Well, we’re hearing it again: the hydrogen fuel cell represents the future of automotive transportation. Japanese and German automakers have formed new alliances to develop fuel cell technology, and the father of the Prius, Toyota’s Takeshi Uchiyamada, is saying that it holds more promise than battery electric vehicles, which he says haven’t worked out to be “a viable replacement” for gas-powered cars. Clean, silent, (well, OK, a high-pitched whistling sound), uses no fuel whatsoever, except hydrogen, the most plentiful element on the planet, and emits only water vapor. The range is way more than that of almost all electric vehicles!
It’s the hydrogen future! Who wouldn’t want all that?
Trouble, as always, is that there are some major speed-bumps on the way to fuel-free utopia.
First of all, there’s the gas. Hydrogen is plentiful, but it’s never found in a “free” state. It’s always part of a compound, as in H2O. Separating it from its partner requires energy, usually electricity.
Then, it has to be stored, and, because it’s lighter than air, it needs to be compressed or cryogenically tanked, again under massive pressure. All that compression to 10,000lbs/inch and freezing once again requires? … Anyone? You got it! ENERGY, again mostly electrical, and in fairly massive quantities. Thus, the hydrogen fuel cell, by the time the “fuel-free” vehicle hits the road with its massive wound carbon-fiber tanks, has already amassed a considerable carbon foot-print.
If the EPA uses the same calculation for fuel cells as for battery vehicles, whereby the energy used to charge the battery is counted and deducted from the mileage label, fuel cell vehicles would be rated at about 80 mpg. Not bad, but far less than a Chevrolet Volt, and at a much higher cost.
A fuel cell is conceptually not unlike a lead-acid car battery in reverse. Put your car battery on a charger and electricity goes in, and hydrogen escapes. (This is why you don’t smoke cigars around a car battery that’s being charged. Ask me how I know!)
In the fuel-cell stack, hydrogen goes in and electricity comes out, which then powers the car. So, a fuel-cell vehicle is really just another electric vehicle that produces its own electricity from all that compressed hydrogen it’s schlepping around.
But, that’s the good news! Now let’s ask the big question “Where do I fill it up?”
High-pressure hydrogen fueling stations are thin on the ground, despite the former California “Governator’s” initiative of creating a “hydrogen highway,” linking the Golden State, north to south, with all those future fuel cell vehicles silently hissing their way from pump to pump.
But even if more stations are built: How does the hydrogen get to those fueling points? Why, by cryogenically cooled tanker trucks, of course, which use … energy, mostly in the form of diesel or liquid natural gas, both “evil,” planet-melting fossil fuels. Not exactly the convenience of fully-electric or extended-range electric cars, which find outlets a-plenty in every home and garage.
The fuel-cell stack itself is an expensive proposition, being coated inside with rare metals like rhodium and platinum for the necessary electro-chemical reaction to take place. When GM built a fleet of 100 fuel-cell Chevrolet “Equinoxes” a few years ago, each one cost over $1 million. Assuming that success in cost reduction and new materials will eliminate 90% of the million, the manufacturer is still left with a $100,000 vehicle … a problem!
A vehicle which emits nothing but “clean, pure water vapor,” known, by the way, to be the planet’s No. 1 green-house gas.
My prediction: unless something close to magic happens in Japan or elsewhere, the fuel-cell vehicle will forever be a wall flower at a party dominated by fast, fun, powerful conventional cars and clean, high-range, rapidly-rechargeable battery vehicles.
I could be wrong. But I don’t think so.