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Irina Slav

Irina Slav

Irina is a writer for Oilprice.com with over a decade of experience writing on the oil and gas industry.

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Is Hydrogen Fuel As Dumb As Musk Thinks?

Hydrogen fuel cells are a controversial thing. Elon Musk, for example, finds them “incredibly dumb”, and he’s far from the only one. Yet the concept of using the universe’s most abundant element to fuel vehicles is still alive and kicking.

The latest of its proponents to make headlines is Swiss company, H2 Energy, which says it has achieved a closed-cycle hydrogen production process that uses all-renewable sources to make hydrogen for fuel and other applications. Its project, in partnership with utility IBAarau, is reportedly the first renewable-source hydrolysis plant in Switzerland.

H2 Energy uses hydropower to produce hydrogen through electrolysis, utilizing the electricity generated by IBAarau’s facility. Then it compresses this hydrogen in a tank and, in the future, will deliver it to a chain of hydrogen filling stations. The amount of hydrogen produced in this way is sufficient for the annual consumption of 170 fuel cell cars.

However, to date there is just one hydrogen fueling station in Switzerland, and 12 hydrogen-fueled cars in the area, plus a hydrogen-powered truck. Interestingly, the facility is owned and operated by Coop Mineraoel AG, a distributor of petroleum products. The company is reportedly diversifying into renewables and has chosen to focus on hydrogen, planning a network of fueling stations for the future.

Some carmakers share the belief that hydrogen as a fuel may have a bright future. BMW recently announced it’s launching a limited-production fuel cell car in 2022. What’s more, the company expects to have a bigger market for fuel cell vehicles after 2025. However, according to BMW’s alternative powertrain group boss, Matthias Klietz, there are still challenges with hydrogen adoption as a personal transport fuel, among them the lack of fuel station infrastructure and the still too-high cost of fuel cell vehicles.

Last month, Oilprice examined a growing interest—and investment—in hydrogen energy storage systems, noting the appeal of these systems as clean tech. Hydrogen-for-fuel makers use the same argument: that the only thing hydrogen produces when used to fuel a vehicle is water. Yet, at the time, one commenter noted that there’s no such thing as completely clean energy. Some may be cleaner than others, but a totally green energy source has yet to be invented. Related: This Major Political Shift Could Rock Copper Markets

Indeed, this is one of the reasons that hydrogen has seen much slower adoption than batteries. Three years ago, expert Julian Cox wrote an article for CleanTechnica debunking all the claims of hydrogen fuel proponents, revealing that the well-to-wheel emissions of fuel cell cars are in some cases higher than that of internal combustion-powered cars. Fuel cell cars are very expensive, as BMW’s Klietz acknowledges, and in performance terms they also lag behind cars running on ICEs and battery-powered cars.

So, is there a future in hydrogen? As a fuel for cars, it seems to be non-competitive if we talk about large-scale car production and use. Small-batch models for the hydrogen connoisseurs living close to a fuel station seems to be where things are at right now. Yet this might change if enough money is spent on R&D.

Early 2017 saw the launch of the Hydrogen Council, a group involving several leading automakers as well as Shell and Total, seeking ways to make hydrogen more commercially viable. The council allocated $1.4 billion on the development of energy storage and fuel cell project development until 2020, and has high hopes for the future.

The problem is that meanwhile, billions are being poured into battery-powered storage systems and cars. For now, batteries definitely have the upper hand, and their makers aren’t standing still, constantly working to improve efficiency rates and cost. Hydrogen backers will need to put in much effort and coin into catching up, and there’s no guarantee they’ll succeed.


By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com

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  • NoNox on October 16 2017 said:
    Julian Cox- the Tesla stockholder and former lithium battery salesman (who by the way has a horrible customer service record, a search "Julian Cox Flightpower" will provide some insights) didn't factor in renewable energy when he made those calculations because "hydrogen will never be made with electrolysis". He's stuck in the past, before renewable energy got so cheap that sometimes grid operators PAY others to take excess energy. The author needs to brush up on today's hydrogen industry.
  • Leroy Essek on October 16 2017 said:
    There is a mature start-up company located at the SLSL @ KSC that can produce hydrogen from any type of water 24/7 or on demand. The cost to produce this hydrogen for power generation would be lower than the cost of a natural gas fueled power plant per KWH. This isn't our Grandfather's ways of using conventional electrolysis, steam reformation of natural gas or any type of chemical or nano catalyst. The added free benefit of hydrogen production from ocean water is to generate large amounts of energy is desalinated ocean water source 24/7 or on demand. Google search Sept 6, 2017 news to read about the recent activities of Joi Scientific.
  • snooploopy on October 17 2017 said:
    Hydrogen will cling to life for a couple years in the heavy-duty sector, but it's already effectively dead for cars because the cost to build a station is cost-prohibitive in comparison to the cost to build charging infrastructure. And while the process to make hydrogen is perhaps cleaner than it was in the Cox article, there's still the issue of the general inefficiency of hydrogen over battery. Why waste energy cracking water when it can just go straight into a battery?
  • Null on October 17 2017 said:
    You can't fight math. It takes more energy just to compress H2 then the entire end to end losses of batteries.

