By on August 12, 2016

2016-toyota-mirai-6-1

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles have been in development for as long as hybrids, but while one of those technologies can be found in any Walgreens parking lot, the other still occupies a tiny micro-niche in the marketplace.

Besides the lack of refueling infrastructure, hydrogen-powered driving is hindered by the high cost of fuel cells. After receiving $6 million from the feds, Ford Motor Company and the Los Alamos National Laboratory hope to change that, the Detroit Free Press reports.

The grant, awarded by the U.S. Department of Energy, aims to spur development of cheaper fuel cells, which convert hydrogen and oxygen into electricity. Without a cost-effective production system, fuel cell vehicles will continue to be an ultra-low volume afterthought, hamstrung by their lack of competitive pricing.

This isn’t the first time Ford dipped its toe into the hydrogen vehicle realm. Prior to the recession, the automaker tested a small fleet of fuel cell-powered Focus vehicles. That demonstration program also saw support from the DOE.

Ford isn’t ruling out using the technology if it becomes cost-effective to use. In a statement, the automaker said, “The grant will help further our research efforts to develop next-generation technologies for our vehicles.”

As it stands, the flow of hydrogen vehicles into the U.S. market is like a tap that leaks a drop of water a few times a day. Less than 300 Toyota Mirai sedans found buyers as of July (according to Business Insider), though the automaker plans to cautiously ramp up production next year. The Hyundai Tucson fuel cell vehicle recently saw its first buyers in the U.S. and Canada, and Honda plan to market the Clarity later this year.

As of today, only 29 public hydrogen refueling stations exist in the U.S.

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44 Comments on “Hydrogen-Fueled Driving is the Dream that Won’t Die, and Ford Wants to Make it Cheaper...”


  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    “Ford isn’t ruling out using the technology if it becomes cost-effective to use.”

    Neither would anyone else, but it will never become cost effective. And while the energy equation for EVs is endlessly debated, the energy equation for hydrogen is always upside down.

    Any technology that basically resides in laboratories seeking a low-cost solution isn’t going to see the streets for a decade or more. I think Ford is simply using this grant money to rule out further development of fuel cells.

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      *broken editor, grr*

      Advanced battery technology being developed in labs is the same way – widespread claims of high capacity, fast-charging cells have not borne fruit in EVs. This is either due to scaling limitations, product cost, or a lack of mfr sponsorship.

      However, EVs remain practical via incremental improvements and widespread infrastructure, and reasonably affordable costs – all of which H2 lacks. IMO, a vital next step is consolidation of charging standards preferably to Tesla’s Supercharger due to its existing deployment – so that every mfr’s EV can become a long-range vehicle.

      • 0 avatar
        Pch101

        Intellectual property for hydrogen may become valuable for automakers.

        Intellectual property for EVs has virtually no chance of becoming valuable for automakers.

        Automakers may be able to improve fuel cells. They aren’t equipped to do much to improve batteries.

    • 0 avatar
      notapreppie

      I’m curious as to why you’re adamant that hydrogen will never be cost effective?

      • 0 avatar
        JimZ

        storing and transporting it is a total ball-ache.

        it’s also almost never found in its elemental state, so it has to be produced from other sources. At best, fuel-cell vehicles are basically EVs with a rapidly refillable battery.

        • 0 avatar
          Big Al From 'Murica

          An EV with a rapidly refillable battery would seem to be a pretty desirable thing that I’d at least look into it if I built cars.

          • 0 avatar
            notapreppie

            The issue with hydrogen power for vehicles is that the storage system is ridiculously heavy. Just the pressure vessel alone is like 90% of the weight of the entire power plant (plumbing, electronics, fuel cell, motors, etc). Also, just due to the nature of the forces involved, it has to be cylindrical or spherical so packaging becomes an issue.

        • 0 avatar
          notapreppie

          I agree the storage and transport issues are a problem.

          Production issues are still being worked on. Just in the last few years a collaborative team between several universities came up with a catalyst that reduces H2 from water using solar radiation at 14% efficiency. Granted that’s only half what the best photovoltaics are doing but H2 is cheaper to store in volume than electricity (provided you don’t care about weight).

