Hydrogen cars are the wrong solution

http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/ingear/cars/article1209612.ece says that the UK government has produced a report saying that 1.5 million hydrogen cars will be on UK roads by 2030.

Hydrogen cars are part of the future that falls firmly in the category of ‘can do but shouldn’t do’.

I don’t doubt that hydrogen could be manufactured and sold from special filling stations to be used as fuel for fuel cells to make electricity to drive cars, or maybe even used in a modified internal combustion engine, or directly burned to make steam for a steam engine. It can. I don’t even doubt that the government is entirely capable of legislating subsidies for ridiculously expensive and inappropriate solutions just to appease lunatic fringe pressure groups. They are already doing so for wind turbine farms and rooftop solar panels, so why not hydrogen cars. It would just be another shovelful of idiocy on what is already a huge pile. What I do doubt, because I am a futurologist and an engineer, is that it makes any sense.

Hydrogen was once seen in futurist circles as the fuel of the future, for a year or so anyway before anyone did the analysis properly. When they did, they noticed:

Burning hydrogen (even in a fuel cell) produces water as the main product. Water is a greenhouse gas, a much more powerful forcing agent than CO2. It may be condensed by the car, but even then, at least in dry weather,  the water will evaporate from the road surface and enter the water cycle. It acts as a greenhouse gas until it becomes rain again. If it is raining already, the water produced will probably be a harmless addition. Hydrogen cars will therefore have a small but possibly significant effect on the water cycle, weather and climate, just as regular cars do, and probably not that much different. They certainly can’t be assumed to be in any sense environmentally neutral.

Hydrogen needs special containment systems to make it safe, and these are likely to add significantly to the cost of a car.

Fuel cells are still very much more expensive than competing power sources and there is little sign of any imminent major progress.

Making hydrogen generally requires electricity, and it is really just a proxy for the electricity used in its manufacture. It would be just as easy, as cheap, and much safer to just deliver this electricity direct to the cars without going through the hydrogen stage. Electric cars will have batteries and some potential synergy using them as storage for intermittent renewable energy manufacturing such as wind farms. If we are going to have to put up with wind farms anyway, then the economics shift in favour of this approach.

Also, development of new materials and supercapacitors, together with new directed induction technology (that allows large distances between the inductive components), allow for a Scalextric approach to car powering. It is hard to see the point in using an intermediary like hydrogen when this would be a better solution.

I don’t know where the pressure has come for government to think down this path. But it is the wrong path and they should change direction before they waste yet more money on inappropriate, expensive and inefficient infrastructure.

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9 responses to “Hydrogen cars are the wrong solution

  1. I am most interested in your response to the recent announcements by major auto manufacturers to develop hydrogen-based fuel cell EVs. See my blog posting: http://www.21stcentech.com/transportation-energy-update-big-three-partners-develop-fuel-cell-cars/.

    • Thanks for link. Nice post. I certainly wish them success. Fuel cells have been around a long time and they have a certain elegance, but so far getting reduced cost has been a major stumbling block. If they are using gas as H2 source, it also isn’t very obvious why they can’t use the gas directly. The direct electric pickup would still be a better long term solution I think, but fuel cells could play a useful role in local journeys, further reducing battery reliance. So overall, I am still not a believer in them, but if they manage to change the economics substantially, that might change.

  2. I think you are wrong. Fuél cell cars using hydrogen will take over. Not in the imminent, but still rather near future. It is too easy dismiss them lightly. Battery development is slower than that of fuel cells. Prices are coming down. They will eventually be cheaper than other means of propulsion. Batteries with plug-in electricity and fuel cells with hydrogen are a good combination. The exact date of their takeover is uncertain.

  3. Forget the technology. We just need to be able to travel similar distances at similar speed to current cars. Hydrogen seems to be the only alternative that could provide this. In the mean time they should stop wasting time selling low range electric cars until they can do what petrol can.

    • Toyota states they have brought the cost down of hydrogen fuel cell technology to make it possible to provide a commercial product to the market for under $100,000 U.S. I guess that is progress on the hydrogen car in the same way that Tesla’s first EV vehicles came with price tags in six figures.

      • it does seem to be always one step away. I am still wary of subsituting CO2 with water since water is even more greenhousy, even though it disappears faster.

    • I agree with D Walsh and lenrosen4. Let us endorse both batteries and fuel cells. Eventually, the fittest will survive.

  4. you are so stupid, considering water a greenhouse gas? are you serious?

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