Hydrogen fuel cells – Future or false hope?

In the wake of the Exxon Valdez spill and the invasion of Kuwait, the American Congress passed the Spark M. Matsunaga Hydrogen Research, Development, and Demonstration Program Act, an extensive 5-year program management plan intended to define and solve critical technical issues regarding domestic production, distribution and economic use of hydrogen.

In the decade that followed, companies like Ballard Power Systems, based out of Burnaby, British Columbia, surged on the seemingly limitless potential of the hydrogen age, climbing from just $3.75 a share in 1995 to $144.80 in February 2000. Founder Geoffrey Ballard was bullish to say the least, calling detractors, “pistonheads” and predicting that fuel-cells would replace the combustion engine by 2010.

That never happened…

Meanwhile, a fellow named Elon Musk, wanted to change the world with his battery-powered electric vehicles (BEV). Tesla took the spotlight and used it to slam hydrogen fuel cell technology, calling it “fool cell” technology.

Elon Musk is brilliant, but he has too much skin in the game and much of what he claims is basically bullshit.

Let’s go through the classic arguments against hydrogen fuel cells:

Many BEV proponents, including Musk, say fueling with hydrogen is too difficult. Nothing like diesel or gasoline.

Not true. It is pretty damn simple to fill up and takes 3-5 minutes compared to 4-6 hours to charge a BEV.

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles have considerably smaller ranges than BEVs.

Another falsity. Honda, Toyota and Hyundai all have vehicles with EPA proven ranges of 420-590 kilometres.

Fuel cells wear out quickly.

Again, not true. Most fuel cells have an operating life of 10,000 hours which roughly equates to 5-10 years of use – as long as most people own their vehicles.

Hydrogen fuel cells are also getting a bad wrap for inadequate operating efficiencies. Wow, that one is so off. Hydrogen fuel cells have approximately 70% efficiency in both theory and practice. Not much less than BEVs and miles better than fossil fuel combustion scenarios.

Hydrogen is hard to make and requires fossil fuels. So not true. Electrolysis produces hydrogen with no fossil fuels at about 70% efficiency. There is also a technology developed by a small Alberta-based company called Proton Technologies which taps existing oil/gas wells and produces hydrogen cheaper than electrolysis and without any carbon emissions.

Now it can be argued that hydrogen storage is an issue. Yes, it will take up more space than a gas tank, but it’s a lot smaller and lighter than batteries and possesses a gravimetric energy density that puts all other fuels currently used to shame.

Despite all the chatter about the complexity and finicky nature of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, it is plainly untrue as the systems are know for their robustness and reliability.

Musk has been quick to point out that an infrastructure for hydrogen fuel cells doesn’t exist. He’s right about that one, but there also isn’t an infrastructure for BEVs yet and we don’t see him decrying that.

Currently there are over 700 hydrogen fueling stations across the globe. It would also be good to note that Denmark has a nation-wide H2 station network already in place.

Fuel cell vehicles (FCEVs) give you none of the advantages of a BEV. Again, not true. Some FCEVs have regenerative braking and are able to be used as a smart grid buffer.

Batteries are just plain better and always will be.

There’s so much BS in that, I could fertilize a field of corn with it. Lithium-ion batteries for BEVs are huge, expensive, toxic and will be so for at least another decade.

Musk dismissing hydrogen with arguments such as “Hydrogen is so bullshit, it’s a load of rubbish”, speaks to the fact that without a major infrastructure overhaul, neither technology will survive. Musk, of course, wants BEVs to win and it could be argued that his interest in supporting lithium-ion batteries is based on the possibility of becoming one of the largest lithium-ion battery producers for the industry.

Musk is blinded by his own greed and ambition.

It isn’t a case of one or the other. The successful implementation of alternative fuels in transport will most likely be a hybrid between the two technologies. We will most likely see BEVs serve as local options for families to go to the mall. Hydrogen-hybrids on the other hand, will most likely carry out all the heavy-lifting required in air travel, trucking, shipping, etc.

It will be a wonderfully diverse world as long as Musk isn’t successful at pulling his self-interested wool over our eyes.



–Gaalen Engen



FULL DISCLOSURE: The author has no connection to any of the companies named in this article.

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