        • 0 avatar
          wumpus

          [Hydrogen] Fuel-cells are basically EVs without the already available infrastructure, a fuel that quickly leaks away, makes any metal it touches brittle, and a far lower range.

          There, fixed it for you. And I didn’t even get into the issues with catalysts [more platinum and even more expensive stuff] and the higher pollution from the hydrogen production.

      • 0 avatar
        redav

        IMO, worse than transport & storage is the energy problem.

        Since hydrogen is not a natural resource and instead a means of storing energy, it does not solve the problem of where to get the source energy.

        The whole push to hydrogen is to get us off of fossil fuels and reduce CO2. Making hydrogen from natural gas (where most of it comes from now) still produces just as much CO2 and does nothing about reducing fossil fuel use. The other popular source for hydrogen is from electrolysis of water. It is perhaps the dumbest idea in vehicle history.

        To get hydrogen from water, electrolysis requires electricity, and you lose a third of it instantly due to the inefficiency of the chemical reaction. Then there are the typical losses of transport & storage (hydrogen leaks out of everything) and pumping losses since it has to be at 5,000 psi to 10,000 psi to get enough of it to be useful. Then, there’s the efficiency of the fuel cell which is only ~40% (NASA’s fuel cells are closer to 50%, but they’re way to expensive for cars). Thus, the process takes some amount of electricity and destroys ~75% of it, -OR- you could just use that electricity to power a battery EV and drive 3x to 4x as far. Thus, to drive a hydrogen car powered by clean energy, you have to build 3x-4x as many wind turbines, solar panels, dams, etc., compared to battery electrics.

        A simple measure for total energy is cost. Because hydrogen requires so much more infrastructure and has higher losses, it necessarily costs more. When Alex Dykes tested a hydrogen car, it cost him ~$0.29/mi to fuel or more than 3x of a regular gasoline car. An electric car costs around $0.03/mi to fuel. An EV charging station costs a few thousand to build. A hydrogen station costs a few million.

        Also with cost, I don’t see fuel cells ever catching up to batteries. The Bolt EV will cost <$40k with a 200 mi range. The Leaf already is under $30k but with less range. FCVs still cost around $60k. With research & manufacturing improvements, FCVs will get cheaper, but for every FC advance, you can expect a battery advance, too.

        Hydrogen has some advantages, such as high energy density, so it can be viable for drones, helicopters, planes, etc., but it is the opposite of ideal for cars.

        • 0 avatar
          WheelMcCoy

          Thanks @redav. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

          The cynic in me suspects the grant is only to answer the criticism that the US government shouldn’t be in the business of picking winners and losers.

          Automakers are chasing FCVs for compliance reasons, and also to spread FUD about EVs. It’s also noteworthy that FCVs are still friendly to big oil, unlike hybrids and electric cars.

        • 0 avatar
          stuki

          On a very fundamental level, if genuinely saving the world from CO2 is the goal, a benefit of H2 is it can, at least very theoretically, replace fossil fuels full stop. By being applicable anywhere gas/diesel is. BEVs can never really do that, since Taliban Commanders in HiLux’ are unlikely to ever have a reliable electric grid available to supercharge their trucks from.

          It’s a pipe dream at best, but conceptually, H2 can be made and distributed cheaply enough to literally cause the world at large to leave oil and gas in the ground. Which is the only way to genuinely limit CO2 emissions. BEVs will simply shift fossil fuel consumption to areas that are too unstable to be grid friendly, due to the difficulty of moving large quantities of pre packaged accessible energy by hard to intercept trucks, boats and similar.

          And, the places where populations are growing the fastest, are specifically the unstable ones. Building a killer app BEV, may end up doing no more for total, global wide, next millennium CO2 emissions than making Al Gore feel good about himself and hate the Taliban even more. None of which will affect the Taliban in the slightest.

          Another plus for H2 over BEVs, is that Hydrogen is fundamentally plentiful. While battery chemistry tends to require ingredients that may be obtained cheaply at todays rates, and ten times today’s usage, or hundred, but what about a million? Visiting Uncle Elon’s original Mars pad, is going to take some energy after all, if a meaningful share of humanity is going to be able to do just that…

          And then there’s the more fundamental, perhaps even philosophical, issue of the ultimate limits to efficiency from a process that needs to be efficient only one way (H2 + O2 to water), versus one that will necessarily have to be ran both directions efficiently. And cheaply enough to be viable in a radically distributed fashion as well…..

