By on March 21, 2013


Hydrogen does not seem on top of President Obama’s agenda, neither does it rank very high on Martin Winterkorn’s list of priorities, but it sure is popular in Japan. Japanese carmakers, led by Toyota, are targeting a 2015 launch of hydrogen cars.

Toyota also says they are the most energy-efficient.

According to The Nikkei [sub], Toyota figures that fuel-cell vehicles are about twice as fuel-efficient as gas-powered cars. And contrary to popular wisdom, there is lots of hydrogen. Says the Nikkei:

“Hydrogen can be made from liquefied natural gas and obtained via industrial processes such as the refining of petroleum and the production of steel. Oil refineries produce massive amounts of hydrogen to remove sulfur while producing gasoline and other petroleum products.

As refineries start to close, oil companies will no longer need to use hydrogen to remove sulfur from petroleum products. This will create a surplus supply of hydrogen, which can then be used to power fuel-cell vehicles.”

There is another source of hydrogen: Dead trees. A group in Miyako, Iwate Prefecture. wants to produce hydrogen from gas generated by turning timber into wood chips.

The hard part is to make fuel cell vehicles affordable, and to package everything so that it fits a compact car. Toyota does not have a problem envisaging fuel cell vehicles at a reasonable cost. Two years ago already, Toyota’s chief engineer Satoshi Ogiso told TTAC that an affordable hydrogen-powered car in this decade is “his job.”


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37 Comments on “Fuel-cell Vehicles Twice As Fuel-Efficient As Gas-Powered Cars....”

  • avatar

    Fuel efficiency is nice but what about rip-snorting tarmac destroying power? Also really good sounding exhaust?

    • 0 avatar
      Dr. Kenneth Noisewater

      150kW, 2800Nm of torque per motor. Small enough to fit inside a differential.

      If you want noise, crank up the Wagner.

    • 0 avatar

      Fuels cells scale almost infinitely horizontally. Just keep adding more in parallel.

      And as for exhaust noise, they can always sound like an M5.

    • 0 avatar

      It’s still an internal combustion engine, so it will sound like an internal combustion engine

      • 0 avatar

        Not true. The vast majority if not every last example of “fuel cell vehicles” are fuel cell-electric hybrids. The fuel cell uses hydrogen to supply electricity to a drivetrain that’s otherwise indistinguishable from that in a battery electric vehicle.

        BMW did demonstrate a 7 series and Mazda has a prototype RX-8 that each burn hydrogen directly in internal combustion engines, but those don’t employ a fuel cell, per se. They simply run on hydrogen.

  • avatar

    You can’t change the laws of thermodynamics. Even with “free” sources like seawater or waste plant material, you need to use energy to liberate the hydrogen and purify it. Once you have the 99.9999% pure hydrogen that the fuel cell requires, you have to compress it to 10,000 psi to get a usable amount of fuel into a tank that will fit in a car and give it reasonable range. That compression takes a hell of a lot of energy.
    It’s like people claiming that their electric cars cause no pollution, ignoring the fact that coal was burned to make the electricity that charged the battery.

    • 0 avatar

      Presumably all this is taken into account in the table. Notice that the electric vehicle is only 33% efficient.

      Although I’m not sure how much weight to put on those numbers. Is a hybrid really 1.8x more efficient than the equivalent gas only vehicle?

      And to answer my own question, surprisingly the EPA agrees exactly with that figure for a Prius to Matrix, but it is 1.46x for the fairer comparison of Camry to Camry:

      • 0 avatar

        Indeed, the numbers don’t pass the smell test. The compaison of EVs to ICEs doesn’t seem right. Also, the best fuel cell efficiencies I’ve heard of can’t beat 50%, which means all other processes in hydrogen production must be cumulatively better than 80% efficient.

        Given the source of the info, this is as much a justification for business decisions as it is actual research.

        Also, why are we pushing for hydrogen in the first place? Pollution? Hydrogen from natural gas still produces CO2 (and I am skeptical that releasing more water vapor won’t have negative effects). Reduce dependence on fossil fuels? Fail.

      • 0 avatar

        @bludragon: “Presumably all this is taken into account in the table. Notice that the electric vehicle is only 33% efficient.”

        Probably not.

        One of the really irritating things about MPG and MPGE is that most people think it’s fair to do energy-accounting when the energy enters the vehicle. Because that’s how we pay for it, so that’s what matters, right?

