Who Killed the Hydrogen-Powered Car?

By James Anderson  DEC 06, 2010 8:10 AM

Unfeasibility, expense were enough to do it in.

 


Editor's Note: This article was originally published on June 8, 2009.


In a perfect world, all energy would come from electricity and hydrogen. Wind, solar, tidal, geothermal, and other renewable energy sources would provide enough electricity to power everything except air transportation. The “conventional” answer to transportation in the future was the hydrogen fuel cell. It doesn’t get any better than that. The fuel cell burns hydrogen and powers cars, trucks, and any other transportation vehicle. The hydrogen combines with oxygen to form water vapor. No other gases or pollutants are released.

The hydrogen fuel cell is an efficient generator of electricity, but it has one major problem: It needs hydrogen. So where does it get it? Therein lies the hydrogen myth. On Earth, there's no hydrogen to mine. You have to make it, and that requires wasting energy. You could conceivably mine hydrogen from the sun or Jupiter, but even Al Gore would probably agree that that would be tough to accomplish.

[In May 2009], the Department of Energy (DOE) finally conceded that hydrogen won't be a part of the near-term solution to global warming, the peak oil crisis, or anything else you can think of. They're cutting back funding dramatically on hydrogen research. This is a triumph of physics over policy. In the long run, physics will always win, but we have way too many policy wonks in Washington without a clue about how the physical world works. {FLIKE}Even if hydrogen could be produced cheaply, it has another problem that makes it impractical as a fuel for transportation. Even when highly compressed, the energy density per liter or gallon is very low compared to gasoline or diesel fuel. Think about the size of the fuel tanks on the trucks that deliver gasoline to a station compared to the size of the tank on the truck. The ratio is about 90 to 1. That’s an efficient delivery system. If a hydrogen delivery truck had to burn hydrogen, the size of the fuel tank for the engine would be about one-quarter of the size of the delivery tank!

Energy density or transportation problems didn’t kill hydrogen. What killed it is the deliverable amount of energy to the wheels of a vehicle compared to a battery solution. This is why we won't be seeing hydrogen-powered cars from Toyota (TM), Honda (HMC), or Ford (F).

The table below needs a little explanation. It starts with 100 kilowatts of electricity from renewable sources -- solar or wind for example. It then compares the steps required to get the electrical energy stored on a vehicle as either hydrogen or batteries. During each step, energy is lost -- generally as heat -- until electric power is driving the electric motors on a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle or a battery-powered vehicle. Each step shows the percentage efficiency and the remaining energy left after each step.



This table used data from an article published by Ulf Bossel entitled, "Does a Hydrogen Economy Make Sense?" in Proceedings of the IEEE, Vol. 94, No. 10, October 2006. You can argue all you want about the exact percentages used in each step, but the result won't be much different. A battery-powered vehicle will be close to three times as efficient as a hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicle.

The DOE got it right.

If the one word back in the 1967 movie The Graduate was “plastics," the word for the future will be “batteries,” with the possible addition of “ultracaps."
No positions in stocks mentioned.

The information on this website solely reflects the analysis of or o= pinion about the performance of securities and financial markets by the wri= ters whose articles appear on the site. The views expressed by the writers = are not necessarily the views of Minyanville Media, Inc. or members of its = management. Nothing contained on the website is intended to constitute a re= commendation or advice addressed to an individual investor or category of i= nvestors to purchase, sell or hold any security, or to take any action with= respect to the prospective movement of the securities markets or to solici= t the purchase or sale of any security. Any investment decisions must be ma= de by the reader either individually or in consultation with his or her inv= estment professional. Minyanville writers and staff may trade or hold posit= ions in securities that are discussed in articles appearing on the website.= Writers of articles are required to disclose whether they have a position = in any stock or fund discussed in an article, but are not permitted to disc= lose the size or direction of the position. Nothing on this website is inte= nded to solicit business of any kind for a writer's business or fund. M= inyanville management and staff as well as contributing writers will not re= spond to emails or other communications requesting investment advice.

Copyright 2011 Minyanville Media, Inc. All Rights Reserved.