          I’m not saying I’m really that much of an H2 believer. How even the simplest of the objections you point out are going to be solved, is far enough above my pay grade that an actual Tesla I can buy right now (even if Elon’s not making any money off it) seems much more realistic. But genuinely smart people with plenty of access to leading edge (even bleeding edge) developments in both BEVs and FCVs still feel FCVs are a viable path to pursue. And many of the best young engineers coming out of universities with visions of saving the world, want to work on FCVs, as they see it as more fundamentally world altering than simply sticking enough cell phone batteries in a rolling powertool.

          • 0 avatar
            WheelMcCoy

            “It’s a pipe dream at best, but conceptually, H2 can be made and distributed cheaply enough to literally cause the world at large to leave oil and gas in the ground.”

            Oil and gas won’t stay in the ground. Most of the H2 produced today is from fossil fuels. Shipping H2 cannot be done efficiently through pipelines because of leaking. That means we still need large trucks for delivery, and those trucks will run on oil.

            Thus, while big oil isn’t necessarily of friend of FCV, they are at worst neutral toward them. With EVs, it’s different story.

          • 0 avatar
            stuki

            Conceptually, and this is the dream of at least some H2 aficionados, trucks can run on H2. As can ships. And planes. And Elon’s Marsbound chariot of fire.

            So that, if the “rich world” is really serious about limiting fossil fuel CO2 emissions, they can at a minimum use part of their wealth to subsidize H2 production sufficiently, so that it becomes untenable to lift oil, and even coal, out of the ground even in “stick a tent peg in the ground and it shoots up” Arabia.

            After all, if no oil will be left in the ground anyway, why even bother with EVs? At least as far as the climate is concerned, we may as well all drive Hellcats!

  • avatar
    derekson

    Unless someone has a brilliant idea for changing the thermodynamics of hydrogen, this will never make sense.

    • 0 avatar
      notapreppie

      Well, a few recent advances in catalysts have bumped the efficiency of producing hydrogen from solar energy to 14%. The big hurdle with this material is catalyst degradation; it only lasts about 40 hours (as of 9/2015).

      The thermodynamics don’t necessarily have to change if H2 can be produced using energy sources that don’t have significant fuel costs. The nice thing about hydrogen is that it stores more easily than electricity (for stationary systems where weight isn’t a concern). This means that you can have power that is ultimately solar that isn’t nearly as sensitive to the whims of the weather.

      • 0 avatar
        redav

        No, just no.

        Energy from sources with ‘free’ fuel (sun, wind, waves, etc.) is not free. The low efficiency of the hydrogen cycle is terrible compared to electricity.

        The highest conversion efficiency for solar PV in rooftop panels is already over 20%. Here’s a PV tech that is over 34%:
        http://newsroom.unsw.edu.au/news/science-tech/milestone-solar-cell-efficiency-unsw-engineers
        (And they last longer than a couple days.)

        Why in the world would we make hydrogen from ‘free’ energy sources when we can make MORE electricity at less cost from those sources?

        Storage is not the “nice” thing about hydrogen. Hydrogen *is* the storage if we talk about electricity, which is the final motivator for FCVs. If hydrogen is made directly (such as by algae), then it would be far better to make a liquid such as through algae making oils or sugars (which are then converted to ethanol).

  • avatar
    True_Blue

    Infrastructure and end product, walking side-by-side – “you first.”
    “No, please, after you.”
    With only 300 Mirais and 29 pumps, it’s a long row to hoe before this makes it into anything approaching cost-effective.

    • 0 avatar
      redav

      And don’t forget that EV charging stations cost a few grand (which is why Tesla can afford to build them) compared to a few million for hydrogen.

      For the same capital expenditure, you can install 1000x as many EV charging stations. And since most simply plug in at home, you don’t even need that many.

