Hydrogen’s dirty little secret

Is hydrogen fuel as good as the likes of Toyota, Honda and Hyundai claim it to be? Automologist, MAC, digs a little deeper for the truth....

Is hydrogen fuel as good as the likes of Toyota, Honda and Hyundai claim it to be? Automologist, MAC, digs a little deeper for the truth.

Just about every day now there is more news on the development of Hydrogen Fuel Cell vehicles (FCV’s) and how this revolutionary technology will change our world for the better, and allow us to finally harness the most common element in our environment and move about in zero-emission vehicles (read Give me green, give it to me now! and The hydrogen car is here!). Hydrogen, after all, is the most abundant element in our environment; it is all around us. It is just a matter of getting it into a tank so we can pass it through a membrane and then use the resulting electricity to power our vehicles. Although hydrogen rarely exists without being bonded to something else, such as in water or hydrocarbons, there are many simple ways to get at that hydrogen. 

On paper it all sounds good. Hydrogen can be produced in an environmentally clean and responsible manner by using solar or wind-generated energy to split the hydrogen from the oxygen it is bound to in water. Therefore it must be immeasurably more environmentally sound to stop using the stored solar energy that fossil fuels really are and convert the world over to making our energy in the real time, a hydrogen-based economy, as it is being called.

There are potentially two sources of hydrogen, the first is by electrolysis of water in which you effectively strip away the hydrogen molecule from the oxygen; whilst in theory this is fantastic as it can be done anywhere, including in your garage, it does take a lot of expensive electricity to do this. Therefore, unless you have your own personal wind turbine or solar generator and a whole bunch of pretty technical collection and storage devices, it is not going to be that practical nor cost effective.

Relying on the national electricity grid is not going to help either. In the USA right now, approximately 70% of the electricity is generated using hydrocarbons and 20% from nuclear sources despite years of tax incentives to produce electricity from renewable sources. To produce the levels of hydrogen from water that would be required to power all the vehicles in the USA, there would be a doubling of the power generating capacity in the USA alone; and then to make it zero-emission, all of the fossil fuel plants would have to be closed. It is just not going to happen and thus the notion of hydrogen as a zero-emission fuel is fundamentally flawed from the outset as to produce hydrogen from water would still require the burning of massive amounts of fossil fuel.

The second way to create hydrogen, and about 90% of all hydrogen production is currently created this way, it to reform fossil fuels. Hydrocarbons consist of hydrogen and carbon molecules; by using a device called a reformer, which is basically a superheated steam device, it is possible to split the hydrogen from the carbon relatively easily, and keep the hydrogen and discard the unwanted carbon dioxide by way of exhaust into the atmosphere. Oops, still producing greenhouse gases. In a way this is quite a perverse notion as we are still reliant on fossil fuels to produce the fuel for our new zero-emission hydrogen economy. We will reduce emissions this way by as much as 50% or more but it doesn’t solve the greenhouse gas problem or our dependence on hydrocarbons as our primary source of energy. In fact, environmental damage could accelerate due to the amount of natural gas that is required and the need to use advanced fracking technology to pry it out of the tight shale’s where it is found.

And now for the big question - can the world convert to a hydrogen-based economy? Is it practical? Not according to Tesla and SpaceX founder, Elon Musk, who says fuel cells are more of a marketing ploy than a realistic solution. Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn agrees: "Knowing all the problems we have with charging [EVs], where is the hydrogen infrastructure?”. Of course both men have a bias towards electric vehicles and are betting heavily that EV’s are the future, but the infrastructure issue is a big one. With the current cost of a hydrogen filling station at more than US$1 million, neither the government nor the corporate world has any plans for a rapid expansion of the filling network. "We've got electricity everywhere," Baum says. "Putting in 240-volt charging units requires some effort and expense, but it's not game changing. Putting in hydrogen is."

Baum does have a point. Electric vehicles have been with us since forever (read The first hybrid and Are we at the tipping point?) but even with electricity distribution everywhere, they are still not a common sight on our roads. So perhaps we are not at a new dawn for the world but a fork in the road. We already have massive electricity distribution but the uptake for its use in vehicles still has not reached a tipping point. Conversely, and again perhaps perversely, we are now attempting to build yet another energy distribution system from the ground up so that those hydrogen-powered vehicles will be able to get the go-juice that they require. The cost of investing into a hydrogen distribution network will be colossal and in part the burden will be shouldered by governments; but at least it will allow public funds to continue to support big-oil for years to come, or am I being a little cynical here?

Calling FCV’s zero-emission is obviously incorrect; all we are doing is changing the point from which the emissions come. With a conventional oil-burning engine, we produce the emissions when we drive; with an FCV or even an EV we produce the emissions before we drive. We will continue to produce greenhouse gases and we will continue our dependence on hydrocarbons, so, in effect, nothing will change.

Going over to lower emissions vehicles is an absolute must but in itself is not sufficient. We need to look all the way upstream and produce fuels that have a lower carbon footprint, and maybe we all need to rethink our addiction to personal car ownership and get onto the autonomous mobility bandwagon (read Watch out. Here comes the A-MOD and Governments to ban private cars?.

image: energy.gov


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