The Limitations of Hydrogen as an Energy Source

Toyota Mirai Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicle - (CC BY-ND 2.0)
Toyota Mirai Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicle – (CC BY-ND 2.0)

After my earlier articles on Electric Vehicles (EVs), reviewing the battery revolution and whether the EV market is now mature, it is worth assessing the feasibility of using hydrogen to power Fuel Cell Vehicles (FCVs).

Recently the government appeared to give heavy backing to hydrogen as a vehicle power source, possibly due to heavy backing from JCB, who coincidentally are big donors to the UK Conservative Party. There are others, particularly in the fossil fuel industry, also big donors to the Conservative Party, who support hydrogen vehicles as a better solution than battery electric vehicles. So it merits some discussion here, particular with Japan appearing to also back hydrogen as a primary source of ‘sustainable’ vehicle power.

A hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicle, as a car, is actually still an Electric Vehicle, except that it has a Fuel Cell that generates electricity from hydrogen, via a Controller. This it does it very well indeed, the car can have really good range and emissions are harmless – problem solved, right? Well no! The production of hydrogen is very efficient when applied to a large static industrial plant, either fuel cell or combustion based.  However the production of hydrogen for a vehicle, especially a small one, is not so efficient because the hydrogen needs to be made available to the vehicle and stored in it.

Hydrogen Fuel Cell operation – Source: Author

Also it could be argued that hydrogen is a ‘green-washed’ fossil fuel.  There are three types of hydrogen depending on how it’s produced:

Green hydrogen Use a lot of electricity to create hydrogen then ship in bulk carriers and pipes.

Grey hydrogen Use a lot of electricity or steam on fossil fuel sources to create hydrogen, then ship in bulk carriers and pipes and release the CO2 into the environment.

Blue hydrogen Use a lot of electricity or steam on fossil fuel sources to create hydrogen, then ship in bulk carriers and pipes, but capture the CO2 using lots more energy and put that in pipes and bulk carriers and store underground.

There is very little green hydrogen produced at present. Estimates vary but some cite 1% of world hydrogen as being green, others a few percent higher. The rest is actually produced from fossil fuels, either grey or blue hydrogen.

Now the electricity from green hydrogen can be from a zero carbon source. The steam in grey or blue hydrogen could come from a geothermal source, which may be a useful solution if the CO2 sequestration is local. However in many cases the electricity could also be used to directly charge an electric vehicle and power buildings and industry. Using hydrogen for heating and for larger vehicles may have a place but the case for smaller vehicles is weak because the electricity could just be put directly into the grid and save a lot of carbon used in transporting the hydrogen and capturing CO2.

Conclusion

Hydrogen definitely has a place in the mix of greener energy solutions, but as the history of coal has shown (clean coal!), there is a tendency to look for immediate solutions that hide the reality of the production and use. Technology and science over time will come up with improvements to hydrogen production. However it is important to understand that, like with batteries, there is a cost of production and a cost of transitioning. We need to be alert to terms used to disguise the overall cost of hydrogen as an energy source, especially for small vehicles like cars.


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