A hydrogen vehicle is a vehicle that uses hydrogen as its on-board fuel for motive power. Hydrogen fuel cell cars exploit the significant chemical energy in hydrogen through a process of electrochemical conversion. In this process of fuel-cell conversion, hydrogen is reacted with oxygen to produce water and electricity, the latter of which is used to power an electric traction motor. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles have been proposed as a renewable, 0-emissions form of transportation. This is significant in the context of global warming because vehicles account for roughly one-third of all man-made C02 and greenhouse gas emissions. Hydrogen fuel cell cars, therefore, are being proposed as a possible solution to global warming. The main question, therefore, is whether hydrogen fuel cell cars can and/or should become a major component of strategies around the world to combat global warming. What are the pros and cons of hydrogen fuel cell cars in this context? Are they truly clean? Is it problematic that they rely on electricity to produce hydrogen, and that electricity is largely generated by burning coal? Are hydrogen fuel cells economically viable as an alternative form of transportation? Can hydrogen fuel cell cars help cut foreign dependencies on oil? Is it feasible to build a hydrogen fuel infrastructure and fueling stations to support hydrogen cars? Is it feasible to store sufficient quantities of hydrogen in cars and safely? Would hydrogen vehicles be practical for owners? And, finally, how do hydrogen cars compare with the other alternative and clean forms of transportation, such as hybrids, hybrid-electric, electric vehicles, or even public transportation? Is it better to invest in hydrogen than these alternatives? These are the questions that frame this debate regarding hydrogen fuel cell cars as a possible component in energy and global warming strategies.
In fuel-cell conversion, hydrogen is reacted with oxygen to produce water and electricity, the latter of which is used to power a car. Water is the only waste product, not CO2 or any greenhouse emissions. Hydrogen fuel cell cars are, therefore, 0-emission vehicles that can replace millions of greenhouse-gas-emitting vehicles that contribute significantly to the global warming crisis every day.
Some argue that it is no better to produce hydrogen fuel cells from electricity that is “dirty”, such as coal-generated electricity. Yet, even if coal was the only source of electricity production (which it is not), hydrogen would still be cleaner than gasoline cars. The reason is primarily that it is more efficient to burn coal on a massive scale to generate electricity for vehicles than it is to burn gasoline on a micro-scale in individual vehicles. The later releases more emissions.
From an environmental and global warming standpoint, it is a good idea to move onto the electric grid for all of our energy because most future “green” energy will produce electricity. Nuclear, solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal, wave, and tidal energy all produce electricity as their consumable energy product. By relying on electricity, hydrogen fuel cells will become increasingly clean as society transitions to these cleaner sources of electricity production.
“While fossil fuels might be burned to produce much of the energy required for hydrogen production, some electricity would also come from burning biomass or from solar, wind and hydroelectric generation. Generally, these non-fossil fuel power sources are becoming a larger part of the electrical power generation grid and should eventually supplant fossil fuels.”
“Because hydrogen fuel can be made from water via electrolysis, all that is needed is plentiful electricity. The United States has enough nuclear fuel in the form of plutonium-239 and depleted uranium to supply all of our electrical power needs for the whole century using modern, safe nuclear power plants.” Many consider using nuclear electricity a sound approach to combating global warming because it does not emit any greenhouse gases.
“According to Frank Kreith (J. of Energy Resources Technology, December 2004) more energy is required to produce the hydrogen fuel than is available from ‘burning’ that hydrogen in a fuel cell. Substantially more electricity could be produced by burning the hydrocarbon in a conventional electric utility than could be produced in a fuel cell from the same material converted to hydrogen; too many conversion steps in the hydrogen production process.”
Producing hydrogen requires energy. Some or even all of that energy comes from burning fossil fuels, particularly coal. In the United States, for instance, over 50% of all electricity is generated by burning coal, which is a major contributor to global warming.
A National Research Council report that pegs 2020 for the arrival of the mass-market fuel cell vehicle. According to USA Today, “That’s the best case scenario, of course, assuming technology, government, industry and the public all cooperate on bringing hydrogen cars to the nation’s highways.” Yet, the IPCC says that steps must be taken immediately to stop global warming. This means that hydrogen fuel cell technology is out of sink with the immediacy of global warming.
“of the nine million tons of hydrogen currently produced in the U.S. each year, 95 percent is generated using steam and heat to strip hydrogen atoms off methane gas. This process produces carbon dioxide (CO2), as do all similar methods of reforming coal and other hydrocarbons.”
The only way that hydrogen cars can help the fight against greenhouse gas emissions and global warming is if they are economical and used widely. Because they are uneconomical, as is outlined below, they will not have a positive impact on global warming.
Supporters of hydrogen cars are often accused of “greenwashing”. In particular, oil companies are often accused of supporting hydrogen vehicles because it gives the public the feeling that action is being taken. Yet, oil-interests know that hydrogen vehicles are not going anywhere. These companies are, allegedly, using hydrogen vehicles to distract the public from alternatives that are a true threat to oil profits.
“The most common way to produce hydrogen is electrolysis, running a current through water and causing the hydrogen molecules to separate from the oxygen molecules. Critics point out that it takes more electricity to create the hydrogen then it will generate in a fuel cell. While that is true, it also takes energy to create a gallon of gasoline. Oil has to be pumped, transported, and refined.”
