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Vanand Meliksetian

Vanand Meliksetian

Vanand Meliksetian is an energy and utilities consultant who has worked with several major international energy companies. He has an LL.M. from VU Amsterdam University…

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Hydrogen Cars Struggle To Compete With Electric Vehicles

The electrification of most industrialized societies has taken off in a big way. In the EU and China government support such as regulations and subsidies are pushing automakers towards alternative technologies which don’t utilize fossil fuels as a source of energy. Also, in North America, despite Trump’s support for the fossil fuel industry, carmakers are embarking on the path of electrification with Elon Musk’s Tesla being one of the frontrunners. Virtually all big auto brands have several EV models planned for the coming years. Hydrogen, however, is not part of the hype.

The smallest and most abundant particle in the Universe has been branded as an alternative environmentally friendly technology compared to EVs. Hydrogen has several pros and cons regarding its application for transportation and energy storage purposes. However, the technology behind fuel cells, the technology used to power hydrogen cars, has failed to convince the wider public and consumers due to a simple reason: high costs.

Hydrogen, or H2 as it’s called in the world of science, can be produced by an environmentally friendly method called ‘hydrolysis’ or through the process of ‘reforming’ natural gas, which is the approach to produce 95 percent of the hydrogen on the market. A reason for hydrolysis’ low applicability is the massive amount of water required for its production. A fuel cell vehicle, FCV, requires 13 gallons of water for each mile. In general, the reforming of natural gas by creating a reaction with carbon dioxide under high-temperature steam is the cheapest and most efficient method

A common mistake about hydrogen is that it’s an energy source instead of an energy carrier. The latter requires an external source of energy to ‘split’ the H2O molecule, or water, into hydrogen and oxygen. Currently, the process is relatively inefficient leading to higher costs compared to alternatives such as EVs.

At the moment, only Toyota, Hyundai and Honda offer an FCV which has a higher price tag than other vehicles of comparable size and capabilities. In the U.S., on average, a fuel cell vehicle costs $60,000 which is more than EV models. The necessity of expensive metals including platinum, titanium and carbon fibers to produce the fuel cell and the hydrogen storage systems means higher prices. Also, the FCV currently offered on the market are not mass-produced. It means that significant cost reductions are possible in time if the necessary resources are invested in further research. Related: Goldman: Brent Oil To Reach $70-$75 Soon

Inefficiency and high costs of hydrogen production are downsides of FCV. Hydrogen costs €10 for each kilogram in the EU and $14 in the U.S. which is sufficient for 100 kilometers or 62 miles. In contrast, EVs are much more efficient with ‘merely’ 31 percent loss of energy. In the case of FCV, the conversion, electrolysis and the converting of hydrogen into electricity requires a significant amount of energy which affects its efficiency.

(Click to enlarge)

Hydrogen-based technology has several methods of conversion and storage which affects the costs and efficiency of FCV.

Hydrogen can power a vehicle using an adjusted internal combustion engine or through a fuel cell. Also, the storage of hydrogen in either liquefied or compressed form affects the fuel’s efficiency (see below).

(Click to enlarge) Related: A Relatively Safe Bet On Renewable Energy

Furthermore, FCVs require an additional infrastructure to transport hydrogen to consumers. The system would resemble the traditional oil industry such as pipelines, storages, and refueling stations. EVs, however, require a far lower investment in transportation infrastructure due to the already existing electricity grid. Although the expansion of capacity could be needed, EVs have the added value that they can be used as batteries for smart grid appliances. 

The technology behind EVs is ripe to be used on a massive scale which has led to an impressive increase in sales with practically all significant automakers entering the market. However, the mass production of batteries could be a risk due to resource scarcity. FCVs don’t share the same issues, but instead, other challenges need to be overcome.

In the first place, the costs for producing hydrogen-powered vehicles need to decrease through mass-production and the substitution of expensive metals. Also, improving the efficiency of hydrogen production through environmentally friendly methods would strengthen the position of FCVs as an alternative to fossil fuel-based cars. The growing use of renewables and a promise by Japanese automakers to reduce costs could be the catalysts to propel FCVs as a competitor of EVs.

By Vanand Meliksetian for Oilprice.com

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  • Joe Cain on February 25 2019 said:
    "A fuel cell vehicle, FCV, requires 13 gallons of water for each mile."

