In the last few days, there’s been some dicussion in the blog comments over hydrogen vehicles, and whether anything will come of them. One commenter has referred to http://www.cellaenergy.com/, a new startup which is trying to find solutions to some of the problems faced by hydrogen vehicles. Of course, there’s lots of research going on, into hydrogen vehicles, battery electric vehicles (or “BEVs”) and so on. Some of it will pan out commercially and some won’t.
Here’s a picture of a hydrogen car. Eagle-eyed observers will note that it says “hydrogen” on the side (and “fuel cell” where the numberplate would normally go); other than that, all the interesting stuff is under the hood.
The Hyundai ix35 Fuel Cell SUV. They plan to bring this car into low-scale production in the near future. Picture source: Hyundai
The rest of this post is quoted from my thesis; it’s a couple of years old, and may not reflect the latest developments. But it should be a fairly good introduction to hydrogen vehicles, and the obstacles that need to be overcome if they’re going to be implemented on a large scale. If anyone wants to share their own views, the comments box is just down the page, but remember to keep the discussion respectful.
One potential source of transport energy is hydrogen. Hydrogen reacts with oxygen to produce water, a reaction which can take place through combustion – in which case the hydrogen-powered vehicle would make use of an internal combustion engine – or via a “fuel cell”, in which case the energy is converted into electricity and used to charge a battery.
Because water is the only chemical product of the hydrogen-oxygen reaction, hydrogen-powered vehicles produce negligible tank-to-wheels emissions. It is possible that fuel cell vehicles could match the range of traditional vehicles, overcoming one of the potential issues with battery electric vehicles. However, this will not be achieved in the near future (Ajanovic, 2008).
Although there has been much discussion and research towards promoting a “hydrogen economy”, most sources believe that fuel cell vehicles are decades away from large-scale production. Even in the International Energy Agency (IEA’s) low-carbon 450 Scenario, fuel cell vehicles are expected to have a minimal role by 2035, with plug-in hybrids and BEVs being much more important (IEA, 2010, p. 431). Ajanovic (2008, p. 4223) believes that hydrogen-powered vehicles will only have “significant” penetration into transport “at the earliest by about 2030”, and then only “under very favourable conditions”. The New Zealand Government (2007, p. 58) stated that “storage, transportation and other technical issues are likely to prevent hydrogen having anything other than niche uses for the next 25 to 30 years”.
There are a number of pitfalls with hydrogen as a transport energy source. Firstly, it is typically produced through the steam reforming of natural gas (Ajanovic, 2008), a non-renewable energy resource. Secondly, the infrastructural investments will be much larger than those needed for BEVs, with a “nearly complete lack of fuel distribution and production infrastructure” existing at present (IEA, 2009, p. 151). Thirdly, a shift to hydrogen-powered vehicles would be “disruptive” for the car industry, compared to the more evolutionary process of moving towards BEVs (IEA, 2009, p. 151). Fourthly, hydrogen is likely to be more expensive than electricity (IEA, 2009).
New Zealand researchers Page and Krumdieck (2009, p. 3330) argue that hydrogen “provides an inefficient link between a renewable electricity resource and demand for transport energy compared to an all-electric transport mode.” They also note that “electricity offers the same environmental and security benefits as hydrogen” (Page & Krumdieck, 2009, p. 3329), and are sceptical of the benefits from large-scale implementation of hydrogen technology in vehicles.
The IEA notes that fuel cell vehicles could eventually reach a similar cost level to BEVs and achieve much greater range, and that they do offer “significant” potential to reduce emissions if the hydrogen is produced appropriately, although to no greater an extent than BEVs (IEA, 2009, p. 151). On the whole, though, the IEA believes that BEVs are more likely to become the preferred technology; these vehicles have “a natural advantage [over hydrogen vehicles] given the existence of the electricity grid system, and a clear transitional path from plug-in hybrids” (IEA, 2009, p. 114).
In summary, a range of sources agree that hydrogen vehicles are much further away from commercialisation than BEVs; will require greater infrastructural investment; and offer the same of perhaps fewer benefits than BEVs. BEVs and hydrogen vehicles both require infrastructure to reach their full potential, and this, along with network externalities, means that one or the other technology is likely to dominate. The points noted above suggest that hydrogen vehicles are unlikely to become the chosen technology.
Sources – note some of these won’t be available online without subscriptions to the various journals:
Ajanovic, A. (2008). On the economics of hydrogen from renewable energy sources as an alternative fuel in transport sector in Austria. International Journal of Hydrogen Energy, 33(16), 4223-4234.
New Zealand Government. (2007). New Zealand energy strategy to 2050: Powering our future. Wellington.
IEA. (2009). Transport, energy and CO2: Moving toward sustainability.
IEA. (2010). World Energy Outlook 2010.
Page, S., & Krumdieck, S. (2009). System-level energy efficiency is the greatest barrier to development of the hydrogen economy. Energy Policy, 37(9), 3325-3335.