Are hydrogen fuel cell cars a realistic option compared to battery electric vehicles?

Toyota Mirai hydrogen fuel station
© Toyota

Every time the subject of hydrogen powered cars come up I think of that scene in The Matrix where Switch says to Neo: “Listen to me, Coppertop. I don’t have time for 20 Questions Right now, there’s only one rule: Our way, or the highway.” She is telling him that he is little more than a battery.

the matrixSwitch in the Matrix/Screen capture

And I want say to the hydrogen fans: Listen to me coppertop- HYDROGEN IS A BATTERY. That’s because you can make it in two ways: steam-methane reformation, which means that it is a fossil fuel, and the source for 95 percent of hydrogen) or electrolysis of water, which makes it essentially a battery storing electric power.

But that’s just my opinion. What about the experts, like Brandon Schoettle and Michael Sivak of the The University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute? They just had a look at the relative merits of battery electric and fuel cell vehicles, and found that the fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) come up short. They do see some benefits to them:

FCVs have significantly longer driving ranges and lower refuelling times than comparable BEVs, and it is also possible for them to use the least amount of petroleum (well-to-wheels) per mile, depending on the type of hydrogen used. On the other hand, only a small number of vehicle models are available, and only in the most recent model years. Similarly, the hydrogen-refuelling infrastructure is practically nonexistent outside of California. There is a general consensus among the experts that expansion of the hydrogen infrastructure needs to precede the mass introduction of FCVs in order to raise consumer confidence in the availability of hydrogen fuel.

In the body of the study it becomes clear that FCVs do not beat internal combustion engines (ICEs) by much in equivalent fuel economy, And they are not much better in greenhouse gas emissions either, particularly in the liquid hydrogen versions, because of the energy required to transport and compress the hydrogen.

summary comparison© Brandon Schoettle and Michael Sivak, University of Michigan

In fact, when you look at the overall summary table, FCVs perform better on many criteria than ICEs but on the important ones, not nearly as good as Battery electric Vehicles (BEVs). It is pretty much a confirmation of what Elon Musk has said:

“I don’t want to turn this into a debate on hydrogen fuel cells because I just think that they’re extremely silly. It’s just very difficult to make hydrogen and store it and use it in a car.”

Now it is true that there are new technologies in the hydrogen pipeline, as Christine called “the philosophers stone for a new era- using catalysts. Eric Rogell tells us that some of that California Hydrogen is coming from garbage.

But the cost of building out an entirely new hydrogen production and distribution infrastructure is huge. We have gasoline infrastructure, natural gas is pretty easy, and electrical recharging facilities are expanding fast. Surely this latest report just does a Hindenburg on the hydrogen fuel cell car; there is no point.

Tags: Transportation


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