        But that’s not the true energy picture. The wheel-to-wells energy picture is a bit different. The 3-1 lead in efficiency that EVs enjoy (>100 MPG-E) goes down substantially, IF the EV is powered by mostly by NG or coal, due Carnot cycle losses ( , look for “rejected energy”). If the EV is powered mostly by hydro-power (Seattle, some parts of Canada, etc), then these losses don’t exist and the EV is huge win.

        It’s quite likely that the hydrogen folks are following the same convention and doing their energy accounting at the filler neck of the hydrogen vehicle — just like the gasoline and electric folks. And, if you were to own one of these cars, that’s what you would care about, and the measure that you would find to be most intuitive. Unless you’re a pedantic geek who likes to analyze energy issues…

        If you are a pedantic geek who likes to analyze energy issues, we have much to discuss. :-)

    • 0 avatar

      This needs to become the new law of discussion. If you talk about the law of thermodynamics you damn well better know what you’re talking about. Hydrogen compression is easy because it’s natural state is a gas and amazingly light. Liberating it is a bit more of a treat but a hydrodam that did electrolysis could do it and using solar to electrolysis could do it. Both are effectively free and while electrolysis is pollution free there are some mild pollutant tricks that are much less energy intensive.

      At the end of the day the laws of thermodynamics dictate some loss as heat and light. But hydrogen is a good storage medium, better than just about everything but graphene.

      • 0 avatar

        @Xeranar: You say:

        “This needs to become the new law of discussion. If you talk about the law of thermodynamics you damn well better know what you’re talking about. Hydrogen compression is easy because it’s natural state is a gas and amazingly light.”

        That’s a load of old rope. Air is a gas too, but compressing it generates heat. I agree about understanding thermodynamics, but let’s use Boyle’s gas laws first. And when you do, it shows that compressing hydrogen is energy intensive.

        I recommend reading this, and then enlightening us all:

      • 0 avatar

        “But hydrogen is a good storage medium, better than just about everything but graphene.”

        Except the fact that it is hard to store. Since hydrogen is the smallest atom, it can leak through any storage medium so far developed. Every engineer I talked to that has been involved with hydrogen research has said that this is the main obstacle. Using aluminum to release the hydrogen on board seems the best concept so far.

    • 0 avatar
      Dr. Kenneth Noisewater

      The “law” I use is cents per mile for fuel. Right now I pay at most 4 cents per mile for electric power, and about 12 cents per mile for premium unleaded for those times on the weekend that I go on road trips. My actual blended cost for commute is about 2.5 cents per mile thanks to “free” charging in the city.

      That said, when I’m on electric I know that 100% of the money I spend goes towards US jobs and US corporate earnings rather than to some commie banana republic or arab potentate, for them to pass on to FARC/Shining Path/Al Qaeda or whoever. How many 9/11 hijackers were disgruntled American coal miners or nuclear technicians?

      If you ask me, make syngas created from atmospheric CO2, water and heat tax-free and tax the shit out of gasoline cracked from ground-pumped oil (like say $4-5/gal). Hydrocarbons are great for carrying H2 around (better than ammonia), so let’s fabricate them here from ‘free’ feedstocks.

      • 0 avatar

        @ Dr Kenneth Noisewater:

        Actually almost 40% of oil consumed in the US is sourced domestically and over 60% is from North America (US, Canada, and Mexico). Canada is the second largest single source after domestic, supplying 15%. Latin America overall provides almost 20%. The Middle East supplies just under 13% and Africa just over 10%.

        source: NPR

    • 0 avatar

      All that aside – the problem with hydrogen fuel cells was never their efficiency. It’s their cost. At present, the very cheapest that can be put in a car cost $100,000 each. That’s for the fuel cell alone, not the car or drivetrain or development.

      The thing is, it doesn’t matter how efficient they are, nor even how efficiently we can produce, distribute, and store hydrogen. (All significant issues in their own right.) Right now, there’s no way around the fact that the best way to convert that hydrogen back to energy is by using heaps of PLATINUM. Yes, that’s the best and cheapest catalyst scientists have come up with. So unless you foresee a drastic drop in precious metals values, good luck taking hydrogen cars to the mainstream.

