Fuel Cell vehicles have been in development for several years now, and it's clear from the success of hybrid vehicles like the Prius that there is a widespread market for greener vehicles. Fuel cell vehicles produce zero emissions, emitting only water vapor that is clean enough to drink. However, due to the lack of both hydrogen filling stations and necessary legislation (for example, hydrogen has not yet been designated as a transportation fuel in U.S. states Oregon or Washington), there is still much debate over whether or not fuel cell vehicles will ever be ready to hit the open road en masse.
As part of the Hydrogen Road Tour, a small fleet of vehicles from eight automakers made the 1700-plus mile trek covering the West Coast of North America from Chula Vista, Calif. to Vancouver, B.C. last week to demonstrate the improved range of the vehicles, as well as the variety that could soon be on the market. Some of the vehicles included the Chevy Equinox FCV, Honda FCX Clarity, Toyota FCHV-adv, and Volkswagen Caddy Max HyMotion, which have ranges of 180 to 491 miles per fill-up and can reach speeds of up to 100mph, depending on the model.
There is still work to do to make this zero emission hydrogen dream a reality, and so far there are a limited number of vehicles being leased and loaned in California, New York, and Washington, D.C. In California, the California Fuel Cell Partnership is working hard to implement a hydrogen highway by addressing the questions surrounding fuel cell vehicles, many of which Jamais raised here in a 2005 article. Among these dilemmas: (a) Where does the hydrogen come from? (b) How is it stored? (c) How long does it take to fill the tank? (d) Where can you find fueling stations? (e) Can we bring fuel cell prices down to acceptable levels?
Hydrogen’s many potential sources include natural gas (which is how the majority of hydrogen is currently produced), biomass (such as algae and agriwaste), and electrolysis using solar power. While hydrogen produced from natural gas and used in a fuel cell vehicle is 55 percent more efficient than gasoline used in a conventional vehicle when measured well to wheels, there is still much room for improvement in developing renewable resources as an affordable way to make hydrogen. Some of the fueling stations in California are already producing their own fuel on site by passing electricity from solar or wind energy through water in a process called electrolysis, and there are plans for a station at a sewage treatment plant that will utilize biomethane.
While hydrogen is stored at the station as a gas, it is often created at a central production facility and transported as a liquid to a fueling station where it is warmed to a gaseous state and compressed before dispensing. It takes about 5 minutes to fill a tank at a cost of between $12-20. In California, there are 26 fueling stations with plans for 10 more. But, critics question, is it reasonable and resource-efficient to plan for the new infrastructure that hydrogen vehicles will require? Chris White, Communications Director at the California Fuel Cell Partnership, assures that the flexibility of the hydrogen system will make this less of a hurdle. "How you make the hydrogen, how you store the hydrogen, and how you dispense the hydrogen can vary greatly, which gives different regions of the world the flexibility to create new stations and utilize the existing infrastructure that will work most efficiently."
As for the cost, the vehicles that are currently being leased are becoming more affordable. The Honda FCX Clarity, for example, costs $600/month including maintenance and insurance. The real issue, however, is the availability of vehicles and fueling stations. Fuel cell vehicles are on the road in many countries including Canada, Japan, Germany, and China. There are currently 300 fuel cell passenger vehicles and transit buses operating in California, and automakers plan on releasing 4300 early market vehicles between 2012 and 2014 with tens of thousands on the road by 2017.
Increased customer demand and rising gasoline prices could also spur an increase in allocated research and development dollars. Even the recent bankruptcy of General Motors will only serve to drive the development of fuel cell vehicles. According to Dawn McKenzie, GM’s Assistant Manager of Western Region Communications, “With the bankruptcy, nothing changes, if anything the development of fuel efficient technologies becomes even more important for our company.” And with developing nations like China and India demanding more oil each year, hydrogen fuel cells could become an even more important part of the global energy solution.
Proponents of fuel cell vehicles also acknowledge, however, that conversion to hydrogen vehicles is just a piece of the puzzle when addressing the world's emission woes. As we've noted on Worldchanging many times, the big-picture answer to the problems of cars won't come simply from upgrading to a more efficient fleet. According to White, "We are big believers in more efficient vehicles, cleaner vehicles, better urban planning, and fewer vehicle miles traveled through carpooling and use of public transportation. If we are going to reach our goals for cleaning air and reducing dependence on petroleum, it is going to take all of these solutions, not just one."
Read more about Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles in the Worldchanging archives:
Top image: Daimler "F-Cell" FCV. Photo source: Hydrogen RoadTour.
There are a number of other problems with hydrogen powered vehicles, including:
- storage capacity on vehicle (the energy density and style of containment is poor and unwealdy).
- Efficiency of hydrogen production compared to other forms of energy (related to problem (a)). For example, is it more efficient to use solar power for electrolysis (and presumably liquification) or to just produce electricity and use as below?
An alternative I like a lot is compressed air engines as per http://www.mdi.lu/english/ . Vehicles are cheaper and simpler and the electricity to power the compressor can come from any source you want.
Fuel cells are touted as a positive technology for vehicles because they "produce zero emissions, emitting only water vapor".
Has anyone stopped to ask how much water vapour would be produced, and what is the impact on our cities' environments if every vehicle emitted a stream of water vapour as they drove? And anywhere with a real winter could face the danger of a treacherous sheet of ice laid over everything as the water vapour freezes, and gets continuously replenished by traffic.
Have we really thought through all the impacts of large scale use of fuel-celled vehicles?
Gasoline-burning cars also emit a water vapour trail along with CO2 and other oxides. The water cycle is so massive that water vapour from cars, whether they burn gasoline or hydrogen, have and will not really be an issue.
That aside, hydrogen is not an energy source, but rather a really poor mode of transmitting electrical energy from a power plant to your car wheels. The power-plant-to-wheel efficiency of a liquid hydrogen powered call is only around 17%, whereas that of a grid-charged battery-powered electric car is 66%.
Its inefficiency and handling issues make hydrogen not a good technology for cars. We're better off investing in battery research.