  • avatar
    TonyJZX

    Hydrogen is a great fuel if you’re from the year 2254 and have a bussard ramscoop and are tootling around Jupiter,,,

  • avatar
    shaker

    I sooo want a natural gas cracking/3000psi pump in my garage so I can fuel my fuel cell at home.

    Then again, there’s a Shell station down near the Beach, just outside of the Dark City limits.

    • 0 avatar
      notapreppie

      I wonder how many people were concerned about the idea of defecating inside their houses when internal plumbing started catching on.

      Actually, molecular hydrogen can be produced from methanol at only 300 psi (and 300°C). Methanol can be produced using waste CO2.

      More interestingly, a ruthenium catalyst allows this process to be done at atmospheric pressure (and 65-90°C).

      • 0 avatar

        Produce Hydrogen at atmospheric pressure is awesome.

        Then you have to put the Hydrogen somewhere. Storing at atmospheric pressure isn’t practical, some compressing to 100000 psi is the alternative.

        Producing the stuff is one thing. Then u have to store it. That’s another thing.

      • 0 avatar
        redav

        So, where do those people who aren’t concerned about making hydrogen in their homes going to put the equipment to capture CO2 to get that methanol? Where are they going to put the equipment, pumps, & storage tanks? How will they power it? How much does a system like that cost?

        Conversely, how hard is it to install solar panels? Considering all the DIY videos on youtube, it can’t be that hard. There are also plenty of people with generators hooked up to their natural gas line.

        People will *not* make hydrogen at home. They *will* make electricity at home.

  • avatar
    HeyILikemySaturnOK

    I don’t really understand the appeal for automakers in pushing fuel-cell tech vehicles.

    EV is really the only practical route for hybrid vehicles to be widely accepted. EV re-fueling is done primarily at home, and even for public charging stations you still have more of those than the stations currently in existence than stations for re-fueling hydrogen fc vehicles. The vehicles are far, far more expensive than what is available today, so what is the benefit? what am i missing here?

    Just speculation here, but perhaps due to the simpler drivetrains and lesser maintenance required of the EV offerings, the automakers want to push a more-complicated vehicle with more parts to break down and maintain so they can keep the service departments flowing with cash as hybrid vehicles become more widely adopted.

    • 0 avatar
      28-Cars-Later

      The fact the electrical grid cannot support mass EV adoption?

      The current grid is already on the edge of failure for geographic reasons:

      http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/us-electrical-grid-on-failure/

      Now add 100 million battery powered devices which didn’t exist thirty years ago while in the same time frame a number of nuclear plants went offline and only a limited number of coal fired or nat gas plants went up to replace them. Most in government would prefer not to replace the lost nuclear power with more coal/nat gas because of ManBearPig and instead prefer the exploration of power through unicorn farts. In any event I am left to conclude:

      EV: You can’t afford it Amerika

      • 0 avatar
        notapreppie

        I’ve always wondered why we don’t go with a more distributed power generation network.

        If every home could generate 10% of its own energy requirements, that could make a huge difference.

        Hell, the power companies can get into the business of selling/maintaining the systems installed in each home.

      • 0 avatar
        FormerFF

        That paper is based on a mathematical model performed by a team of physicists, and not by people who actually work with electric grids. Said one transmission grid engineer: “I suppose I should be open-minded to new research, but I’m not convinced,” “The problem is that this doesn’t reflect the physics of how the power grid operates.”

        There is rather a lot of grid capacity for EV charging available in the overnight hours.

      • 0 avatar
        George B

        28-Cars-Later, there isn’t one electrical grid and it isn’t static. Here in Texas we just built long-distance power lines to bring wind power from West Texas to cities further east in the state. Yes, wind energy is a government funded boondoggle, but adding transmission lines only took years, not decades. Faster than highway construction.

        The Scientific American article does say that there is a risk that an electrical grid will suffer cascading failures, but doesn’t indicate that electric vehicles are a specific problem. Again, I have my doubts that consumers would have much demand for electric vehicles without government subsidies and mandates, but electric power generation and transmission infrastructure could be built relatively easily if consumers started buying more electricity.

      • 0 avatar

        If we can’t afford to charge EVs then by an extension of that argument, we should abandon HVAC and refrigeration.

