Hydrogen Fuel Cell (HFC) powered cars have been an industry futurama for decades with manufacturers claiming that one day we’ll all be driving H2 powered vehicles that emit only water. While initially this may appear to make sense, hydrogen is actually a poor choice for vehicles. So if hydrogen is a poor choice why have manufacturers promoted the technology over straight forward batteries?
Before we get to the drawbacks of hydrogen, let’s recap the evangelised benefits.
While H2 can be pumped into a tank nearly as quickly as petrol or diesel it’s not quite as straight forward. Because hydrogen is so light it has be kept at outrageously high pressures – think 10,000 PSI. This ultra high pressure adds complexity, cost, inefficiency and risk to the process.
While this is currently true for the most part it’s rapidly becoming an obsolete issue. EV battery range has progressed much faster than anyone (except Tesla) predicted. We’ve seen generational leaps in EV range so high that we’re probably at most a generation away from EVs with ranges that surpass that of HFC vehicles.
The operating mode.
Hydrogen has to be bought at a refueling station in exactly the same way as petrol or diesel. The fuel has to be created using some big heavy industrial plants, shipped via tankers to refuelling stations, and then sold to customers for their vehicles along with crisps and lottery tickets. In fact, it’s almost a like for like substitution from a customers perspective. This makes sense to auto manufacturers and for years they assumed that this was the only solution vehicle owners would be willing to adopt.
The entire refuelling economy is protected.
Refineries change to H2 reformering or electrolysis plants, the tanker drivers use modified tankers and refueling stations add new pumps. In the H2 economy everyone in the existing chain from fuel to vehicle continues to make money and profits every time a vehicle is refueled. This is a powerful driver and one that is threatened by the shift to BEV.
A Hydrogen Fuel Cell can be built on an assembly line. It is a combination of piping, filters and metals that are pieced together to create a power supply. Auto manufacturers have spent the last 100 years perfecting the art of building such things at high speed and high margin. Despite the fact that HFCs contain expensive metals like platinum auto companies saw a route to profitability that they just didn’t see with batteries. Until very recently the global battery manufacturing capacity wasn’t anything like what it is today. Almost all this capacity is coming from Chinese, Japanese and South Korean firms with years of experience in lithium ion production.
The true issue with hydrogen though is efficiency. Let’s look at the ideal scenario for H2, one where the hydrogen is made through a process of water electrolysis using renewable energy. We’ll also assume that the hydrogen is created, compressed and stored at the refueling site itself. Assuming we start with 100kWh of cleanly generated renewable energy:
As you can see, this is almost a 75% loss from the wind turbine to your car wheels in a best case scenario. This is awful. This also accounts why it costs eight times more to travel a mile in a HFC vehicle than it does in a BEV.
To summarise, hydrogen is a poor choice for passenger vehicles. Interestingly, this may not turn out to be true for future passenger aircraft.
For comparison let’s look at a Battery Vehicle:
A total of ~26% loss, which if compared to hydrogen means that using the same power grid we can power three times as many BEV than HFC cars for the same amount of energy.
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