We store cookies on your device to make sure we give you the best experience on this website. I'm fine with this - Turn cookies off
Switch to an accessible version of this website which is easier to read. (requires cookies)

Hydrogen Power the Future for Transportation? Yes, for Some Uses - but Perhaps Not for the Family Car!

February 15, 2020 4:50 PM

Cambridge Charge Up LeafHydrogen is a godsend for people who want to put a stop to this silly leftwing pinko fad for electric cars! A brilliant way to stop all that liberal rot before it changes our way of life - and we don't want that!

From The Times to the Daily Mail the constant refrain nowadays is "Don't buy a battery EV - because soon they'll be obsolete and we'll all be using hydrogen!" Sadly this provides (some) Tory councillors and decision-makers with the additional mantra of "No, we're not providing any more EV charging points because current technology is soon going to be obsolete as everybody moves to hydrogen - so let's wait and see!". And that was the response in Hertfordshire's County Hall the last time County Councillor for Tring, Nick Hollinghurst, asked the Executive Member for Highways about providing more EV charging points across our County.

Fortunately there are signs of a more balanced approach to powering transportation vehicles - by which I mean the whole gamut of the various ways of getting people and things from A to B (and back again if need be).

A colleague has pointed out from an article in Which? Magazine, which sounded a note of caution that not only are hydrogen fuel-cell cars super expensive to buy, but are 50% more expensive to run than petrol cars. This echoes what was reported in New Scientist of 8th September 2018, namely, running costs per type of car are:
Petrol, 8 cents/km; Battery, 3 cents/km; Hydrogen, 13 cents/km.

Wind EnergyNot only that but it's not green either - most hydrogen is produced for chemical plants and oil refeineries by reacting steam and methane. This production process not only rquires lots of energy, but alsp produces lots of carbon dioxide. Not only that, but hydrogen from this source cannot be used for the fuel cells used to produce the electricity that actually powers "hydrogen cars". For that purpose you need heroically pure hydrogen or the electrodes in the fuel cell become rapidly poisoned and degrade.

Hydrogen can obviously be produced using "spare" electricity from solar panels or wind turbines to electrolyse water - but this is inefficient. This does not matter of course if the electricity cannot otherwise be used or stored. But storing that hydrogen won't be easy or cheap any will require purification for use in fuel cell.

The best use of such hydrogen at the moment is to inject it into the gas grid to enhance the calorific capacity of the otherwise methane/propane gas mix. You will never get anywhere near to 100% hydrogen in the gas grid (though Germany has a dedicated industrial hydrogen grid for its chemical industry) but gas for domestic cooking or heating can be enriched up to 20% with hydrogen without any problems. The calorific value of the gas would change but since the charges we pay are for the energy released, then, when burned, a "richer" gas will be more expensive - but then we would need to use less. Again we wouldn't notice any extra cost.

Hydrogen, in my experience, is awkward to handle. It leaks more easily than methane and is colourless, odourless and burns with an invisible flame. When I was a kid we used "town gas" from the gas works which was a variable mix of (some) methane, but mostly hydrogen and carbon monoxide. Fortunately it smelled very distinctive so the frequent leaks were easy to detect by anyone with a working nose. Pity about all the people killed by the carbon monoxide (also a ready means of suicide) and by the explosions, though!

Another canard used to discredit battery powered EVs is that lithium is an expensive "rare earth metal", whereas it is a readily available "alkali metal" like sodium or potassium. Lithium is not rare and neither is it toxic - lithium carbonate is a common medicine administered 400 mg at a time. Cobalt used in small quantities in lithium ion batteries, but cobalt is not rare either (in fact the price has recently dropped dramatically) and cobalt is not toxic - it forms part of vitamin B12 - nor does cobalt have to be dredged up from the sea bed. There have been recent concerns about child miners working for Congolese warlords in some of the African mines. This is true for some of the production but these are social problems and the solutions are political and financial - not technical. They have been solved elsewhere.

Alstom Prototype Hydrogen Cell Train Under Test (Alstom)

The Alstom Prototype Hydrogen Cell Train under Test in Germany

Finally it has to be clearly stated that EV motoring is only as green as the local grid - i.e. not very green in China, not green at all in S Africa, completely green in Norway, and getting greener and greener every day in the UK.

Certainly hydrogen and hydrogen fuel cells will soon be economic, especially for larger vehicles where there is more space for fuel storage and the fuel cells - e.g. for trains, ships, fork lift trucks in warehouses (where fumes can't be emitted) and possibly for buses and HGVs. Developments in these fields proceed apace. More and more offshore wind turbines are coming on stream now (thanks to Ed Davey). A proportion of these will be producing hydrogen to balance supply and demand and this, in addition to buffering the grid, will help fuel the larger hydrogen powered vehicles.

Suggestions have even been made for electrically powered planes, but this is not really practically apart from light aircraft - pies in the sky? But in any case, planes are the Devil's chariots, injecting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by the ton and spreading diseases. They should be kept on the ground as much as possible!

To sum up:

(A) Hydrogen fuel cells involve three inefficiencies (1) the hydrolysis of water (2) the purification and storage of the hydrogen and (3) the inefficiencies of the fuel cells themselves
(B) Hydrogen fuel cells will be practical in large vehicles and when heavily used in enclosed spaces
(C) More and more wind power is coming on stream and this will both boost overal energy capacity and provide green hydrogen
(D) None of this is any reason for delaying either the adoption of EVs generally or the rolling out of charging infrastructure right here and now!