    13 GALLONS? No it doesn't - unless they are INSANELY inefficient, and they aren't. If a car had this sort of efficiency, it would make a tank look like a highly efficient mode of transportation. Pound for pound, compressed hydrogen has more energy density than gasoline does.

    Furthermore, the idea of converting natural gas into hydrogen to burn, is very stupid. You can burn natural gas directly with a standard combustion engine.

    With regard to distribution - guess the author has never heard of Synthetic gas...
  • Bill Simpson on February 25 2019 said:
    Hydrogen must be made from either natural gas, or water. Both processes are inefficient, wasting a lot of energy, and creating unnecessary pollution in the process.
    Hydrogen is difficult to transport due to its low density. Both compressing it, or liquefying it require a lot of energy, which wastes more energy. And it is finally ready to leave the plant!
    In the end, the cost of hydrogen as a fuel to drive a car vastly exceeds the cost of charging a battery powered vehicle. Physics can't change that simple fact. The only advantages of hydrogen are the speed of refueling, and a slightly longer range due to the efficiency of a fuel cell. Lithium batteries might last longer than fuel cells. The ones on Mars sure lasted far longer than I thought possible.
    So don't expect to see millions of fuel cell vehicles on the roads anytime soon. The fuel will always be too expensive. And hydrogen tanks in fuel cell powered vehicles are pressurized to at least 5,000 pounds per square inch pressure. That is a higher pressure than inside the combustion chamber of an operating rocket engine. It is over twice the pressure in a full oxygen cylinder, which rocket if the valve gets broken off. Do you really want to be sitting on top of tanks of a flammable gas under that kind of very high pressure? I'll pass.
  • Jason Heaney on February 26 2019 said:
    Hydrogen for cars is stupid. Elon Musk has already worked this out from first principles based on physics and current technology available today. That leads to BEV's.

    An analogy of Gas to Hydrogen power is like bringing out a phone with a cable connected to the wall and calling it a mobile phone.
  • aldo laghi on February 26 2019 said:
    methanol fuel cells have a better chance than hydrogen i think
  • red mund on February 26 2019 said:
    5,000 pounds per square inch pressure is not a joke, hydrogen is highly flammable too and just imagine if someone or group of people will use it as a weapon, with little modification it will be a undetectable during inspection , tsk tsk
  • Daniel Williams on March 01 2019 said:
    "A fuel cell vehicle, FCV, requires 13 gallons of water for each mile."
    This is patently not true; electrolysis requires 9kg of water (9 litres) per 1kg of hydrogen. 1kg is just over 100km of driving (Nexo is 60% efficient); so about 1 litre of water per 10km. Coal, fracking, nuclear etc all use a lot more than this in terms of unit energy.
    quora .com/How-much-water-is-required-to-produce-1-kg-of-hydrogen

    Referencing Tony Seba is asking to be mislead. All his data is decades old, and he is certainly not interested in how the use of electrolysers fits in with RES intermittency among other factors.

    The cost of hydrogen supplied by Nikola Motors will be $6/kg (officially) by the time they have their refueling stations installed and this will be via RES. They have approximately $8 billion in
    pre-orders for their fuel cell trucks and the hydrogen supplier (Nel ASA) has started building the factory for the refueling stations.

    Battery electric just requires more gas for the grid because there is no electricity storage - and there is no way of storing weeks of heating energy via batteries. One or two hours, maximum, for heating; even electricity would cost $2.5 trillion in batteries just for 4 hours backup:
    technologyreview .com/s/611683/the-25-trillion-reason-we-cant-rely-on-batteries-to-clean-up-the-grid/

    Hydrogen is not like oil because it is produced at the refueling station by locally available renewable energy (wind and solar). This works extremely well because the electrolyser can be used when electricity demand is low, thus generating a lower cost per unit of electricity while balancing the grid.

    The gas grid carries 5-7 times the energy of the electric grid; at 1/10th the cost. All that is required for hydrogen within an industry/residential heating context is polyethylene pipes - and this is only for high-pressure use. For low-pressure distribution networks, steel is perfectly fine.

    Remember - we cannot replace the 70%+ fuel component of the energy system with batteries - and these people don't want you to believe its hydrogen - Even though we can produce it for a similar price to natural gas today (because of low-cost renewables) and we can also reform methane and pipe the CO2 underground (we will have to, at some point):
    carbonbrief .org/renewable-hydrogen-already-cost-competative-say-researchers

    Batteries have a lot of embodied fuel costs that no-one seems to mention; and are not going to work for long distance transport types, unfortunately.

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