“processes show some long-term promise for producing low-cost, clean hydrogen, including reforming biomass feedstocks like corn-based ethanol (which can be carbon-dioxide neutral–releasing only as much CO2 as the plants consumed in the first place), and experimental methods like converting sugar water to hydrogen at around 400 degrees F using a nickel-zinc catalyst or starving green algae cells of sulfur to cause them to generate hydrogen.”
“compressing or liquifying [hydrogen] requires a further input of energy equal to 10 or 30 percent of the hydrogen’s energy content, all of which ranks it among the least convenient and practical of all transportation fuels.”
A study from the California Institute of Technology says it is likely that mass-produced hydrogen will leak, which would be very damaging to the environment, because hydrogen destroys ozone in the same way that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) do.
“Many articles I’ve read covering specific fuel cell cars point out the cost of the car, usually in the millions of dollars. But this dollar figure has no relation to any hydrogen fuel cell production vehicle that will eventually be offered for sale. These research cars are hand-built and use experimental technology created in limited amounts. The most expensive material used in these cars is the platinum covering the nodes in the fuel cells. Other than that, the car consists of motors, wheels, a frame, and body. And there are even fuel cells under development using different, cheaper materials.”
Dennis Weaver, an actor and public spokesperson for alternative energy, said in a 2008 interview with Motor Trends, “[hydrogen fuel cell vehicles] would give our economy a tremendous boost. Our economy has always been stimulated by new technology, by innovation, by new ways of doing things. When we went from the horse and buggy to the automobile, the automobile industry created a tremendous amount of new jobs we couldn’t even foresee.”
Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe. This makes it universally accessible. And, because it is inexhaustible, it is a renewable resource and effectively free.
Hydrogen is a very powerful element with an extremely large amount of energy in each molecule. It is, therefore, a valuable and economical source of energy.
“Hydrogen can be produced from a wide variety of domestic resources using a number of different technologies.” This production flexibility is valuable.
“Unfortunately there is no readily available source of molecular hydrogen (H2) to be found on our planet. There is lots of hydrogen, but it is found as part of larger molecules, most commonly water or hydrocarbons. To be able to use hydrogen in a fuel cell, those hydrogen atoms must be stripped from hydrocarbons and reformed into H2 or electrically disassociated from oxygen in water.”
Joseph J. Romm, PhD in Physics at MIT and assistant secretary of energy under US president Clinton, said in the movie “Who killed the electric car” (2006), “your average hydrogen car costs a million dollars. that’s gotta drop.”
Joseph J. Romm, in the movie “Who killed the electric car” (2006): “[hydrogen] fuel is wildly expensive. Even hydrogen from dirty fossil fuels is two or three times more expensive than gasoline.”
The Argonne National Laboratory concluded that a version of the hydrogen infrastructure, using present technology, would cost approximately $500 billion dollars. This is beyond a reasonable government investment in an uncertain technology.
While individual hydrogen molecules may contain significant amounts of energy, the problem is that hydrogen is very diffuse, meaning that there is not much hydrogen nor energy by volume. This is why compressing or liquifying hydrogen is necessary if it is to be used to power vehicles.
Hydrogen fuel cell cars do not use gasoline or diesel. They use hydrogen, which is universally available in all countries. Hydrogen, therefore, will help lower dependencies on foreign oil. This is important to the economic and energy security of nations. This was the primary rationale behind a $1.2 billion investment by the US government in hydrogen cars. US President George Bush said, “hydrogen-fuel initiative to reverse the nation’s growing dependence on foreign oil.”
Dennis Weaver said in an interview with motor trends, “I think a global hydrogen economy–not just national, but global–would promote peace. In my opinion, most wars are fought over diminishing resources. Especially if that resource is extremely valuable, which we perceive oil to be.”
If hydrogen cars are uneconomical, as is argued above, they cannot scale in a way that will lower dependencies on foreign oil.
There are many alternatives that can help lower foreign oil dependencies. The electric car is the most important means to lowering foreign oil dependencies. Relying on electricity supplied by wind, solar, geothermal, wave, tidal, nuclear, and coal energy, electric cars would adequately lower foreign oil dependencies. The hydrogen fuel cell car is unnecessary.
“Myth #5. Hydrogen can’t be distributed in existing pipelines, requiring costly new ones. If remote, centralized production of hydrogen eventually did prove competitive or necessary, as this myth assumes, then existing gas transmission pipelines could generally be converted to hydrogen service, e.g. by adding polymer-composite liners, similar to those now used to renovate old water and sewer pipes, plus a hydrogen-blocking metallized coating or liner (analogous to those used in composite hydrogen tanks), and by converting the compressors.”
“Myth #1. A whole hydrogen industry would need to be developed from scratch. Producing hydrogen is already a large and mature global industry, using at least 5% of U.S. natural gas output. Globally, about 50 million metric tons of hydrogen is made for industrial use each year.”
Joseph J. Romm, PhD in Physics at MIT and assistant secretary of energy under US president Clinton, said in the movie “Who killed the electric car” (2006): “you have to have the fueling infrastructure. We have 183,000 gas stations someone’s gonna have to build at least 10,000 or 20,000 hydrogen fueling stations before anybody is gonna be very interested.”