        The money to expand the grid for HVAC or refrigeration came from the revenue of selling more electricity. Same will apply to EVs. As electrical revenues increase so does investment in the provision of electricity.

      • 0 avatar
        redav

        As FormerFF noted, the grid has plenty of capacity–it’s an issue of when they charge. Charging a hundred million cars at night is actually not a bad thing as it permits power plants to run continuously rather than starting up & shutting down with peaks & troughs of daily demand.

        There’s also the topic of grid storage as more renewables are installed. Well, batteries are storage, and EVs have batteries–hmm, maybe there’s a solution there. Of course that’s oversimplifying it, but a smart grid with adjustable demand based on grid production is a viable solution. There are ACs which freeze water at night when power demand is low and use that instead of the compressor when power demand is high. A car battery is essentially the same thing.

    • 0 avatar
      JimZ

      fuel cell vehicles *ARE* EVs. though, ones with rapidly “refillable” batteries.

      • 0 avatar
        mcs

        @JimZ: ones with rapidly “refillable” batteries.

        That’s not entirely true. If the hydrogen filling station needs to recharge after the car preceding you, there will be quite a wait.

    • 0 avatar
      tedward

      A. If they get to work now they stand a decent chance of amassing some valuable ip, even if it doesn’t end up in autos. Could be naval, industrial etc…

      B. If battery storage density and cost improvements hit a wall at some point fuel cells are a legitimate alternative. So are slow discharge capacitors.

      C. A conservative impulse. Don’t put your eggs all in one basket.

      I think all the volume (and some smaller) players have tech in this space. Only a few are teeing it out in the us public sphere.

    • 0 avatar
      HeyILikemySaturnOK

      Thoughtful responses, all. Thanks

  • avatar
    SunnyvaleCA

    If fuel cells in cars are a good idea, then why don’t we see fuel cell cars whose fuel is gasoline or natural gas?

    If hydrogen is such a great fuel for cars, then why don’t we see internal combustions engines that run on hydrogen instead of gasoline?

    Answer: Neither hydrogen nor fuel cells are a great idea for cars. Maybe with a bunch of breakthroughs this will change, but why not keep these technologies in the laboratory where they belong?

    This whole experiment sounds like the nonsense thinking that mandating huge amounts of ethanol in the gasoline supply will somehow magically produce breakthrough science in the area of ethanol.

    • 0 avatar
      derekson

      BMW was working on H2 ICE cars but the US wouldn’t certify them as ZEVs since they produce trace pollutants with minor oil consumption at the level you’d see in any ICE engine.

    • 0 avatar
      Lorenzo

      That’s exactly what it is, but it gives the automakers street cred among the rainbows and unicorns set, and ultimately, it’ll all be paid for with government grants. For automakers it’s win-win.

  • avatar
    brandloyalty

    At some point the insurance industry is likely to weigh in on FCV’s. For example the idea of underground parking lots full of these things is scary.

  • avatar
    Jagboi

    A major analysis that typically isn’t done is what I’ll call “wellhead to tailpipe” How much energy does it take to get a fuel ( be it gasoline, electricity, hydrogen etc) from the place of production to the final use as transportation. In many cases it can be single digit efficiency!

    H2 efficiency depends on the type of fuel cell, each has it’s advantages and disadvantages. For the PEM type (i.e. Ballard’s fuel cell powered bus) the hydrogen in made by cracking natural gas, to give CO and H2. CO is a poison to a PEM cell, and has to be discarded, so right away you’re throwing away half the fuel.

    SOFC cells can use CO as a fuel but they operate at red hot temperatures (typically 750-800C ) and it takes at least 4-5 hours to get them to temperature from cold, since the various materials inside them at brittle and have to be warmed slowly. Once hot they must be fed fuel contentiously to protect the cells from air which will destroy them. It’s like leaving your car idling all the time you’re not using it.

    I used to work at an R&D company building and developing fuel cells, and transportation is a very poor application for them. Continuous load, like base load for the electrical grid is what they are good at. Cars are better off as straight electric with batteries, or hybrids. Or like trolley buses years ago with overhead power supplied.

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