hydrogen atom and running it around a barrier that is otherwise permeable to a naked proton.  The proton and electron are reunited on the other side of the barrier, where they combine with free oxygen to form water.  Until recently, platinum was the only substance that could fill this barrier function. This made fuel cells very expensive and raised the question of whether there was enough platinum in the world to manufacture fuel cells in mass production.  But several platinum substitutes have now been found, making fuel cells considerably cheaper and more accessible.

Estimates are now that next year’s Hyundai and Honda FCVs will sell for about $34,000, which puts them in the range of electric vehicles such as the Nissan Leaf and the Toyota Prius.  (The Tesla, a luxury car, is  priced in a much higher range,)  The problem then becomes fueling.  The FCV offers considerable advantages over the EV in that it has a range of 300 miles, comparing favorable to gasoline vehicles.  It can also be refilled in a matter of minutes, like gasoline cars, whereas recharging  an EVs can take anywhere from  20 minutes to three hours. But hydrogen refueling stations have not materialized, despite former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s promise of a “hydrogen highway.” At last count there were 1,350 EV recharging stations around the country but only ten hydrogen stations, eight of them In Southern California.

All this suggests that neither hydrogen cars or electric vehicles will be sweeping the country any time soon.  Neither the Chevy Volt nor the Nissan Leaf have sold well and are not expected to do much better next year.  If you read the press stories carefully, you soon realize that the reason the automakers are constantly cycling back and forth between electric and hydrogen cars is that they are trying to meet California’s requirements for low-emissions vehicles that will allow them to continue selling in the state. The problem, as always, is consumer resistance..  The automakers can manufacture all the hydrogen and electric cars they want but consumers are not always going to buy them, especially at their elevated price.  So the manufacturers will end up dumping them on car rental agencies where they will sit on the back lots, as did the first generation of EVs.

There is, however, one type of alternative that succeeded handsomely in California and had widespread consumer acceptance, although it is completely forgotten today.  That is methanol.  In 2003, California had 15,000 cars running on blends of up to 85 percent methanol.  Consumers were extremely happy and did not have to be dragooned into buying them.  Refueling was easy since liquid methanol slots right into our current gas stations. Cars that run on methanol can be manufactured for the same price as cars that run on gasoline.

The experiment only ended because natural gas, the main feedstock for methanol, had become too expensive.  In 2003, natural gas was selling as high as $11 per mBTU, making it more expensive than gasoline.  That was before the fracking revolution.  Today natural gas sells for less than $4 per mBTU and the industry is coping with a glut.  Methanol, which is already produced in industrial quantities, could sell for $1 less than motorists are now paying for energy equivalent in gasoline.  Moreover, methanol can be made from garbage and crop wastes and a variety of other sources that would reduce it’s carbon footprint.

Hydrogen and electric cars each have a future and it is good to see the auto companies keep experimenting with them.  But each has impediments that are going to be difficult to overcome. Methanol, on the other hand, is a technology that could be implemented today at a price that not require subsidies.  Even if it is only perceived as a “bridge” to some more favorable, low-carbon future, it is worth pursuing now.

 

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