  • avatar
    Felix Hoenikker

    The overlooked advantage of H2 fueled fuel cells is breaking the carbon cycle by splitting water. This can be done electrically or thermally once we get cheap nuclear power going to provide the electricity. Splitting water is also a good way to use excess solar or wind power during the day time.
    As for the vehicle, the big remaining problem is on board storage of the hydrogen. It’s just so light that storing it at 3000+ psig requires a heavy tank for one kg of gas. Having a high pressure bottle of H2 gas in your attached garage does not inspire confidence.
    The missing link is a low pressure and lightweight storage system that can hold at least 3 kgs of H2 at less than 7 bar pressure.

    • 0 avatar

      I’m a bigger fan of geothermal energy. Make Hawaii, Iceland and Yellowstone the next Brunei. At least until there’s a better way of handling unspent fuel rather than putting it in a barrel for 50,000 years.

    • 0 avatar
      Felix Hoenikker


      I was in Iceland last October and visited a geothermal power plant outside of Reykjavik. Quite impressive. They use geothermal energy to generate both power and hot water for heating at really cheap prices. Everything else in Iceland is very expensive including $8/gal gas. Evne so, the roads in the city are full of traffic.

    • 0 avatar

      If we have cheap nuclear or other source of electricity, I’d rather just use that istead of going through hydrogen at all. The evolution of cheap, lightweight storage for hydrogen probably won’t outpace the evolution of cheap, lightweight storage of electricity.

      • 0 avatar

        Exactly. And the thing is, energy stored in a battery and/or capacitor is ready to go; next step -> motor. Energy stored in hydrogen on the other hand, has to go through a fuel cell, be converted into electricity by a catalyst (currently platinum), and then sent to a motor.

        The wee chart above also ignores the spectacularly inefficient, yet endless and free supplies of alternative energy currently found in hydroelectric, geothermal, wind, and solar plants.

  • avatar
    Joe K

    I worked for a fuel cell mfg 10 years ago. The ugly truth that no one mentions is what kind of life these power-plants have. They are no where near what is now considered the norm of at least 100K with minimal maint. I will take longevity any day over energy efficientcy. The make great steady load power plants, but they have a long way to go IMHO to last 10 years or more as an automotive power plant.

    • 0 avatar

      Meh. At the beginning of the IC era, I`m sure steam boilers had a huge advantage in reliability.

      • 0 avatar

        @NEB steam boilers arguably still do. There’s a 1907 Baldwin Mogul here in Central Florida that runs every weekend. The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad in Colorado runs several trains a day year round each pulled by a 1920’s vintage former Rio Grande K-series locomotives. There’s very few complex transportation machines that could provide regular service at 90 year old, much less over 100, no matter how rigorous your maintenance. Delta Air Lines is probably gonna make sure that t tailed Douglas jets are one of the ones that can though :-P.

  • avatar

    Type: Hybrid vehicle
    Energy source: Natural Gas
    Overall energy efficiency: ?

    What’s wrong with using CNG in a hybrid?

    • 0 avatar

      +1 Honda could put together a hybrid/CNG Civic in about an hour, based on what they already make. This is not exotic enough to get any attention.

    • 0 avatar

      Volume and power. I’ll use the Honda Civic as a baseline, since, in a single model year, Honda offered petrol, CNG, and petrol-electric hybrid versions of the same sedan shell. Obviously, a larger vehicle might offer some better packaging tradeoffs, but I think the Civic example shows the nature of the problem in stark relief.

      I have the figures for the ’09 model right in front of me. The Civic GX was 300 lbs. heavier than the regular Civic, lost half the trunk volume (from 12.0 to 6.0 cubic feet), and went from a 13.2 gallon fuel tank to 8.0 GGE. CNG takes up lots and lots of space, and still leaves you with less volume in the tank. It also lost the folding rear seat, and even the back speakers: there just wasn’t room for them. Now, that’s a fine compromise to make, but it’s a much trickier proposition with a hybrid, since you would then have to make room for the battery pack. A Civic Hybrid also incurs penalties in fuel tank and cargo volume (down to 10.4 cu. ft. in trunk and 12.3 gal. in the tank) to accommodate the hybrid components. There’s just not enough room to fit both a hybrid drive and a CNG system, not in a car. It would fit in a crossover, I suppose, but you’d still have severe compromises in cabin volume as a result.

