Thursday, April 23, 2015

Hydrogen Just Around the Corner


by Kevin Clemens

Hydrogen Just Around the Corner

My friend Dennis Simanaitis likes hydrogen as a transportation fuel source. Dennis traded his PhD in Mathematics for a three-decade career as the Engineering Editor at Road and Track magazine, so I tend to listen when he predicts the future. He recently retired from R&T and writes a blog for car guys and techno-geeks called

Although Simanaitis admits that he has been a hydrogen fuel cell fan “since the early 1990s,” he also acknowledges that hydrogen has been called “great technology, but always ten years away.”

4 Miracles for Hydrogen to be a Fuel Source
In my book The Crooked Mile (2009, Demontreville Press) I admit I was somewhat dismissive of hydrogen’s chances. I said that there were four miracles that had to happen before you would be fueling your family car with the stuff. First, you have to make hydrogen. Most of it today comes as a byproduct of oil refining, so if you were looking at it as a way to move away from fossil fuels, that’s a non-starter. You can break down water into two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom using electricity through electrolysis, but breaking water’s atomic bonds requires significant energy. Still, with large solar arrays or wind turbines dedicated to the task, it could be possible.

Secondly, once you have hydrogen you have to transport it. Natural gas commonly travels around the country through welded steel pipelines, but hydrogen embrittles welds, causing them to eventually crack and fail. Moving gaseous fuels by tanker trucks is possible, but expensive and the specter of an accident when huge amounts of hydrogen is transported can’t be ignored. In addition, the gaseous fuel doesn’t have the energy density of liquid gasoline, so a forty-four ton truck that can carry enough gasoline to fuel 800 cars can only carry enough hydrogen to fuel eighty vehicles.

Storing hydrogen on-board the vehicle itself is also difficult. Hydrogen atoms are tiny and have a habit of slipping through seals over relatively short periods of time. BMW found that their -253°C cryogenic tank would lose half of its hydrogen after nine days. There are a variety of other ways to store hydrogen and some have real potential for vehicle use.

The last miracle that hydrogen needs is a reduction in cost for the fuel cell that converts gaseous hydrogen into electric to drive the vehicle. Twenty years ago, these were NASA-space shot level of cost and complexity. Thanks to continuing materials research, the costs began to come into line with what carmakers say they need to build profitable cars. Seven years ago, in 2008, Honda introduced the first “production” fuel cell vehicle, the FCX Clarity with a $600 per month lease cost. Others followed and Dennis points out that Hyundai will soon introduce its 2016 Tucson Fuel Cell with a 36-month lease at $2999 up front and $499/month, including hydrogen fuel and maintenance. Great if you live in California, which is the only place it is available.

In 2009, when I wrote that hydrogen as a fuel would require four miracles, I also tempered that comment with the idea that engineers are really clever and that we could count on them to find solutions to at least two of the miracles. I’m not sure that even two have been solved yet, but as my friend and colleague Mr. Simanaitis points out, the hydrogen fuel cell niche is flourishing.

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