    H2 was always a red herring for fossil fuels. See the shiny new clean thing future that is just around the corner and always will be. A distraction ensuring inaction.
  • P.Roger on October 17 2017 said:
    snooploopy has it right. Using any form of electricity to crack H2 in electrolysis is thermodynamically inefficient (and always will be).

    For H2 to be viable, you would need some sort of magic catalyst that takes water and sunlight as inputs and spits out H2 at a rate higher than the equivalent PV-Battery-Car cycle.

    At the rate of battery development, I can't see that magic arriving in time to compete with batteries.

    H2 is all about creating a proprietary "fuel" that can be sold in a market controlled by a few players (sound familiar?). It should be no surprise that the extraction industry would latch on to this instead of batteries. The only business model they understand is selling fuel in a non-competitive market.
  • RLL on October 17 2017 said:
    Hydrogen's future may lie more in energy storage. Dams, wind, solar, and PV all may have times when extensive energy needs to be 'wasted'. Then that energy can be converted to produce hydrogen, stored on site, and later used for electrical production. Also reserve electrical production may be needed when the wind isn't blowing nor the sun shining. Onsite storage could produce electricity, and the transmission lines are there to transmit it.
  • MisterM on October 17 2017 said:
    Physics doesn't lie. Making hydrogen is expensive and vast majority is produced from fossil fuels. So the notion that hydrogen is "green" is hogwash nonsense. Also, storing hydrogen is expensive. Why anyone would use fossil fuels to
    convert to hydrogen to then transport on entirely new delivery infrastructure into extremely costly vehicles boggles the imagination. As dumb as it gets. Can we finally put a fork into hydrogen fuel cells already?
  • Aquila on October 18 2017 said:
    I agree with the naysayers here on Hydrogen As Fuel for transport! Further to what has been pointed out by the commentators here, the physical properties of hydrogen make it a problem to produce, store, transport and use. Hydrogen gas is notoriously difficult to contain as it can even leak through steel. Hydrogen at very cold temperatures exhibits behavior and properties which are bizarre such as hyperviscosity which causes it to climb out of containers even against gravity. It means that even a micro sized hole will empty out all the liquid hydrogen from a container as the escaping molecules will pull on the molecules of liquid hydrogen still in the container. Think of a line of crabs or ants or goats escaping confinement. Once one finds a way out, the rest will follow!
  • Incalizondo on October 18 2017 said:
    Naysayers should be paying attention to the recent discovery. This is a game changer.

  • Bill Simpson on October 19 2017 said:
    Remember the Space Shuttle? Even NASA had trouble keeping the 3 fuel cells in it working properly. Forget hydrogen. Batteries are the way to go.
  • harryflashmanhigson on October 19 2017 said:
    It'll never be a major fuel for transportation because it is thermodynamically braindead. IT TAKES MORE ENERGY TO GET IT THAN YOU CAN GET OUT OF IT WHEN YOU USE IT IN AN ENGINE!

    It makes the EROEI of TO and Tar Sands look positively sexy in comparison. Heck, even corn ethanol looks good!

    As someone mentioned, it is a viable option for energy storage when there is an oversupply from intermittent renewable sources, BUT THAT'S IT!

    Whoever employed this science illiterate to write about energy matters? Oilprice FFS!
  • Powerhouse Energy ticker LSE: PHE on October 24 2017 said:
    I visited previous week a company based within University of Chester, Thornton Science Park, England. Powerhouse Energy Group PLC, already have a successful operational unit that consumes waste and from that creates road worthy hydrogen.
  • Boganboy on October 25 2017 said:
    The weakness of hydrogen as a fuel is storage. During the town gas era, when H2 and CO were the mainstays of the gas user, huge gasometers as they were called were necessary just to provide peak storage and balance the flow from the producer to the consumer. A major problem in space flight is boil-off, where a certain amount of liquid hydrogen is lost before the rocket takes off.

    That's why, if we're to use hydrogen, I'd say it should be combined with nitrogen to form ammonia or hydrazine. Ammonia is more difficult to store, but hydrazine is more dangerous.

    Of course, Olah recommends methanol, and indeed a ferry powered by methanol fuel cells is cruising on Lake Baldeney at present. The only problem with methanol is that it contains carbon, and the Greens go into hysterics at the thought of global warming.

    As to how to make the ammonia, or hydrazine, or methanol, I naturally believe breeder reactors should provide the energy. Certainly until we settle on a plentiful, reliable and sufficiently cheap source of energy, we'd be foolish to rock our present boat.

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