      Then there’s power: a Civic GX, using the same-size engine as its petrol-powered siblings, suffered a 20% drop in power, and fuel economy (GGE) that was worse, probably due to the weight penalty. If you went to an even-more-modified engine in order to synch with the hybrid drive, you could be looking at further power reductions. The regular Civic could do 0-60 in 7.7 seconds in 2009. The GX required 12.6 seconds, which was 1.3 seconds worse than the Civic Hybrid. And let’s not forget that its fuel economy was *worse* than the petrol model: 24/36 mpg versus 25/36 on the auto-equipped petrol sedan.

      Let’s imagine the end result, then. A Civic that weighs 550 lbs. more than normal (a 20% weight penalty that brings the car to 3200 lbs.), has about a 7.3 GGE tank, fewer features, a fixed rear seat, and a parcel shelf of perhaps 3 cubic feet rather than a trunk. An acceleration time of no better than 14 seconds to 60 mph. Fuel economy of perhaps 36/41 mpg (GGE), compared to 40/45 of the equivalent Hybrid model. All this could be yours for a price about 1.8 times that of the conventional Civic. In 2009, that would mean a sticker of $31,285 rather than the $17,355 LX (which, again, would have more room and more features).

      Still want one?

      • 0 avatar

        @carsinamerica: Thanks. That’s impressive.
        Some problems can be solved if done properly.
        Cargo volume: VW, Fiat, Mercedes and GM (Opel) do a good job there, almost no negative effect.
        Power loss: Either add a turbo – or some kind of hybrid.
        Conclusion: A typical ICE engineer would use a 2 or 3 cyl turbo, powered by CNG, add a serial hybrid (motor integrated in dual clutch transmission, small 1.5 Ah li-io/li-po battery in place of the 12v battery as done in the Mercedes Diesel hybrid).
        Effect: “some” complexity and price added. Not scalable. Overall efficency in the mid thirties.

        Probably Toyota is on the better way to answer the upcoming CNG overflow through fracking. I add some facts that are surprisingly interesting when combined.
        – ICE + CNG = 25% P(el), 75% heat, just slightly better than gasoline’s 81% heat. That’s not the future.
        – Fuel Cell + H2 = 60% P(el). Looks better.
        – Transforming CNG to H2 – 80% efficency, even when done at home with your own little reformer. H2 produced at home? Yes –>
        – “gas” stations everywhere – every CNG outlet can be converted into an H2 gas station. Overnight refueling at home, speed refueling anywhere (CNG infrastructure needed, though).
        – Fuel cells become cheaper – polymer instead of platinum
        – Compressed Storage: 700 bar / 10,000 psi is state of the art, effiency loss through compression = 12%. GM’s HydroGen4 or Honda’s FCX Clarity are good examples how good cargo space effiency already is.
        – To much wind energy at night? Turn it into biogas. Efficiency approx. 60-65%.

        Let’s see, what GM, Honda, Nissan and Daimler will show soon. I think a cheap home reformer CNG->H2 will be the key.

  • avatar

    It has taken over 100 years and gazillions of dollars for the ICE to get where it is now – so alternative power source might well make some progress in the next years. Now of course, this still leaves one question open – who wants to be early adopter?

  • avatar

    Even if a fuel cell really is the most efficient power plant (which I sincerely doubt), there is still virtually no hydrogen storage or delivery infrastructure anywhere in the world.

    To make this venture worthwhile, there ought to be more than a doubling of efficiency. CAFE is already trying to do this.

    At least an EV can plug in anywhere there’s an outlet, despite its other limitations. And, and EV isn’t carrying hundreds of pounds of highly pressurized gas with it.

    I think Toyota’s really gone wrong here.

  • avatar

    For power,range,and economy,small diesels running on B50 imho is the most viable/inexpensive workable tech we have.Let’s improve on that….

  • avatar

    Japan does not have natural resources and they are forced to look for alternatives to keep the country mobile. I bet the Japanese long term thinking and planning will prevail leaving the other auto manufacturers a decade behind like the hybrid technology.

    • 0 avatar
      Big Al from Oz

      I don’t think Toyota is as good at what you are saying, they are good at marketing and perception.

      BMW and Toyota are working together, Toyota badly needs diesel tech and BMW wants hybrid tech.

      My feeling is Toyota is slowly losing ground. They aren’t offering enough new. They seem to charge a premium for ordinary vehicles.

  • avatar

    Have the figured out how to make them not cost so much? If I remember correctly, when GM was doing Fuel Cell Equinoxs, they cost 150k a piece. If they can make the price drop, I think we would all be interested.

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